State Lawmakers Are Working to Give Prosecutors More Options

Oct 6, 2020

Lawmakers are wrapping up their special session on the budget and criminal justice reform. And, they’re about to send a bill to the governor that could transform how cases are handled in your local courthouse.

In Virginia, prosecutors and judges don’t really have a lot of options in many cases. If they’re presented with a defendant who struggles with substance abuse issues, and the person has had multiple run-ins with the law, the judge could convict the person of what they were charged with or what they pleaded guilty to.

Senator Scott Surovell says that system doesn’t work. 

“And that really tied prosecutors’ hands as to how they could work the case out," says Surovell. "And it also, basically from my point of view, just left the prosecutor with nothing but a stick in order to work a deal out instead of being able to give an accused person a carrot.”

That’s why he pressed lawmakers for a system that would allow prosecutors and judges to defer the disposition of a case. That would essentially dismiss charges if the defendant agreed to drug counseling and paid restitution and basically demonstrated an effort to fix things.

Delegate Mike Mullin says this is a badly-needed reform. 

“When a person is charged with the possession of a drug no matter if they’ve been getting clean or not, the only real opportunity that we have to be able to handle that case is with incarceration," he explains. "We need to find a way to deal with mental health and addiction issues that don’t involve only incarceration.”

This reform is part of a bill giving prosecutors more discretion to dismiss minor drug charges, even if judges resist.

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