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Governor Northam unveils bold criminal justice reform agenda

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~ Legislative package includes marijuana decriminalization, parole reform ~

Governor Ralph Northam unveiled his proposed criminal justice reform agenda for the 2020 General Assembly Session. Legislative initiatives include decriminalization of marijuana, parole reform, raising the felony larceny threshold, raising the age of juvenile transfer to adult court, and the permanent elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees, and court costs.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” said Governor Northam. “My proposed criminal justice reform legislation and budget initiatives will combat mass incarceration, increase supports for returning citizens, and ensure meaningful second chances for those who have paid their debts to society. This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive Commonwealth, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these measures into law.”

The Governor is proposing Virginia decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, creating a $50 civil penalty instead. Studies show marijuana arrests disproportionately impact people of color—in Virginia, African Americans are substantially more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than white residents. The Governor’s legislation will also clear the records of individuals who have been previously convicted of simple possession.

Governor Northam is proposing legislation to raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,000. In 2018, the Governor signed bipartisan legislation raising the felony larceny threshold to $500—the first time it had been raised since 1980. This newly proposed increase will bring Virginia in line with many other states and ensure one mistake does not forever impact a person’s life. Felony convictions carry prison time and create a criminal record that can be a barrier to education, housing, jobs, and more.

Last year, Governor Northam and the General Assembly eliminated the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Since that time, over 50,000 Virginians have had their licenses reinstated. Governor Northam’s proposed legislation would make this change permanent.

Governor Northam is also proposing parole reform by expanding eligibility for parole consideration to individuals based on their age and certain medical conditions. In addition, the Governor’s legislative package would expand parole consideration to individuals impacted by the Fishback v. Commonwealth case.

Finally, Governor Northam’s two-year budget makes significant investments in criminal justice reform. The proposed budget includes $4.6 million for pre-trial and probation services, funding for a new public defender’s office in Prince William County, and additional public defender positions across the Commonwealth to reduce caseload. Additionally, the budget includes $2 million for pre-release and post-incarceration services.

“This administration continues to demonstrate its dedication to comprehensive criminal justice reform,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran. “The impact of this legislative package is substantial and transformative. Our parole reform bills will make many more offenders eligible for discretionary parole and the elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees and fines and non-driving related offenses will affect hundreds of thousands of people.”

For the full details of Governor Northam’s criminal justice reform proposals, click here. Watch the video of today’s announcement here.

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Virginia uses genetic technology to combat COVID-19

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~ State public health laboratory is one of the first in the nation to do this work ~

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today (April 6, 2020) announced that the Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) is one of the first public health labs in the nation to use genetic technology to help public health officials better understand and track the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen prevention and response efforts.

DCLS is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Looking at this genetic fingerprint can help public health officials track how the virus is changing and provide insights into how it is being transmitted.

“Advances in genetic sequencing allow us to track and analyze COVID-19 better than previous outbreaks,” said Governor Northam. “This innovative technology, combined with the work of our public health laboratory and epidemiologists around the Commonwealth, will help us understand the virus, how it spreads, and how it may change. And that will give us more tools to fight it.”

DCLS is working alongside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and international public health and university partners using specialized lab equipment and computer software to piece together the genetic makeup of the virus found in COVID-19 patients. DCLS is working collaboratively to create a library that stores the information of not only the positive samples it identifies, but also those tested at private facilities, healthcare systems, and universities in Virginia.

Hidden in the genetic makeup of the virus are clues to its origin. Soon after the virus appeared in China, scientists used sequencing to tease out its genetic information and made that information available to the international public health community. As the virus travels from one person to another, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes called mutations. Scientists can read these mutations like a road map, tracing how cases are related.

Next-generation sequencing generates enormous amounts of data, which is analyzed by specialized bioinformaticians at DCLS. The lab shares the data with public health officials and uploads it to GISAID, an online repository where genomic data is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists around the globe. Nextstrain, an online resource for scientists to visually track the genomics of the virus, creates diagrams that favor family trees showing the evolutionary relationships between different samples collected throughout the world.

“This genetic fingerprint gives us tremendous insight into this novel virus, helping us understand where Virginia cases originated and how they are being transmitted in our communities,” said DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney. “Providing this information in real-time is unbelievably valuable for public health officials as they determine how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our communities.”

In Virginia, the sequences uploaded so far show evidence of multiple introductions of the virus into Virginia communities, suggesting that the emergence of COVID-19 is due to multiple distinct events. This is suggested by looking at the similarity of the virus in Virginia to the virus sequences obtained from Asian and European patients. There is also a clear indication of person-to-person spread within suspected COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Epidemiologists at the Virginia Department of Health can use these data during investigations of outbreaks in nursing homes and other settings to determine whether all of the cases originated from the same source or multiple sources,” said Virginia State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake.

For more information, visit the DGS website at dgs.virginia.gov, including this Next-Generation Sequencing in Virginia document that explains more about how DCLS is using genetic technology to combat COVID-19 in Virginia.

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Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – April 6, 2020

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

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Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force, IRS-CI warn of potential COVID-19 economic impact payment scams

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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 disaster@leo.gov.

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 vfc@vfc.vsp.virginia.gov.

For continuing information on the COVID-19 virus and the federal response, check https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

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Governor Northam announces emergency funding to shelter Virginia’s homeless population

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~ 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.

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Social Security benefits will be paid on time and other updates related to the COVID-19 pandemic

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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.

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Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – April 3, 2020

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

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