LEXINGTON, Va. – Gov. Ralph Northam has signed two key criminal justice reform bills into law and proposed changes to the state budget, including adding $1 million to investigate the culture at the Virginia Military Institute after a newspaper article described allegations of persistent racism.
The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Monday to consider Northam’s proposed budget revisions and other amendments to legislation approved during a recent special legislative session that focused on fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as police and criminal justice reforms.
The two bills signed by Northam on Thursday include legislation that will create crisis response teams around the state to respond to emergency calls involving people experiencing mental health issues. The teams would be led by mental health providers with police as backup support.
The bill is named after Marcus-David Peters, a Black high school biology teacher who was fatally shot after he charged at a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis in 2018.
Northam also signed a bill that will allow judges instead of juries to decide sentences in criminal cases. Virginia is currently one of only six states that allow juries to sentence criminal defendants. The new law turns the sentencing responsibility over to judges, except when a defendant specifically requests sentencing by a jury. The change will become effective in July.
The governor is also proposing an additional $1 million to fund an independent investigation at the Virginia Military Institute. Northam - a VMI graduate - and other top Democratic elected officials sent a letter to the public school’s board last month announcing an investigation into its culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures. That decision came on the heels of a Washington Post story that described Black cadets and alumni facing “relentless racism.”
The governor also stripped out funding for a road project in Virginia Beach and a new airport hangar in Accomack, saying both projects need to go through the state’s existing review process before being funded.
Northam’s revised budget includes enabling language for of a new redistricting commission voters approved via a constitutional amendment earlier this week during the election.
A bipartisan commission of citizens and legislators equally divided between Democrats and Republicans will now redraw the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts to conform with the 2020 Census. Some Democrats had tried to defeat the measure, arguing that the changes kept politicians too involved in the process.