RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers hoped to advance a invoice that will remove felony drug possession expenses and shift a spotlight to therapy, not punishment, of substance abuse. The measure had bipartisan assist and backing from many commonwealth attorneys’ and legal professionals across the state, nevertheless it died in a Home subcommittee.
Anybody present in possession of managed substances would face misdemeanor expenses beneath Home Invoice 2303 launched by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The invoice additionally would amend the situations set for probation beneath the present first offender statute, which permits drug possession expenses to be dismissed if sure situations are met.
An individual caught with the possession of a schedule I or schedule II managed substances beneath the present regulation could possibly be sentenced as much as 10 years in jail. That features medication with excessive potential for abuse and dependence similar to heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Possession of things with drug residue on them may also result in felony expenses, similar to a crack pipe or heroin needle.
Below Virginia’s first offender statute people with no earlier narcotic prison document might get their case dismissed in the event that they efficiently cross a therapy program, make efforts to take care of employment, full group service and stay drug and alcohol free throughout probation.
Hudson proposed modifications to the statute that requires individuals to proceed being examined however not that they proceed to check unfavorable. Hudson mentioned that’s in recognition “that relapse is part of restoration from any drug abuse.”
Hudson mentioned that incarcerating somebody for drug possession is just not the right strategy to deal with substance abuse.
“It’s a concrete step we will take this yr to cut back the dangerous penalties of extended incarceration as an ineffective deterrent and therapy technique for substance abuse,” Hudson mentioned throughout the Home Courts of Justice subcommittee listening to for the invoice.
Nathan Mitchell, group outreach and advocacy coordinator on the Henrico County-based McShin Basis, mentioned the invoice is step one towards reforming the prison justice system. The McShin Basis affords a number of applications for these in restoration from substance abuse.
Mitchell, a former felon, mentioned the present system might be damaging to individuals who endure from the illness of dependancy.
“I turned a felon,” Mitchell mentioned. “And with that each one of my civil rights, my capacity to vote, my capacity to run for workplace, serve on a jury, have a gun have been all taken away with one fell swoop.”
Anybody charged with a felony in Virginia loses civil rights similar to the appropriate to vote, maintain workplace and function a juror. The invoice would take away felony violations of drug possession from the definition of barrier crimes associated to prison historical past checks for employment and a variety of volunteer alternatives.
“Well being care issues require well being care options and HB 2303 is an efficient first step at recognizing that medication and substance use dysfunction aren’t a prison justice concern,” Mitchell mentioned. “They’re in actual fact, a well being care concern.”
Misdemeanor possession is already employed in lots of states similar to Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi and in addition neighboring states similar to West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.
“It’s a drug reform that has bipartisan assist coast to coast,” Hudson mentioned.
South Carolina and Iowa have enacted related laws and make the most of escalating penalties the place the punishment will increase with each subsequent offense, in response to Lawyer Steve Mutnick, who serves as Common Meeting counsel. In Iowa, a primary time drug possession offense is a one-year misdemeanor. Nevertheless, the third offense is a five-year felony.
“Persevering with to speed up the penalty and incarcerate somebody for longer doesn’t appear to actually get on the root trigger,” Hudson mentioned.
Norfolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Lawyer Ramin Fatehi testified in assist of the invoice on behalf of six commonwealth’s attorneys from throughout the state.
“Substance abuse dysfunction is a matter of public well being and that the first focus of coping with a public well being concern ought to be the general public well being system,” Fatehi mentioned.
Although the laws marks a departure from the state’s strategy to drug possession, Fatehi mentioned the measure would convey Virginia in alignment with neighboring states and the federal system.
Fatehi mentioned the one concern that they had was straight addressed by the language in a finances modification submitted by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. The finances modification would divert cash saved from much less incarceration attributable to lowered felony drug possession expenses into therapy applications. Coyner mentioned that jails report there aren’t sufficient therapy service applications.
“It is a uncommon occasion the place we will each be extra simply and create a big value financial savings for the individuals of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fatehi mentioned.
Supporters of the invoice identified that the laws was not decriminalizing or legalizing medication or condoning using arduous medication. The measure additionally wouldn’t cut back felony expenses for individuals caught distributing medication or possessing medication to distribute.
“There isn’t any easy possession that’s value greater than 12 months in jail,” Fatehi mentioned.
Richard Johnson, with the Virginia Affiliation for Legal Protection Legal professionals, mentioned he misplaced his nephew to a heroin dependancy.
“As a substitute of coverage sensible attempting to show individuals with dependancy a lesson, this laws tries to unravel the issue,” Johnson mentioned.
The panel by no means picked Hudson’s invoice again up earlier than crossover day, which is when every chamber should full voting on any payments that can be superior to the opposite chamber. Delegates mentioned the invoice was essential, however there was concern about having sufficient time to safe the funding wanted to redirect into therapy. A substitute was submitted on Feb. 3 however by no means heard earlier than the subcommittee.
Hudson mentioned the invoice addressed probably the most fast harms.
“We are going to go one other yr of marking one other wave of Virginias with this stamp that bears life lengthy penalties,” she mentioned.