With special session likely, lawmakers spar over criminal justice reform

Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 7:44 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Virginia Democrats are promising to tackle criminal justice reform when lawmakers return to Richmond for a special session of the General Assembly.

But some of the proposals, including one that would make assaulting a law enforcement officer a misdemeanor, are drawing loud opposition.

Senate Democrats highlighted more than two dozen bills during a recent news conference. Lawmakers have seen many of these bills before. And they cover a lot of ground from policing to the courts and Virginia’s prison system.

“You want to give the police officers the tools that they need, the training they need to be able to better do their job, and keep the public safe,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath Co.) during an interview Thursday afternoon, “but you want to make sure that you end up with a system that is fair.”

With Democrats in control of the General Assembly, and people demonstrating in the streets, they say there is an opportunity to address a wide range of issues.

“Quite frankly I think it’s a liberal wish list that will more than likely prevent our police officers from being able to do their jobs and will result quite frankly in a significant increase in crime,” said Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin Co.).

Republicans, including Stanley, say there is room for legislation that would improve police training and recruitment, but not for proposals like the bill that would make the assault of a law enforcement officer a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

“We are putting people out there in our police and sheriff’s uniforms that are putting their lives on the line every day for us, to keep us safe, to keep our properties safe,” Stanley said in an interview. “We need to know and they need to know that they’re protected. And that if anyone comes after them, that they are going to pay a heavy consequence for that.”

But Deeds said there are examples, including here in Virginia, in which someone who simply touched an officer was charged with a felony.

“I think there is plenty of room for a middle ground that creates a disincentive from assault of a police officer,” Deeds said, “but also treats a simple assault as a misdemeanor.”

Democrats in the House of Delegates are promising a similar slate of bills, though they plan to hold hearings in the next several weeks.

There’s still no date for the special session, but we’re hearing mid-August is a good bet.

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