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State Democrats vow sweeping changes in criminal justice

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Posted at 1:07 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 13:07:21-04

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Democrats say they’re looking to make transformational change to the state’s criminal justice system — just a few months after taking a far less ambitious approach.

The killing of George Floyd and widespread protests over police violence have prompted lawmakers and their allies to promise sweeping changes to a criminal justice system many advocates have long said doles out disparate treatment to minorities.

It’s a far cry from earlier this year, when criminal justice reform supporters were disappointed when many of their proposals were put off for a year or sent to a commission for study.

“I think we’re all tired of the incremental change that has failed us and failed our community members for so long,” Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Sttorney Stephanie Morales said on a conference call recently organized by Senate Democrats. “We want to do as much as possible as quickly as possible.”

Democrats controlled the Virginia’s state legislature for the first time in a generation and passed landmark legislation hailed by many of their allies, including environmentalists, women’s rights groups, and gun-control supporters, AP reports.

Lawmakers recently began to hold hearings on criminal justice proposals that have been suggested by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the Democratic Senate Caucus and a group of liberal-leaning county prosecutors.

AP reports that those proposals include banning choke holds, giving prosecutors unrestricted access to all reports and disciplinary records of police officers and downgrading the charge of assault on a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor in cases where the officer is not injured. Those who want to change the law say the assault charge can be misused and overused by police, sometimes when they fear they will be accused of using excessive force. The current law carries a mandatory minimum sentence of six months behind bars.

“This was the capital of the Confederacy, these are not problems that materialized overnight and they will not be fixed overnight,” said Sen. Mamie Locke. “We have our work cut out for us.”