Valley advocate talks criminal justice reform progress in General Assembly

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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — There's been a push in this year's General Assembly for more criminal justice reform, and with less than a month left in the session, it's clear there are some things that won't be addressed.

The House of Delegates and Senate have passed legislation about a variety of topics, including decriminalizing marijuana and raising the felony theft threshold to $1,000. Governor Ralph Northam has emphasized criminal justice reforms in his budget and legislative priorities.

However, some groups don't think the reforms go far enough, with legislation about ending solitary confinement, reinstating parole and making it easier to expunge criminal records for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions being left for next year or sent for study.

Dr. Nancy Insco is the CEO of the Institute for Reforms and Solutions, which advocates for criminal justice reform.

"Legislators on both sides of the aisle are starting to recognize that how we've been doing business in the criminal justice system is not serving us well,' Dr. Insco said.

Her organization pushed for the decriminalization of marijuana, and she said changing the felony theft threshold will make a big difference, but she would still like to see other changes.

"I would like to see much greater progress. But it does show incremental change and improvement, and I think that's the way the Virginia General Assembly operates."

Dr. Insco said some bills she found encouraging are being put off until next year. Some bills are also being sent to commissions for study, something she said can delay them, but also improve them.

"Maybe some of the negatives that are inherent in just the language of the bill can be alleviated," Dr. Insco said.

While the changes being made are encouraging, Dr. Insco said they still don't get to the root of crime. She said that's dealing with mental health and addiction issues.

"Until we the causes of that disturbing behavior, we're never going to really take leaps and bounds into reform," Dr. Insco said.

She added she would like to see the General Assembly put more money toward residential treatment, and treatment on demand. She acknowledges that can be expensive, but said she would like to see the legislature fund pilot projects in area that are "treatment-poor."