RICHMOND(September 9, 2019) – Virginia NORML has honored Attorney General Mark R. Herring with the 2019 Vanguard Award for his contributions to advancing cannabis law reform in the Commonwealth. Attorney General Herring has called for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, action to resolve past convictions and a move towards legal and regulate adult use. In calling for reform, Attorney General Herring cited the unnecessary negative impact of a criminal conviction for possession, the expense of enforcing the current system, and the disparate impact on African Americans and people and communities of color.
“As attorney general, I have a special obligation to fight for justice, opportunity, and equality for all Virginians, which means I’m always thinking about whether we are living up to that standard, and it is clear to me that criminalizing marijuana possession isn’t working,” said Attorney General Herring. “We have a system where getting caught with one joint, or a small amount of cannabis can totally derail someone’s life. There are smarter, better ways we can approach cannabis, and that begins with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions, and taking responsible steps towards legalization. I want to thank Virginia NORML for honoring me with this award and all the hard work they do to advocate for cannabis reform.”
“Virginia NORML is thrilled to honor Attorney General Herring with this years award,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, Director, Virginia NORML. “His advocacy for not only decriminalizing but legalizing and regulating adult-use marijuana has significantly elevated the conversation regarding the immediate need for legislative action and demonstrates his unwavering commitment to justice for all Virginians.”
In the last decade the number of first time marijuana convictions in Virginia has risen 53%, from 6,533 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2017. About 90% of marijuana arrests in 2018 were for possession alone and arrests for cannabis possession have increased about 115%, from around 13,000 in 2003 to nearly 28,000 in 2017. The cost of cannabis criminal enforcement is estimated to be up to $81 million each year.
The weight of the current approach to cannabis enforcement falls disproportionately on African Americans and people and communities of color. According to the Virginia Crime Commission, African Americans comprised 46% of all first offense possession arrests from 2007 to 2016, despite comprising just 20% of Virginia’s population and despite studies consistently showing that marijuana usage rates are comparable between African Americans and white Americans.
About Virginia NORML
Virginia NORML is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the decriminalization of the possession of cannabis and the regulation of in-state medical and adult-use production and sales for a safer Commonwealth.
Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force, IRS-CI warn of potential COVID-19 economic impact payment scams
The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI) are warning taxpayers to be alert about possible scams relating to COVID-19 economic impact payments.
United States Attorneys Thomas T. Cullen and G. Zachary Terwilliger, and the Virginia State Police along with Kelly R. Jackson, Special Agent in Charge of the IRS-CI Washington DC Field Office, made the announcement today in an effort to prevent taxpayers in need from being victimized by criminals using the recently approved payments as an opportunity to commit a crime.
“During this time of crisis, scammers and thieves prey on those most vulnerable in our community in an attempt to personally benefit by stealing their money and personal identifying information,” Special Agent in Charge Jackson said today. “Please help us protect everyone in your community by telling family, friends and elderly neighbors to be on the lookout for these potential scams.”
“While most act selflessly and responsibly in a crisis like this, there are fraudsters out there who are attempting to scam and exploit good people,” said U.S. Attorney Terwilliger. “We are likely to see an uptick in government check scams tied to coronavirus-relief, including advanced-fee schemes promising government relief checks, student loan relief, and adjustments in other government benefits, such as increased social security payments. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
“As we have seen over the past few weeks, the worst among us are finding new ways to exploit a global pandemic and prey upon the vulnerable,” said U.S. Attorney Cullen. “Americans need to be extremely vigilant in protecting their personal, financial, and tax information. Assume all unsolicited phone calls and emails regarding IRS or COVID-19 refunds and are potentially fraudulent. Do not respond and report them to law enforcement.”
In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 economic impact payments will be on their way. For most Americans, this will be a direct deposit into your bank account. For the unbanked individuals who have traditionally received tax refunds via paper check, they will receive their economic impact payment through the mail.
Scammers may try to get you to sign over your check to them or get you to “verify” your filing information in order to steal your money. Your personal information could then be used to file false tax returns in an identity theft scheme. Because of this, everyone receiving a COVID-19 economic impact payment is at risk.
Special Agent in Charge Jackson offers the following information and tips to spot a scam and understand how the COVID-19 related economic impact payments will be issued.
• The IRS will deposit your payment into the direct deposit account you previously provided on your tax return (or, in the alternative, send you a paper check).
• The IRS will NOT call and ask you to verify your payment details. Do NOT give your bank account, debit account, or PayPal account information to anyone – even if someone claims it’s necessary to get your check. It’s a scam.
• If you receive a call, do NOT engage with scammers, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam. Just hang up.
• If you receive texts or emails claiming that you can get your money faster by sending personal identifying information or clicking on links, delete these texts and emails. Do NOT click on any links in those texts or emails.
• Reports are swirling about bogus checks. If you receive a “check” in the mail now, it’s a scam. It will take the Treasury a few more weeks to mail out the COVID-19 economic impact payments. If you receive a “check” for an odd amount (especially one with cents), or a check that requires you to verify the check online or by calling a number, it’s a scam.
• Remember, the federal government will not ask you to pay anything upfront to get a legitimate benefit. No fees. No charges. Anyone who asks for an up-front payment for a promised benefit is a scammer.
The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdva/covid-19-fraud
Western Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Baudinet, USAVAW.COVID19@usdoj.gov or 540-278-1494.
Eastern Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kaitlin G. Cooke, Kaitlin.Cooke@usdoj.gov or 804-819-5416.
To report a COVID-19 fraud scheme or suspicious activity, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) by calling the NCDF Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or sending an email to email@example.com.
For more information, visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov/coronavirus
FBI at: https://www.ic3.gov or 804-261-1044.
To report fraudulent activity to the Virginia State Police, Virginians can contact the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For continuing information on the COVID-19 virus and the federal response, check https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
Governor Northam announces emergency funding to shelter Virginia’s homeless population
~ Initial $2.5 million in funding will house unsheltered individuals, support case management ~
RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today (April 3, 2020) announced an initial $2.5 million in emergency funding to shelter Virginia’s statewide homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic. This emergency support will provide temporary housing for the approximately 1,500 Virginians who are currently unsheltered or rely on shelters that require them to leave every day. The funding will also provide housing for individuals in shelters that may need to be quarantined, or where social distancing is not feasible.
“As we battle this unprecedented public health crisis, we must make sure no one is left behind,” said Governor Northam. “I have issued a statewide Stay at Home order, but we know there are many Virginians with no home to stay in. With this funding, we will ensure people experiencing homelessness have access to immediate housing options and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Funding will be used for hotel and motel vouchers, case management, food, cleaning supplies, and medical transportation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide partial funding to support individuals experiencing homelessness who are 65 and older, those with other pre-existing conditions, and those who have tested positive for COVID-19. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to have chronic health conditions that go untreated and are among the populations most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. In recent years, Virginia has seen an increase in the number of older adults experiencing homelessness.
Virginia’s housing support system also relies largely on the use of congregate shelters, which can lack adequate space for social distancing. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) have provided guidance to homeless shelters on best practices to safely serve the homeless population during the COVID-19 epidemic. In addition, DHCD is preparing additional housing options for an estimated 10 percent of the 3,890 Virginians currently in shelters to allow space for social distancing and safe quarantine practices as needed.
The Commonwealth has implemented a number of state and federal protections against housing insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis. The Supreme Court of Virginia has suspended eviction proceedings in all district and circuit courts through April 26, and evictions for all Housing Choice Voucher holders are halted for 120 days.
For all mortgages guaranteed by federal mortgage programs, including Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) mortgages, the mortgage provider will defer mortgage payments—principal plus interest—for up to three months for those who have lost income due to COVID-19.
Additional resources and information about Virginia’s COVID-19 response are available at virginia.gov/coronavirus.
Social Security benefits will be paid on time and other updates related to the COVID-19 pandemic
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, reminds the public that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit payments will continue to be paid on time during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency also reminds everyone to be aware of scammers who try to take advantage of the pandemic to trick people into providing personal information or payment via retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency, or by mailing cash, to maintain Social Security benefit payments or receive economic impact payments from the Department of the Treasury.
“Social Security will pay monthly benefits on time and these payments will not be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Commissioner Saul said. “I want our beneficiaries to be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping or somehow changing your Social Security payments, but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”
The Department of the Treasury will soon provide information about economic impact payments under the recently enacted law, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Treasury, not Social Security, will be making direct payments to eligible people. Please do not call Social Security about these payments as the agency does not have information to share.
The agency continues to direct the public to its online self-service options whenever possible. Local offices are closed to the public but are available by phone. People can find their local field office phone number by accessing the Field Office Locator.
To allow available agents to provide better phone coverage, the agency is temporarily changing the National 800 Number hours starting on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The hours will change from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. local time to 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. local time. The agency is experiencing longer than normal wait times on the 800 Number and asks the public to remain patient, use its online services at www.socialsecurity.gov, or call their local office.
Please visit the agency’s COVID-19 web page at www.socialsecurity.gov/coronavirus/ for important information and updates.
Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – April 3, 2020
ACLU urges release of some nonviolent offenders to combat coronavirus spread
RICHMOND, Va. — As the coronavirus hits correctional facilities, the ACLU is calling for the release of some nonviolent inmates to help prevent outbreaks and keep residents and staff safe.
The Virginia ACLU submitted a letter to the governor, along with the executive guidance document. The document focuses on reducing the overall populations in local and state custodial facilities, including reducing the intake of people. The organization called for an immediate release of all people identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as at-risk for COVID-19, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions, whose sentences would end in the next two years. The ACLU also wants the governor to begin a process of immediate release for anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, anyway.
There are a limited number of eligible parole cases that can be reviewed for early release, according to Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran, who said at a press conference Monday that an expeditious review is “still ongoing.”
“There are a number of challenges because by the code we have no parole in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Moran said. “It is limited to geriatric release and limited to those who are sentenced before 1996.”
Moran said the parole board has withdrawn warrants on technical violations for a number of individuals and has expedited release of parole for those already paroled, in effort to eliminate interaction between the parole supervisor and the individual.
Three inmates at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. One inmate at the Central Virginia Correctional Unit 13 for women has tested positive for COVID-19, according to VADOC. Four VADOC employees and one contractor have also tested positive for the virus. As of April 3, the Virginia Department of Health reports 2,012 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 46 deaths. From March 27 to April 3, 1,552 cases were confirmed, or 77% of all cases since the state’s first case was reported on March 7.
“We need strong leadership that will move us more quickly toward a criminal legal system that is safe for everyone,” ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said in a press release. “To do this, we must jettison the ‘tough on crime’ hyperbole and recognize this pandemic as an opportunity to rethink the way we choose to use the criminal legal system to address issues of poverty, income inequality and addiction.”
Almost two weeks ago the Governor announced measures to battle the coronavirus outbreak among residents and staff, such as modifying sentences, diverting offenders from serving jail terms, utilizing home electronic monitoring and reducing low-risk individuals being held without bail.
Elliott B. Bender, founder of Bender Law Group in Richmond and president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the governor’s measures are great in theory “for the safety of all of us.” However, he is concerned that they are not being implemented consistently and completely. Consistency and getting all branches of government on the same page are important in this process, according to Bender.
Moran said state code mandates the victims involved need to be notified of a prisoner’s potential early release.
“And you have to provide victims time to weigh in on the decision,” Moran said. “And that is an ongoing process as well.”
To combat the virus, visitation and volunteer activities remain closed at correctional facilities, according to the VADOC. People entering VADOC correctional facilities will be screened using thermometers. In addition, the department ordered 112,000 additional bars of soap. Virginia Correctional Enterprises, which employs incarcerated people to produce a variety of goods, is now manufacturing about 30,000 sneeze and cough guard masks per day for inmates and staff, according to VADOC. All employees must assess their risk on a daily basis prior to work.
Also, there are measures taken to ensure safety once a person leaves a VADOC facility. All inmates leaving a correctional facility are screened for COVID-19 on the day of their release, according to VADOC.
By Rodney Robinson
Capital News Service
Virginia receives major disaster declaration from Federal Government for COVID-19
~ Declaration provides additional support, federal funding to aid statewide response ~
RICHMOND—On April 2nd, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia has received a Major Disaster Declaration to aid in the Commonwealth’s response to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. Governor Northam requested this federal disaster assistance on Monday, March 30.
A Major Disaster Declaration designation provides federal public assistance for all areas in the Commonwealth of Virginia affected by COVID-19 at a federal cost share of 75 percent. This allows state agencies, local governments, and certain non-profit organizations to purchase additional supplies and receive reimbursements for COVID-19 related costs under its Public Assistance program. In addition, the Major Disaster Declaration authorizes federal agencies to provide direct emergency assistance to Virginia.
“We thank the federal government for moving quickly to approve Virginia’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration,” said Governor Northam. “This critical funding will support our ongoing, statewide efforts to fight this virus in our Commonwealth and keep Virginians safe.”
On Friday, March 27, the Commonwealth received authorization for Title 32 funding to support the Virginia National Guard. Governor Northam has taken several additional actions to protect the health and safety of all Virginians amid the COVID-19 outbreak, including issuing a statewide Stay at Home order, closing all K-12 schools in Virginia through the remainder of the academic year, and mandating strict social distancing guidelines.
For additional resources and information about Virginia’s COVID-19 response, please visit virginia.gov/coronavirus.