The amendments would allow Virginia to create a bipartisan redistricting commission enshrined in the state constitution, which voters approved Tuesday. Northam also proposed an additional $1 million to fund an independent investigation into the culture at the Virginia Military Institute, following accusations of widespread racism.
Senate Democrats had wanted the budget language approved last month to implement a proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting. Many House Democrats opposed that language because they objected to the amendment, saying it wouldn’t go far enough to protect against racial gerrymandering.
As a compromise, the two sides agreed to pass the budget without the language, with the understanding that Northam would add it if the measure passed on Nov. 3.
Northam also proposed changes to a bill that protects some renters who have been financially hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the changes says adverse actions cannot be taken against tenants based on payment history or an eviction for nonpayment of rent that occurred during the pandemic.
The General Assembly will reconvene Monday to accept or decline Northam’s changes.
Northam signed the MARCUS bill, a partial acronym for “mental health awareness response and community understanding services,” which would create teams of mental health service providers and peer recovery specialists to accompany police officers responding to individual crises.
The bill is also named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who was shot and killed during an encounter with the Richmond police in 2018. Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus, was naked and unarmed when he ran into traffic.
A police officer fired a Taser at him, and he then charged a police officer, who shot him. His family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.
Another bill signed by Northam would change Virginia’s sentencing laws to allow judges, rather than a jury, to sentence someone convicted in a jury trial. Juries, which have less flexibility than judges in crafting sentences, tend to hand out stiffer punishments than those called for by the guidelines. Though judges can reduce a jury sentence, they rarely do.
Juries are not told sentencing guidelines, only the legal range. They also must impose mandatory minimums, while judges can suspend them. Advocates say the threat of jury sentencing pressures people to forgo their trial rights and accept unfavorable plea deals from prosecutors.
Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond), who sponsored the bill, and other advocates say the effect will be transformational. The new law would not apply to capital cases, and defendants can still choose jury sentencing.
“I’ve seen every side,” said Morrissey, 63, who has been a prosecutor and a defense attorney and has a misdemeanor criminal conviction.
Five years ago, he lost his law license and resigned his House seat after going to jail for having a sexual relationship with his 17-year-old receptionist, Myrna Warren. He successfully ran for reelection from jail, reporting to the Capitol each day on work release.
But he later dropped out of a state Senate primary and then finished third in an election for mayor of Richmond. He won election to the state Senate last year.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.