Can a Divided Virginia Find Common Ground in Criminal Justice Reform?
Last week, months after November's elections shook the political status quo here in Virginia, the Commonwealth marked the opening of the 2022 legislative session. From now until mid-March, Virginia's citizen legislators will assemble in Richmond to conduct the people's business.
The 2022 session will kick off Virginia's first divided government since 2019, with Republicans in the Governor's Mansion and controlling the House of Delegates, while Democrats hold the Senate. Now that a new landscape encourages a more collaborative dynamic, lawmakers have an opportunity to refocus on bipartisan policymaking and to seek common ground.
As legislators develop innovative solutions to the challenges facing Virginians, they should be encouraged to take on an issue of both practical and principled importance to the entire Commonwealth—common-sense criminal justice reform.
First, criminal justice policy clearly touches the life of every citizen. When our laws fairly punish crime, uphold human dignity, and encourage successful reintegration after prison, our communities become safer, more just, and increasingly prosperous. Conversely, we all suffer when public policy fails to hit these goals.
Further, while Virginians may have good faith disagreements over specific criminal justice policy questions, we agree on the key principles that mark a justice system in a free society. Those principles include due process, proportional punishment, dignity for crime victims, rehabilitative prison environments, and second chances. Moreover, Christians throughout Virginia believe that every person, including those with a criminal record, are unique expressions of God’s image and should be treated accordingly in our laws, policy, and culture.
Consequently, Republicans, independents, and Democrats, and people of every faith tradition should urge their lawmakers to make these shared commitments the basis of bipartisan, values-driven criminal justice reform. The 2022 Legislative Session is the year to foster safer streets and remove hurdles that stand between people with criminal records and the opportunity to contribute to their communities.
PRECEDENT FOR BIPARTISANSHIP
In striking out on this path, Virginia would be far from alone.
- In 2018, President Trump signed into law the FIRST STEP Act, historic and bipartisan legislation that promoted safe and restorative federal prisons through expanded programming alongside more proportional federal sentencing practices. Broad interest in justice reform on Capitol Hill has continued into the Biden presidency.
- In September, 143 out of 212 House Republicans, including 3 out of 4 Republican lawmakers in the Virginia delegation, voted to end inconsistent treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses.
- In Michigan, a Republican legislature and Democrat governor worked together to safely reduce overincarceration in jail sentencing.
- Just last year in Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee spearheaded a broadly supported legislative package that advanced more effective practices for parole and reentry.
Many states are also rolling back unjust restrictions on people returning home after prison. In 2019, Texas enacted bipartisan occupational licensing reform, unlocking new employment opportunities for men and women with a criminal record. And, as of this year, 21 states across the country, including North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Utah, now restore voting rights to people who have served their term of incarceration.
It is in these last two realms—occupational licensing reform and voting rights restoration—where the Commonwealth can take up bipartisan criminal justice reform this session.
1. Free to Work
Every year, thousands of Virginians leave incarceration and return to our communities. Though employment is key to their long-term flourishing, many people will struggle to find work for various reasons, including government red tape. One such example is the system of occupational licensing—a legal requirement that people receive approval by a regulatory board before engaging in certain jobs, such as cosmetology or auctioneering. Virginia currently offers some occupational licensing protections for people with criminal records, but there is room to simplify the application process and better recognize rehabilitation.
The General Assembly can build a smoother road back to work by approving SB 409 / HB 282, legislation to center efforts at rehabilitation as a key consideration in the review process, prohibit consideration of older, non-violent offenses, and allow for fairer treatment of applicants.
In 2021, 10 legislatures across the country acted to reform their occupational licensing laws concerning people with criminal records. Virginia, too, can hold people accountable for crime while recognizing the God-given potential of every person to work and contribute to their communities.
2. Restore the Vote
The Constitution of Virginia permanently strips voting rights from people with felony convictions, unless the governor intercedes to restore that civic right. Thankfully, recent governors of both parties have recognized this injustice and have used their legal authority to limit its impact, with the Northam administration most recently restoring rights after a person left prison.
These recent actions by both Republican and Democrat governors are encouraging but inadequate. Virginia must create a lasting solution and align principle, practice, and law by amending her Constitution to remove its flawed restriction.
In 2021, the General Assembly did just that by approving a bipartisan resolution to begin the amendment process and restore voting rights after a person leaves prison. Virginia's amendment process requires that same resolution, in the form of SJ 1 / HJ 9, be approved by the General Assembly again during the 2022 legislative session before moving on to the ballot for voter consideration.
Ultimately, the current constitutional restriction conflicts with the values of justice and personal liberty that have shaped Virginia. If principles of personal liberty prohibit unnecessary restrictions on the rights of citizens, then a free society cannot accept barriers to civic engagement, unrelated to public safety or election security, that discourage active participation in community life.
As Virginians, we should be particularly motivated to protect civic freedom. After all, it was in our General Assembly—the "First and Oldest Continuous English-Speaking Representative Legislative Assembly in the Western Hemisphere"—where elected representation in America began. Remembering that liberty heritage should challenge us to protect the voice of every citizen regarding the taxes, education, and infrastructure of their communities. The General Assembly can take up that challenge by allowing the voting rights restoration resolution to move forward this session.
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