RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WRIC) — Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants Virginia to be more forgiving when it comes to lower-level crimes while making it easier for new DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
The democratic governor announced several legislative priorities Tuesday aimed at overhauling the state’s criminal justice system.
They include raising the threshold for felony theft from $200 to $500 and restricting the state’s ability to suspend driver’s licenses for certain crimes or unpaid court debts.
“Throughout my administration, I have worked with Virginia’s public safety officials, the legislature, and the courts to assure that we have a criminal justice system that is fair and seeks true justice,” McAuliffe said Tuesday. “The changes we are proposing today seek to hold offenders responsible for their crimes in a way that maintains opportunities for rehabilitation and future productivity. I look forward to working with the General Assembly this session to pass these proposals and continue our bipartisan work toward a new Virginia economy that offers every individual a safe community and a shot at a better life.”
McAuliffe also wants those who have previously pled guilty to crimes to be able to seek a finding of innocence should new DNA evidence become available. The governor said only those who pleaded guilty and were convicted are able to take advantage of new DNA evidence after trial.
House speaker William J. Howell released the following statement to 8News:
“I am very sympathetic toward individuals who get trapped in a vicious cycle of having their license revoked, not being able to travel to work, losing their job, and not being able to pay off court costs. However, the General Assembly must be very careful as this issue is currently being litigated in court. We will begin carefully reviewing all of Governor McAuliffe’s legislative proposals relating to criminal justice reforms this coming session.”
Below is a breakdown of McAuliffe’s criminal justice agenda:
Eliminating the suspension of a driver license due to the inability to pay court costs for most non-driving related offenses;
The Governor today announced two bills aimed at reducing the practice of suspending the driver licenses of offenders who either cannot afford to pay court costs or who committed a non-driving offense. Nearly 650,000 Virginians currently have a suspended driver license because they cannot afford to pay their legal fees and court costs to the state. Another 200,000 have lost their licenses for offenses that have nothing to do with driving. For many, personal vehicles are the only travel option to their job, and their driver license suspension prevents them from employment, and ultimately from paying their court costs and building a more productive life.
Eliminating arbitrary barriers to a writ of actual innocence based on new or untested human biological evidence;
The Governor announced legislation to expand the eligibility to obtain a writ of actual innocence if new or untested evidence is discovered. Currently, only certain defendants can petition the courts for a writ of actual innocence after the conclusion of a trial. The proposed legislation expands the opportunity for defendants who pleaded guilty to petition the court for a writ of actual innocence based on new or untested DNA evidence.
Raising Virginia’s felony larceny threshold to $500.
Finally, the Governor announced legislation to raise Virginia’s felony larceny threshold from $200 to $500. Virginia’s felony larceny threshold is currently the lowest in the country, set at $200, meaning that an individual who steals one pair of high end athletic shoes is subject to enormous employment, housing and other difficulties that come with a felony conviction. The threshold was first set in 1980, almost 40 years ago. The purchasing power of $200 in 1980 is now over $500. This legislation will proportionately revise the punishment for theft in Virginia and align Virginia with the rest of the nation in distinguishing misdemeanor and felony theft.
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