Cost Could Derail Sentencing Reform Effort

Sep 14, 2020

Lawmakers are debating a bill that could radically transform the criminal justice system in Virginia.

But Democrats in the House and Senate are divided over how and when to pay for it.

Criminal defendants in Virginia are given a choice, have your case heard by a judge or submit to a trial by a jury of your peers. Unfortunately for the defendants, choosing a trial by jury has another consequence — being sentenced by the jury, which advocates say can lead to longer sentences.

That’s why Democrats in the House and Senate are united about allowing judges to sentence in jury trials. But Delegate Mike Mullin says lawmakers need to wait for a study of how much it’s going to cost.  “We don’t build a bridge without finding out how much it’s going to cost. We don’t speculate it’s going to save on commuting costs, so we should just start building the bridge without knowing how much it’s going to cost. You can’t legislate based on speculation,” Mullin argues.

Senator Joe Morrissey doubts the move will cost all that much because fewer defendants will be spending time in jails and prisons, so he argues it’ll save money in the long run. But perhaps more importantly, he says, Virginia should be willing to spend whatever money is necessary to make sure people have their constitutional rights.  “So I don’t want to hear any more about studying the issue, not another day not another week not another month. It is the chilling effect on somebody’s constitutional right, and enough is enough. It’s time to pass this legislation.”

The Virginia Crime Commission is currently studying the issue, although it has yet to determine a financial impact. Meanwhile, Morrissey’s bill passed out of the Senate with a bipartisan majority. Now it’s up to House members to decide if they want to take action now or wait until January.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.