We know that congregate settings are tinder boxes for the virus, yet efforts to hamper its spread by cutting short sentences for nonviolent prisoners or by releasing those who are eligible for parole are met with extreme pushback from the far right.
Meanwhile, police brutality has come back to the forefront of public discourse with yet more shocking videos surfacing over the past few weeks that have triggered deep-seated feelings of pain, frustration, anger and fear for many across our commonwealth and across our nation.
Elections matter. With Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Virginia legislature for the first time in 20 years — and with unprecedented numbers of black members serving as committee chairs and in positions of leadership — the 2020 legislative session was historic in many ways. We passed truly meaningful criminal justice reform measures. We adopted laws requiring state and local law enforcement to record the race, ethnicity, age and gender of every Virginian stopped by law enforcement on a statewide basis, as well as the actions taken in such stops, for reporting purposes. We established reporting requirements for incidents involving school resource officers. We are also proud that last session we raised Virginia’s misdemeanor-felony threshold from being the lowest in the nation, codified the end of license suspensions for unpaid court fines, decriminalized marijuana possession, prohibited disorderly conduct charges in school settings, raised the age for juveniles to be charged as adults, gave magistrates the discretion to set bail in all cases and authorized resentencing for individuals wrongfully sentenced after the Fishback case, which said juries should be alerted to the abolition of parole.
The 2020 legislative session was just the beginning. Over the coming months, we will be introducing measures to incorporate mandatory implicit-bias training for law enforcement across Virginia, reform parole, sentencing, expungement and barrier crimes, and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in a system that has disproportionately impacted black Virginians.
We need to be mindful about how our law enforcement budgets are structured. We must incorporate better transparency and accountability measures into how our law enforcement teams are governed. We need to strengthen the processes by which we recruit, train and retain our law enforcement personnel. We need to reimagine some of the scenarios into which our law enforcement are being deployed, and we need to talk about demilitarizing local police forces. Furthermore, our law enforcement teams need to look like the communities they serve. They need to get out of their patrol cars and really get to know their communities. We need to train them well, and then we need to retrain them. We need to create ongoing training curriculums to include crisis de-escalation training and implicit-bias training. It is going to take time, but we must rebuild the trust that is currently lacking across our communities.
Progress comes when Democrats lead. We encourage Virginians to continue to work with us, communicate with us and join us in making progress. We cannot do this alone. Virginians’ voices matter. Solving the challenges our communities face should be based on human value and human decency. We cannot allow history to continue to repeat itself.
Across our communities, people are angry. People are sad. We hear them, and we share the frustration. We have been here too many times before, and we cannot afford to come back to this same place again. We cannot erase the past, but together we can keep moving forward. This is more than a moment; this is a continuation of a movement. This is also not a black conversation or a black issue — this is a human issue. In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We all have a right to live, to walk and to breathe.