'We need action and we need it now': Commonwealth's attorneys lobby for criminal justice reform

Posted at 4:15 PM, Jul 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-16 16:28:06-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va.— With the national spotlight on racial inequality, several Commonwealth’s attorneys are lobbying for legislative changes. They hope to address issues the legal justice system with policy changes.

Eleven Virginia prosecutors have established themselves as the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice (VPPJ) to advocate for transformative legal reform.

Included in the group are three local Commonwealth’s attorneys: Gregory Underwood in Norfolk, Anton Bell in Hampton and Stephanie Morales in Portsmouth.

“Since we now have the eyes of the nation open to what is going on, it is now time to now shape the conversation as well as create the policies that are going to make each and every person who has ever been accused of a crime know that they have the same rights as anyone else,” says Bell.

“We’ve seen symbolic gesture—that’s dead. It’s time to put action and put policy and legislative reforms in place to make that symbolism worth anything,” says Morales.

The VPPJ sent a letter to the Virginia General Assembly Monday proposing seven key areas of reform:

  • Police accountability measure that allow prosecutors unrestricted access to officers’ disciplinary records
  • Approval from a judge for no-knock & nighttime warrants
  • Eliminating license suspensions for drug convictions
  • The ability to expunge convictions
  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
  • Expansion of deferred disposition
  • Clarification of the discretionary powers of the prosecutor

Morales says the list is a starting point.

"We must begin and seeking more than the incremental change that has failed us for so long.”

Bell and Morales are both Black Americans and say they want to help shape impactful changes for the Black community.

“It’s absolutely personal for us. We are part of that community that so often faces this injustice and this intrinsic racism and discrimination,” says Bell.

They both say they are confident the general assembly will enact many of the VPPJ’s proposed legislative changes.

Related: ‘There is no structure where I haven’t seen racism’: Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney advocates for legal reform

“We have individuals who are already on board with these reforms. We have individuals who are already at the table drafting legislation to say we want to change the injustice that we see on a day today basis,” says Bell.

They say this is only the beginning of changes they hope to see.

“What we don’t want to see is there be another protest, there be another death and there be no change. We need action and we need it now,” says Bell.

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