Opinion: Commentary: Marathon is Over – Virginia Special Session Gavels Out

The 2020 General Assembly Special Session, which first convened on Aug. 18, recessed at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 16. We have been meeting outside the Capitol at a conference facility nestled behind the Virginia Science Museum. The session has been slow going, taking up nearly as many calendar days as our 60 day “long session.” This is both a testament to the realities of the pandemic that originally made this session necessary but also to the complexities of reforming our policing practices and justice system. The House and Senate navigated separate strategies for socially-distanced legislating, each bringing about special challenges, but also bringing about important results for the Commonwealth.

Senate Democrats introduced a package of 28 criminal justice reform measures earlier this summer, to try and make sure that situations that led to the tragic deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police this year do not happen here in Virginia, and to work toward racial equity more broadly in our criminal justice system. Of these proposals, 23 have passed both chambers and are headed to Governor Northam for his signature. These include a ban on “no-knock” warrants, a practice which led to the death of Breonna Taylor, and puts both citizens and officers in danger; a ban on chokeholds, which led directly to the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd, among many; and a ban on allowing police departments to recommend officers suspected of misconduct to other departments. We also enacted legislation that requires officers to intervene if another officer is using unnecessary force against a citizen and requires de-escalation before using force. We authorized localities to create civilian review boards with strong authority to investigate police misconduct and to require every locality to enact a mental health crisis response team (MARCUS Alert) to ensure first responders who engage people going through mental health crises are equipped to provide non-violent behavioral health treatment.

Other reforms to our criminal justice system include prohibiting law enforcement officers from searching a vehicle because they “smelled marijuana,” a practice that has been abused for years. We expanded incarcerated individuals' ability to earn good behavior credits, shortening the sentence of those who demonstrate they have been reformed, and allowed for compassionate release of terminally ill patients, reducing the number of people who will die of a terminal illness in prison.

Also addressed during this session were a number of bills to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is sadly still with us. We passed measures to make it easier and safer to vote during the pandemic, require reporting of outbreaks in nursing homes and long term care facilities, require schools to publicly post their COVID safety plans, and expand the Governor’s authority to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) during a public health pandemic. In light of the economic crises caused by the pandemic, we also extended the deadline for those whose work hours were cut to receive partial unemployment benefits.

The economic strain placed on renters and the housing market by massive unemployment due to the novel Coronavirus has put hundreds of thousands of Virginians at risk of being evicted. I was glad to carry legislation with Delegate Marcia Price (D-Hampton) to require landlords to offer tenants who have fallen behind in rent a payment plan to catch up before beginning eviction proceedings. The budget also included language creating an eviction moratorium -- tied to increased rent relief -- through January 2021.

After we paused some $2.2 billion in discretionary spending during our “veto session” earlier this year, much time has been spent in restructuring Virginia’s biennial budget. An agreement between the House and the Senate has finally been reached, and Governor Northam is expected to sign the revised budget shortly. We restored spending in critical areas, given the pandemic, including: initiating a new Medicaid Dental benefit; paying overtime to home healthcare workers who support Medicaid patients; restoring a teacher pay raise and $37.3 million for Virginia’s early childhood education programs as well as $35.2 million to the “at-risk” add on for schools serving low-income students.

With the budget and legislative work wrapping up, we have “recessed” until after the November election, when we will come back to consider gubernatorial amendments and vetoes. Once that is sorted out, we will have a short reprieve before returning for “regular” session in January. The thankfully “short session” in 2021 will provide an opportunity to address issues we did not resolve during the special session, and advance new legislation. In this, the strangest year in recent memory, Virginia has seen its new Democratic majority advance the speed and scope of the work in Richmond. This break from the old “Virginia way” of slow-moving reforms has been critical in our ability to adapt to this pandemic and the scourge of racial injustice in our nation.

It is my continued honor to serve the citizens of the 30th District.

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