RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam ceremonially signed a bill to reform probation in Virginia alongside rapper Meek Mill, whose personal experience with probation has helped inspire a nationwide push for change.
“I wanted to show what a courtroom looked like when a Black man goes to court,” he said during the press conference. “I’ve seen people march and stand up for me and with your support I continue to do better than I started.”
Also in attendance on Thursday was Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin, who helped create the criminal justice advocacy group Reform Alliance with Jay-Z and Meek Mill to advance these issues.
Currently in Virginia, courts have broad discretion over the length of active supervision and the amount of time people can be incarcerated for following minor violations.
The bill, which takes effect July 1, sets a five-year cap on probation for felonies and a one year maximum for misdemeanors in most cases.
“Our criminal justice system has focused too much on punishment and too little on grace for people trying to do the right thing,” Northam said. “Putting people behind bars for minor violations of probation simply adds to the nationwide problem of mass incarceration and gets in the way of people trying to rebuild their lives.”
“There are people who don’t want to hear these stories. They want to ignore them. We know that this system was set up based on straight racism,” said bill sponsor Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth).
Scott said there are some exceptions to the bill’s cap on probation terms, including for those convicted of sex offenses or subject to court-ordered substance abuse treatment.
Scott said the bill doesn’t protect those who commit a new crime while on probation but it does prevent people from being sent back to jail for their first technical violation.
The legislation outlines various examples of those violations. They include failing to notify a probation officer about changes to employment, using drugs or possessing paraphernalia, owning a firearm and leaving the state without permission.
In the case of a second violation, the bill says a person can be sentenced to prison for up to 14 days if there is no safe, less restrictive alternative.
For each subsequent violation after that, there are no limits on the judge’s discretion.
According to Northam, in 2018, 13 percent of people admitted to Virginia’s prisons were there for technical violations. He said, in April of this year, more than 58,000 Virginians were on probation and each one costs taxpayers an estimated $1,300 annually.
“It may make the most impact of any criminal justice reform legislation signed over the last year and a half and there is a lot of it,” said Justice Forward Founder Brad Haywood.
But some are skeptical that easing punishments is a good idea.
Republican State Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said the threat of jail time incentivizes good behavior. While he agrees with the probation term cap for misdemeanors, he said tying judges hands on technical violations could have unintended consequences.
“Now the course that courts will have to take will be heavier penalties on the front end or wait until multiple violations and then heavier penalties on the back end,” McDougle said.