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Virginia lawmakers advance bills eliminating mandatory minimums



Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly advanced criminal justice reform measures that would eliminate mandatory minimums in favor of allowing judges more sentencing discretion.

Senate Bill 1443, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, narrowly passed Friday on a 21-17 vote.

The bill proposes to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences in Virginia for various crimes, including aggravated involuntary manslaughter, child pornography, and violating a protective order for abuse victims. The legislation does not include Class 1 felonies such as willful and deliberate murder.

Lawmakers in support of the bill emphasized that judges should be trusted to deliver the appropriate sentences without utilizing a sentencing policy that they say has been abused. Critics said the bill dismantled the criminal justice policies in place after years of deliberation.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the bill’s committee hearing last month that mandatory minimum charges have proliferated like “crazy” during his two decades as an attorney, especially for DUIs.

“People pay a lot of money to stay out of jail,” Surovell said.

He added that mandatory minimums force people who have legitimate defenses to plead guilty because the consequences of losing are too great. Surovell also said juries aren’t informed of mandatory minimums before they issue sentencing recommendations.

Under the Senate bill, crimes such as DUI charges or illegal gun possession by a felon also would have mandatory minimums removed.

The nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, or WRAP, worries that the bill lessens penalties for egregious drunk drivers. The current bill eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and those with high blood alcohol concentration. The organization requested the bill be amended, but it was not.

“I don’t know if people really recognize the disproportionate carnage that these two types of drunk drivers are responsible for, both in Virginia and nationally,” WRAP CEO Kurt Erickson said in an interview. He said those examples “are not the standard DUI offenses.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is also opposed to the bill. The organization said shorter sentences won’t adequately punish drunk drivers for their actions.

Tinsae Gabriel, deputy policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said criminologists have long made it clear that it is the certainty of being caught and punished quickly and not the severity of the mandatory sentence that deters crime.

“I also want to emphasize that repealing mandatory sentences does not mean people go without accountability,” she said. “What it means is that judges who are selected by the General Assembly and who are informed by guidelines would be able to consider all relevant facts and circumstances about a case before they impose an appropriate sentence, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ punishment.”

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s policy director Jonathan Yglesias echoed similar support. Yglesias said mandatory minimums provide “little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders.”

Yglesias said he thinks the bill is timely also, given that domestic and sexual violence cases have occurred “far more often” since the pandemic. Erickson said, however, that Virginia’s drunk driving fatalities also rose from 249 to 253 last year, even with fewer people on the roads.

The Senate bill directs the secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to create a workgroup composed of lawyers, correction officials, and other stakeholders to study the feasibility of resentencing persons who previously received a mandatory minimum sentence. The report is due in November.

The House advanced its version Friday with less debate on a 58-42 vote. Introduced by Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, House Bill 2331 also eliminates mandatory minimums for many crimes.

The bill establishes sentence lengths for the second-offense of drug trafficking. The second offense would be not less than 10 years but no more than 40 years. The bill eliminated the requirement that the second offense be served consecutively with any other sentence.

The House measure will allow eligible persons still serving a mandatory minimum for certain felony convictions to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

Now the bills head to other chambers where the differences will be resolved. Surovell cited a report that estimates eliminating mandatory minimums could save taxpayers $80 million every five years.

By Aaron Royce
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Bentonville teen dies off Chincoteague Bay after boat capsizes, boy, 17, missing



A Bentonville teen died, and another teen is missing after their Jon boat capsized it Saturday morning in the Chincoteague Bay, according to a media release from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The incident occurred around 9:20 a.m. near Curtis Merritt Harbor at the southern end of the island. A wave apparently hit the 16-foot boat, according to Marine Police and all four people went into the water.

Cory Alles, in a social media post from August 2021.

Marine police stated that on board were two 17-year-olds, a 19-year-old and 18-year-old Corey Alles of Bentonville, VA.

A good Samaritan rescued two of the passengers near the boat, while the U.S. Coast Guard recovered the body of Alles. Officials say the 19-year-old man and one of the 17-year-olds were taken to the hospital with injuries considered non-life-threatening.

The release said that a 17-year-old male is still missing, and marine police will continue their search for him in the morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Virginia Marine Police, Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police, and the Chincoteague Police Department are all jointly

conducting the investigation. The families and the next of kin have been notified.

Officials declined to comment if the missing teen was from the Front Royal/Warren County area. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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Valley Health distributes COVID test kits to community partners in region



At a time of high community COVID-19 positivity, Valley Health is distributing more than 150,000 free COVID-19 test kits throughout its rural service area, courtesy of the federal government.

The 2-test kits began arriving last week through a Biden Administration initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), in an effort to address the needs of residents in medically underserved areas.

Valley Health operates 19 federally-designated Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland to ease a shortage of primary medical care. HRSA’s program provides test kits through its network of RHCs to clinic staff, patients, and surrounding communities.

In addition to offering test kits to RHC staff and patients, Valley Health is distributing them to other physician practices and dozens of community agencies and organizations for use by their staff and those they serve. The distribution includes law enforcement, fire and rescue, free medical clinics, health departments, churches, and detention centers, shelters, and other congregate settings.

“We are entering our third year of caring for patients with COVID-19 and trying to protect the community from the ravages of this virus,” said Jeffrey Feit, MD, Valley Health Population and Community Health Officer. “The current Omicron variant is particularly contagious and there’s an overwhelming demand for testing. We are thrilled to be the conduit for these do-it-yourself test kits from the U.S. government to help our community take decisive steps if they are positive: isolate and protect others, and seek care if they have significant symptoms or underlying health conditions.”

Each test kit box contains two tests with clear instructions and the nasal swab and reagent needed to obtain fast, easy-to-understand results in 10 minutes. It is recommended that individuals use the second test over two to three days, with at least 24 hours and no more than 36 hours between tests.

Jason Craig, EdD, Valley Health Director of Community Health, has delivered thousands of test kits this week and learned first-hand how vital the rapid tests are for community agencies struggling to make safe decisions during the pandemic. The Salvation Army’s residential program manager, Deborah Moody, expressed her appreciation and offered insight on the value of the rapid tests to an organization trying to serve as many individuals as possible.

“We are currently running at half capacity because we were unable to know if someone was coming in with COVID and needed to isolate them for five days before releasing them into the population,” Moody explained. “This will allow us a shorter isolation time. Being the winter, it is crucial that we offer services to individuals experiencing homelessness. Thank you for helping to make that happen.”

Valley Health’s six hospitals are working on a plan to give kits to patients on discharge from the hospital, Craig added. ”We are putting them in the hands of many local family medicine and specialty care practices to help distribute throughout our communities. We want to be a good community partner and are eager to put the test kits we requested from HRSA to use for the health and safety of our friends and neighbors.” Valley Health is also asking employees to take two kits for their families and give two to a friend or neighbor “so that we can extend into the communities where our employees live,” Craig said.

Craig suggested that anyone unable to find a COVID-19 test kit through one of the practices or community organizations on Valley Health’s initial distribution effort should submit a request to receive by mail from

For more on Valley Health COVID-19 services and visitation guidelines, visit For information on testing and return to work guidance, visit

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Update: RSW Regional Jail – Death in Custody



On December 12th, 2021, shortly after midnight, the R.S.W. Regional Jail contacted Warren County Emergency Medical Services and reported two male inmates unconscious and unresponsive.

EMS responded to the jail where Jonte Gerbell Smith (21) and a thirty-two-year-old male inmate were found in the condition reported. Narcan, which is an opioid antagonist, was administered to both inmates. The thirty-two-year-old male inmate responded successfully to the Narcan while Smith was unresponsive to its effects and required additional resuscitation efforts. Smith was transported to the Warren Memorial Hospital by paramedics where he was pronounced deceased by the attending physician. The other inmate was also transported to Warren Memorial Hospital, treated for an opioid overdose, and released back to R.S.W. staff to return to the jail.

Jonte Gerbell Smith

Shortly after Smith was pronounced deceased, Warren County Sheriff’s Office was promptly contacted by R.S.W. Regional Jail staff to report the suspicious death of Smith, and the treatment of the second inmate for a suspected opioid overdose.

Investigator C. Powell of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office was assigned this case and is actively investigating both the death of Smith and the overdose of the other inmate. The R.S.W. Regional Jail is cooperating fully with this investigation.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office would like to remind everyone that this, along with any suspicious death, is a very serious matter. The Sheriff’s Office appreciates any information the public might have that would assist in this investigation.

If anyone has information concerning this case, please contact Investigator Powell at the Warren County Sheriff’s Office by dialing (540) 635-7100, and choosing option #4.

RSW Regional Jail – Death in Custody


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Governor Youngkin announces updated guidelines for parents, educators, and preK-12 schools



On January 21, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced updated guidelines for parents, educators, and schools per Executive Order 2, which creates a parental opt-out from mask mandates at both public and private schools in the Commonwealth. The guidelines were developed by the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents. Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal and trust the legal process. If you have any questions or concerns please contact us at,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin.

Click here to read a full copy of guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education.

Click here for the constituent services page.

The updated guidance is redesigned around Governor Youngkin’s key principles of parental rights, keeping kids in the classroom five days a week, and keeping kids safe and healthy. The update guidelines:

  • Emphasizes alternative mitigation measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including vaccination, distancing, and outbreak awareness.
  • Provides a clear decision tree for parents to review when trying to determine how to keep and return children to the classroom.
  • Strongly encourages test-to-stay and other strategies to keep and return kids to the classroom as quickly as possible
  • Gives schools practicable flexibility on contact tracing, distancing, and other strategies.
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School masks opt-outs change; Board briefed on counseling programs



Students attending Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) now may be opted out of the division’s face mask mandate without citing a reason, in line with a new order issued by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The governor’s January 15 Executive Order Number Two, which takes effect on Monday, January 24, permits parents to opt-out their children from the mask requirement without stating a reason, replacing the current state policy issued by Gov. Ralph Northam allowing parents to opt-out students from any mask requirement with a religious or medical exemption.

Additionally, in lieu of Youngkin’s new order, WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch and WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger provided members of the Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, January 19 work session with the division’s updated 2021-2022 mitigation plan.

WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch provided members of the Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, January 19 work session with the division’s updated 2021-2022 mitigation plan. Photos and video by Mike McCool, Ro

The plan remains in Phase II due to the County’s high coronavirus transmission rate and requires students, staff, and visitors to wear face coverings while inside school buildings, among other steps that may be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing.

Specifically, Ballenger discussed with board members his concerns related to staff and teacher shortages due to the ongoing pandemic. Attending Wednesday’s work session were School Board Chairwoman Kristen Pence, Vice Chairman Ralph Rinaldi, and School Board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins.

On Thursday, Ballenger issued a Parent Communication posted online — that will also be sent home to parents and guardians — stating that to adhere to Virginia law, WCPS must ensure that staff is available to provide daily in-person instruction.

“In order to meet the needs of our students, WCPS recognizes that current infection rates in Warren County could limit our ability to provide in-person instruction,” according to Ballenger’s communication. “Therefore, WCPS will remain in Phase II (masks are required for students unless they have an exemption form on file) of our mitigation plan for the next two weeks and will reevaluate phased status at the February 2, 2022, board meeting.”

Due to federal requirements, students and staff still must wear masks on school buses, Ballenger told board members. He added that WCPS will continue to check data on transmission rates to ensure the division is in the appropriate phase and plans to survey teachers and staff on whether masks should be required or encouraged for staff.

School counseling presentation
The School Board at its January 5 regular meeting voted to put on hold the Second Step Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program curriculum in WCPS pending review after two members said parents should be made more aware of the program’s content. The vote was to temporarily suspend Second Step until parents, school administrators, teachers, the School Board, and community leaders have time to review the program’s content.

Following a review, board action can then be introduced to either continue the program, modify it, or cancel it.

During the board’s Wednesday work session, WCPS Curriculum Supervisor Heather Bragg and other WCPS staff provided such a review that included information on Second Step, which is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Committee for Children. WCPS purchased Second Step from the Committee for Children, which says on its website that the Second Step programs are research-based, teacher-informed, and classroom-tested to promote the social-emotional development, safety, and well-being of children from early learning through Grade 8.

WCPS Curriculum Supervisor Heather Bragg and other WCPS staff provided the School Board with a review the Second Step Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program curriculum in WCPS.

Specifically, Bragg and other WCPS staff reviewed the Elementary and Middle School Standards for School Counseling Programs that included primary lessons and supplementary materials, including Second Step.

Overall, the K-12 programs, Bragg said, are designed to support the development of students’ academic, career, and personal/social development. Specifically, the academic component is designed to meet local, state, and national standards. The career development component addresses successful transitions for students from elementary to middle to high school and on to post-secondary education or the workforce, while the personal/social development component is designed to foster responsible citizens, said Bragg.

“To address the needs of all of our students, we offer teachers and staff the flexibility to choose the materials that best meet their needs,” she said, adding that each school has its own set of needs-based upon the students served by each school. Therefore, instruction is “unique and tailored” and uses a variety of materials implemented by counselors and classroom teachers, said Bragg.

Lisa Rudacille, principal at E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School, reviewed the counseling lessons provided to WCPS students, which cover topics such as working hard for success, teamwork, and building positive relationships with peers, among others. She said the school counselors’ lessons are reinforced daily by teachers since counselors provide just five counseling sessions in the elementary schools for an entire year.

Kristin Frankel, a school counselor at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School, provided information on the Second Step program, which has been available to WCPS elementary students since 2015 and is only used as a supplemental resource in the guidance classes. “So, it’s not fully implemented,” Frankel explained.

With the Second Step program comes some training videos that are provided for anyone who is going to use the curriculum, said Frankel. The program does not address all the standards needed to be covered in WCPS so counselors have to create additional lessons in order to meet those standards. Second Step is also not taught by the teachers at the elementary school level, she said.

Frankel explained that each kit for elementary students includes 20-25 lessons on grade levels K-5. The kits start on the skills for learning — for example, being respectful, focusing attention, listening, being assertive whenever asking for help — and then they move on to empathy to help students learn how to identify other people’s feelings, understand the perspectives of others, and show compassion.

Emotion management is another unit covered that includes work on calming anger, for instance. The final unit is problem-solving, Frankel said, and lessons vary depending on the grade level, such as dealing with problems on the playground or handling peer pressure.

“Since 2015, there have been no additional costs to use this program because it was a one-time cost to use this curriculum,” said Frankel.

Salins said there’s confusion about which version of Second Step is being used. She said the “most controversial” version is copyrighted 2020-2021. “Do our ES students not have access to this new material that parents are not allowed to view” because it is copyrighted material, asked Salins.

“That is correct,” answered Frankel, who said that WCPS students receive the 2015 Second Step Elementary Classroom Kits, “which are not the new digital program,” she said.

All counseling-related instruction information and materials are available online for the public and parents and guardians may schedule to meet with school counselors and principals to view any of the unit materials and lessons and have questions answered, Frankel added, and opt-out forms are also available.

Ballenger reiterated to School Board members that not every school in the division uses Second Step. For instance, Leslie Fox Keyser Elementary School doesn’t use it so parents would not receive information on accessing it, he said.

Maria Kisner, a counselor at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, and Raychel DeArmitt, a counselor at E. Wilson Morrison, also presented information on the other supplemental materials they use in their lessons, as did counselors from WCPS middle schools.

Parents may at any time contact their child’s school principal or classroom teacher to discuss any concerns, questions, and thoughts, or to schedule a meeting they might have regarding a lesson, standard, practice, or any other school-related topic, said Ballenger.

Click here to watch the first part of the School Board’s January 19 work session.

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Governor Youngkin announces Covid Action Plan



RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – On January 20, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced his COVID Action Plan concurrent with Executive Order Number Eleven to provide hospitals, health systems, nursing facilities, and other healthcare providers the tools necessary to combat COVID-19. The plan also includes issuing clear testing guidelines to prioritize the use of COVID rapid tests and marshaling further resources to encourage Virginians to get the vaccine.

“While many families have experienced tragedy over the last two years, Virginians have truly embodied the spirit of Virginia as they came together to fight a common enemy—COVID-19,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “Today’s announcements are designed to give Virginians the tools and resources needed to make the best decisions for their families, strengthen our hospital systems, and ensure a strong recovery as we encounter new challenges associated with the pandemic that has become part of our everyday life.”

COVID-19 Vaccine Marshall Plan for Virginia

Governor Glenn Youngkin will devote additional resources and efforts to encouraging the nearly 1.6 million Virginians who are still unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Data shows that people vaccinated from COVID-19 are 4 times less likely to be hospitalized than those who are not. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:

  • Directing the Secretary of Health to re-prioritize resources toward vaccine education and outreach, including expanded efforts in disproportionately unvaccinated communities.
  • Plan to host and attend COVID-19 vaccine events across the Commonwealth.
  • Working with Governors across the country to learn best practices on vaccine education.
  • Empowering Virginia with choices, not mandates.
  • Expanded Healthcare Flexibility & Support

Governor Glenn Youngkin signed Executive Order #11 to give healthcare providers flexibility and support to battle staffing shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and unconstitutional federal mandates on healthcare workers. Virginia’s hospitals and healthcare facilities are in crisis. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:

  • Allowing hospitals and nursing homes to rapidly expand bed capacity by waiving regulations.
  • Providing flexibility for qualified out-of-state nurses and healthcare professionals to practice in Virginia.
  • Creating appropriate exemptions to the scope of practice requirements to allow healthcare providers to care for patients in this difficult time.
  • Expanding the number of providers available to offer the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Expanding flexibility, overtime hours, and availably for personal care workers.
  • Prioritized Testing Guidelines

Governor Glenn Youngkin will prioritize testing guidelines to mitigate supply-chain shortages for COVID-19 tests. The Governor will discourage mass testing for the purposes of pre-screening, discourage asymptomatic individuals from testing, and urge healthy individuals with mild symptoms to stay home and use discretion on testing. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:

  • Expedite pending orders of rapid tests.
  • Redeploy unused tests at state agencies and other non-essential facilities to schools, hospitals, and nursing facilities.
  • Directing the State Health Commissioner to issue new guidelines that prioritize the use of rapid tests for key categories including Students potentially exposed to COVID-19 who need to test to remain in school. Essential healthcare professionals and other essential workers needing to be tested to return to work. Vulnerable citizens including those in nursing facilities and over the age of 65. Those with serious medical conditions and their caregivers. Those who need to be tested after consultation with a healthcare provider.

Click here to read the full copy of Executive Order # 11.

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