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AG Herring outlines priorities for criminal justice and policing reform ahead of special session

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RICHMOND (August 11, 2020)—Ahead of the upcoming special session of the General Assembly, Attorney General Mark R. Herring today outlined his priorities for criminal justice and policing reforms that will reduce brutality and abuses of power by law enforcement, increase transparency, accountability, justice, and equality, and address disparities throughout the criminal justice system from policing to re-entry.

“Virginia cannot have different systems and standards of justice depending on the color of a person’s skin,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “Ours must be a Commonwealth where justice, equality, and opportunity are guaranteed for each and every person, no matter where they live, what they look like, how they worship, who they love, or how much money they have.

“We know that African-Americans and Virginians of color experience the criminal justice system differently at every level from policing through prosecution and into re-entry. It is documented and undeniable. That’s a hard thing to admit, but it’s even harder to experience. It means that we are failing in one of our most foundational responsibilities as a country and a Commonwealth: to ensure that all men and women are truly treated equal.

“This moment has given us an opportunity like none I can recall in my lifetime to truly focus on how we create a criminal justice system that meets our public safety goals in a way that ensures justice and equality for all. Those of us who have been frustrated by the pace of change in previous years now have the benefit of open minds and a broader recognition of the change that is needed in this country to ensure that black lives matter and that the criminal justice system is oriented around justice and safety, not simply control or oppression.”

In the upcoming special session, Attorney General Herring will be supporting the following measures:

Police Reform:
• Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations
• Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training
• Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General
• Current law enforcement officers must-have 21st-century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum
• Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession
• Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions.
• Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification.
• Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force.
• Create a “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers.
• Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics
• Empower localities to establish citizen review panels
• Require the use of body-worn cameras by all law enforcement officers
• Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions

Criminal Justice Reform:
• Cash bail reform
• Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process
• Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions

“For many months now, I have been waiting for a response from the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice to my request for an independent investigation into one of my local police departments. But for the return receipt requested signature card, I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement to my letter. If the federal government isn’t going to provide this oversight when police departments may be violating citizen’s rights, then there needs to be a state backstop that can conduct these necessary investigations. It is for these reasons, I will introduce a bill in the Special Session of the General Assembly to enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “patterns and practices investigations of local police departments,” said Senator Louise Lucas.

“Since 2017 the Trump Administration’s DOJ has refused to address systemic failures and investigate possible unconstitutional practices in law enforcement agencies. With that in mind, the Attorney General needs to have the authority to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, such as use of excessive force, illegal searches, or biased policing,” stated Delegate Alfonso Lopez. “This legislation finally gives the Attorney General the authority to investigate, subpoena, and bring appropriate actions in court to ensure compliance with constitutional policing standards.”

In the area of police reform, Attorney General Herring will be actively working to ensure passage of the following bills and policies:

Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies to identify and put a stop to unconstitutional practices, such as patterns of excessive force, illegal searches, biased policing, or other unconstitutional practices. For decades the U.S. Department of Justice was a reliable partner in identifying and ending unconstitutional policing practices, often through negotiated agreements for reforms, called “consent decrees,” in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, MO. Under the Trump Administration the DOJ has explicitly walked away from this responsibility, making it more important for state attorneys general to have this important tool. In June, Attorney General Herring asked Congress to expand federal law to give him and other state attorneys general clear statutory authority to conduct patterns and practice investigations. The U.S House of Representatives included this authority in the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” which passed the House on June 25, 2020.

Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training to include mandatory training on implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st-century policing skills. Because of the immense power placed in the hands of law enforcement officers, the Commonwealth must treat the law enforcement profession as a highly-skilled and specialized field that requires both proper training and high standards.

In order to ensure proper, 21st-century training for Virginia law enforcement officers:
• The Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General that includes implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st-century policing skills.
• Current law enforcement officers must-have 21st-century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum. In 2015, Attorney General Herring sponsored a series of five regional “train-the-trainer” conferences to promote the wider adoption of implicit bias training, de-escalation, and other 21st-century policing skills. The training officers from more than 50 law enforcement agencies participated, then went back to their departments and taught their colleagues, making this one of Virginia’s largest-ever investments in 21st century policing skills.

Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession. The Commonwealth should hold its law enforcement officers to the highest standards because they are empowered to make life-and-death decisions and other serious decisions that could dramatically affect the life of a Virginian. Virginia must, therefore, ensure that it removes from the profession any individuals who prove themselves unworthy or incapable of bearing such responsibility.

Virginia should:
• Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions. Currently, an officer may only lose their law enforcement officer certification for a criminal conviction. Misconduct that may not rise to the level of criminal conduct must be a basis for decertifying officers.
• Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification. If an individual has proven they are not capable of exercising law enforcement authority in a safe, fair, impartial, and constitutional way, they should not be able to conceal that information from a department or simply switch departments and continue their career.
• Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force. No law enforcement officer should be able to hide behind a resignation to avoid accountability and continue their career when they have shown they may not be capable of serving in law enforcement.
• Create a legal obligation for “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers when they see another officer using excessive force when it’s safe to intervene, and regardless of intervention they must immediately report the incident to their supervisors.
• Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics like chokeholds, strangleholds, and no-knock warrants.
• Empower localities to establish citizen review panels with necessary investigative authority and, where possible, provide state-level support.
• Require the use of body-worn cameras by all law enforcement officers to ensure a complete and accurate account of any citizen-officer interactions.
• Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions on officer-involved incidents that may constitute criminal conduct, including use of force or killings by law enforcement officers.

Attorney General Herring will also be working for the passage of the following bills and policies to strengthen our communities and reduce racial and economic disparities through reform of Virginia’s criminal justice system:
• Cash bail reform. Attorney General Herring has long supported significant reforms to Virginia’s cash bail system which, in its current form, can lead to unjust outcomes where dangerous people with money can go free while nonviolent people sit in jail for days, weeks, or months because they can’t afford to pay bail. This can cause a person to lose their job, housing, and support systems. Attorney General Herring will be pushing for Virginia to move away from the use of cash bail as its default for low-level offenses and instead expand pretrial services that have proven to be effective and cheaper.
• Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process. Attorney General Herring has also advocated for expanding record expungement opportunities and simplifying the process to build a more just and fair criminal justice system and to address the disproportionate burden that criminal convictions place on African Americans and people of color. Virginia is one of the nation’s least forgiving and most restrictive states for individuals who have earned the opportunity to have old convictions and charges expunged from their records. While many other states have some form of a “Clean Slate” law, the Commonwealth appears to be one of just ten states that do not offer any sort of judicial “record closure” for any adult convictions, nor does it offer any automatic expungement for those who are eligible for expungement. This means that a relatively minor charge or conviction, like marijuana or alcohol possession, can become a permanent stain that limits a Virginian’s job, educational, and housing opportunities.
• Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions. During the 2020 General Assembly Session, Attorney General Herring helped successfully decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana but believes Virginia needs to continue on to full legal, regulated adult-use as quickly as possible because the social and human costs of prohibition fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. In 2018, there were nearly 29,000 marijuana arrests, and the Virginia Crime Commission found that from 2007 to 2016 46% of all individuals arrested for first offense marijuana possession were African American, despite being just 20% of Virginia’s population.

In addition to these policing and criminal justice reform priorities, Attorney General Herring supports measures that require officers to deescalate situations, and to better utilize specialized resources instead of police officers to respond to non-public safety situations, such as addiction, a person experiencing homelessness, or a mental health crisis.

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Virginia House bill to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

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Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.

Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there, and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% of students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.

“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

By Aliviah Jones

Capital News Service

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Governor Northam casts vote in November General Election on first day of early voting in Virginia

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Governor Ralph Northam voted early Friday morning, September 18th, in person at the Richmond general registrar’s office on the first day of Virginia’s 45-day early voting period.

New laws allow all Virginians to vote absentee by mail, or in person at their local registrar’s office or satellite locations. The Governor signed legislation this year removing a previous provision that required absentee voters to provide a reason for voting early, so any Virginia voter may vote early without providing a specific reason.

“Virginians can be confident their vote is secure and will be counted,” said Governor Northam. “While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a higher number of Virginians are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election. As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 824,000 requests for absentee ballots by mail. For comparison, 566,000 votes were cast absentee in the 2016 General Election—half by mail.

Virginians have several options for safely casting their ballots for the November General Election.

Absentee by Mail
Beginning today, September 18, Virginia general registrars will mail absentee ballots to voters who request them. Virginians can request a ballot online at elections.virginia.gov. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Friday, October 23 at 5:00 p.m.

All absentee ballots will include a return envelope with prepaid postage. Ballots with a postmark of November 3 or earlier will be accepted until noon on Friday, November 6.

As an additional layer of security, every absentee ballot envelope is required to have an intelligent mail barcode and an election mail insignia. The insignia tells the United States Postal Service that this piece of mail is a ballot and should be prioritized. The barcode lets voters track their ballot once it leaves the registrar’s office—so a voter will know when their ballot has been mailed to them, and when it is delivered back to the registrar. Voters can track their absentee ballot using the absentee ballot lookup tool available here.

Drop-off Locations
Absentee ballots may also be hand-delivered to your local registrar’s office or returned to a secure drop-off location, which includes any satellite voting location. A list of drop-off locations is available on your county or city’s official website. On Election Day, you can also drop off your completed absentee ballot at any polling place in the county or city in which you are registered to vote.

For voters who prefer to vote in person, there are two options.

Early In Person
Starting today, September 18, Virginia voters can vote absentee in person at their local registrar’s office as Governor Northam did. Voters can simply go to their local general registrar’s office or a satellite voting location identified by the registrar’s office and cast their vote. Voters may use this option through Saturday, October 31—one of the longest early voting periods of any state.

Election Day
The other option is the traditional one: voting in person on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, at your polling place. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that all election officers have personal protective equipment, and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.

Virginia considers election security to be a top priority and has made significant progress in recent years to ensure a secure election process that places election integrity and voter confidence at the forefront. Additional information about election security in Virginia can be found here.

To register to vote or learn more about absentee voting in Virginia, visit elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.

Follow the Department of Elections on Twitter at @vaElect, on Facebook at @VirginiaELECT, and on Instagram at @va_election.

See below for photos of Governor Northam casting his ballot at the Richmond general registrar’s office today.

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In-person voting starts September 18

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RICHMOND, VA — The Virginia Department of Elections announces that in-person voting begins Friday, September 18, 2020. Also, absentee ballots will be sent to all voters who have requested a ballot by mail.

Voters no longer need a reason to vote absentee. Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot, either in-person or by mail. Voters can request a mailed ballot online at elections.virginia.gov/voterInformation. They can also find a vote-by-mail ballot form at elections.virginia.gov/forms. Or they can contact their local voter registration office and ask them to mail them an application. Contact information for local registrars can be found at www.elections.virginia.gov/localGR.

The last day to request an absentee ballot is Friday, October 23, 2020 at 5pm. Absentee ballots returned by mail must be postmarked by Election Day, November 3, 2020 and received by the local voter registration office by noon on Friday, November 6, 2020. Voters can also drop off their marked and sealed ballots at a drop off location at their local voter registration office or polling place up to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Early in-person voting ends October 31, 2020. Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote in person. Voters can simply go to their general registrar’s office or satellite voting location, show ID and cast a ballot. More information about what IDs are considered acceptable can be found at elections.virginia.gov/vote.

Because of the anticipated high volume of mail-in votes, The Department of Elections is urging all those who wish to vote by mail to request and return their ballots as soon as possible. Voters can track the status of their ballot applications online at www.elections.virginia.gov/voterInformation. They can also call their local registrar’s office to determine the status of their application.

If you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing the absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020 Election, you are not required to have a witness present. Also, if you are blind or have low vision or have impaired manual dexterity, you have the option of voting an absentee ballot using an electronic ballot marking tool.

Voters with questions about absentee, mail-in and in-person voting or any aspect of the November 3, 2020 election may call the Virginia Department of Elections at (800) 552-9745, email the department at info@elections.virginia.gov, or visit our website at elections.virginia.gov. Voters are also encouraged to follow us on Twitter at @vaElect, Facebook at @VirginiaELECT and Instagram at @va_election.

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SCC utility service cut-off moratorium will end on October 5; Governor requested extension from September 16

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The general moratorium on utility shutoffs is extended through October 5, 2020. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) issued the order following a request from Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam. The moratorium was originally set to end on September 16.

In a letter to the Commission on September 14, the Governor said, “My request for an extension will give the General Assembly the time they need to address this issue, finalize their budget, and complete their important work during this special session.”

In granting another extension, the Commission said it will not extend the moratorium beyond October 5, 2020. The Commission urged the Governor and General Assembly to appropriate funds for direct financial assistance to those customers who are unable to pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission said, “We hope the General Assembly uses this additional time to act on this recommendation.”

The Commission wrote, “Since we first imposed the moratorium on March 16, 2020, we have warned repeatedly that this moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely. The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid, either by the customers in arrears or by other customers who themselves may be struggling to pay their bills. Unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility’s own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.”

The SCC’s latest extension order means the moratorium will have been in place for more than six months. It was originally imposed on March 16, 2020, as an emergency measure to protect customers from the immediate economic impacts of the COVID crisis.

The end of the Commission-directed moratorium on October 5 does not mean the end of protections for customers in arrears who are making a good-faith effort to pay their bills over a longer time period. Customers who enter such extended payment plans with their utilities will continue to be protected from service cut-offs even after the end of this moratorium.

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Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – September 15, 2020

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Governor Northam joins the Virginia Emergency Support Team to share the latest updates on the COVID-19 response.

Highlights include:

  • The Southwest Virginia region increase in COVID-19 cases.
  • Promoted the COVIDWISE, the contact-tracing app.
  • Early voting
  • Continuation of the moratorium on utility disconnection for another month needed says Governor.
  • Authorized $42 million in CARES funding for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.
  • 2020 Census – please complete the form.
  • Flu shots
  • Suicide Awareness month
  • Multi-state collaboration on antigen testing talks continue.
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The Virginia Department of Elections launches absentee voting campaign

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RICHMOND, VA – The Virginia Department of Elections wants Virginia voters to know that they are free to be absentee! The Department today announced “Free to Be Absentee”, their new awareness campaign designed to educate voters about absentee and early voting to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The campaign features a series of contemporary and entertaining digital ads and social media content that highlight a creative focus on the absentee and early voting processes. This information will be made available on the Department’s website here, and shared with media outlets across the Commonwealth.

“We are excited about our new campaign and committed to ensuring that all eligible Virginia voters are able to make their voices heard,” said Christopher Piper, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. “We want voters to know about all of the options they have to cast their ballots for the upcoming election.”

While absentee voting is not new to Virginians, after new legislation passed by the VA General Assembly that went into effect July 1, 2020, Virginia voters no longer need an excuse to vote absentee. Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot or go vote early in person. Absentee ballots will begin being mailed out on September 18th, the same day early voting begins in all localities throughout the Commonwealth.

Voters with questions about absentee, mail-in and in-person voting or any aspect of the November 3, 2020 election may call the Virginia Department of Elections at (800) 552-9745, email the department at info@elections.virginia.gov, or visit our website at elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Voters are also encouraged to follow us on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media platforms.

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