Funding Dispute Could Delay Sentencing Reform Legislation

Sep 29, 2020

Sentencing reform is coming to Virginia, although Democrats in the House and Senate are divided on when Virginia can afford to make it happen.

Democrats on both sides of the Capitol agree that defendants who are tried by a jury don’t necessarily need to be sentenced by a jury, and advocates for reform have long pushed for Virginia to join almost every other state in the country to allow for judges to sentence defendants in jury trials.

But House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian says Virginia can’t afford to do this until next year, and he added a reenactment clause forcing lawmakers to consider this again next year and have another vote.

“I want the public to understand that we’re not against the legislation," Torian says. "We simply want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing financially.”

Senator Joe Morrissey says public defenders aren’t expecting to hire any new attorneys, so he’s skeptical about predictions from prosecutors. 

“The prosecutors are talking about ‘We have to build new courthouses. We have to hire hundreds of new prosecutors. It’s going to be Armageddon. We’re doomed,’ you know,” Morrissey asks.

Morrissey says when he was a prosecutor in Richmond a quarter of a century ago the office was much smaller and they handled four times as many cases. 

“So my message to the prosecutors is stop your whining,” he says.

Morrissey says he’s hoping the House Democratic leadership ditches the reenactment clause and instead replaces it with a delayed enactment clause, making the change effective next summer. That way lawmakers won’t be able to undo the change when they meet in January.

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