Not content to merely kill the early start of adult-use marijuana sales last week, Virginia Republicans have done it again. GOP lawmakers went on to kill a bill which would lighten sentences for those already behind bars for Cannabis possession.
A push to recalibrate the sentences of people incarcerated on marijuana-related crimes won’t move forward this legislative session. That’s doubly unfortunate, because the adult use of the herb is legal in Virginia.
House Republicans killed SB 745 from Democratic state Senators Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Louise Lucas, of Portsmouth, on Monday. It’s the end of the road for the proposal, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Surovell said many imprisoned for marijuana-related crimes likely would not have received those sentences today, since Virginia legalized adult-use Cannabis.
“600 People’s Lives Are In The Balance”
The bill would have allowed 596 people incarcerated for cannabis-related felonies to apply for resentencing by the sentencing court that sentenced them. It would have also permitted another 78 people who had sentences for other crimes enhanced because of previous cannabis-related convictions to apply to the Virginia Parole Board for resentencing.
Surovell said Republicans defeated the bill so they could use it as a bargaining chip when legislation to implement adult-use sales resurfaces next year.
“This [bill] has absolutely nothing to do with retail sales, so it’s really disappointing to me that 600 people’s lives are in the balance, 600 people’s freedom is in the balance, and we are going to use that as a bargaining chip,” Surovell told AP. He added that he plans to reintroduce the bill in 2023.
“We thought, from a common sense standpoint, that there would at least be relief for people sitting in prison on cannabis-only offenses,” said Sheba Williams, a criminal justice reform advocate with Nolef Turns, a Richmond-based group. “But no.”
“A lot of people were counting on it,” bill sponsor Rep. Surovell said. “The Republican caucus is kind of in a pretzel on this whole issue, on marijuana,” he said, reports The Virginian-Pilot.
The bill, as it left the Senate, would have allowed circuit judges to re-examine the sentences of people convicted of marijuana-only crimes. People whose sentences for other felonies may have been “enhanced” by a marijuana conviction, could petition the Virginia Parole Board for re-esentencing.
GOP Control Equals No Sentencing Relief
Democratic lawmakers voted last year to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Virginia — and lay the groundwork for a new legal adult-use market. They planned focusing upon people harmed by Cannabis prohibition. Statistics show minorities are more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana.
Democrats in the House and Senate said last year that they ran out of time to offer sentencing relief. But tried to quell concerns by playing up the prospects for reform in 2022. Republicans’ election victory last fall shit-canned those plans. That election gave the GOP control of the House and governor’s mansion.
Justice isn’t being applied equally, according to many incarcerated on Cannabis-related offenses. And many of their family members agree. There are 570 people in Virginia state custody on marijuana-related convictions. That’s according to data shared in December by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
GOP Shoots Down Measure On 12-10 Party-Line Vote
On Monday, the GOP-controlled House appropriations panel voted down the last standing measure on the issue in a 12-10 party-line vote. The bill before the committee simply asked the state to produce a study on marijuana resentencing. Republicans, however, had described that version as placeholder text to allow negotiations to continue.
The vice chair of the panel, Republican Del. Terry Austin of Botetourt, explained his vote by claiming the impact and cost of the bill were unclear.
Republican Del. Rob Bell, of Albemarle is the highest ranking Republican on criminal justice matters. Bell claimed in an interview earlier in the session that he thought Cannabis resentencing reform should accompany a broader package of marijuana legislation.
Republicans Refuse To Schedule A Hearing For Their Own Bill
Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, had introduced two bills that would also have offered resentencing for marijuana crimes. But GOP leaders in the House refused to schedule the bill for a hearing. Coyner actually voted against Surovell’s bill on Monday, because, you know, as a Democrat-sponsored bill, it had cooties.
Claiming Surovell’s bill had been “watered down to nothing — a study,” Coyner didn’t really explain why she opposed it. That would have been rather difficult, as the bill she opposed does the basically same thing as the bill she sponsored.
She also didn’t mention the fact that the rest of her party claimed that was merely “placeholder” text for further negotation. The delegate disingenuously claimed she continues to support marijuana resentencing.
“Unnecessary studies are slowing down agencies from real work,” she claimed. ”Let’s work on passing the real bill next session.”
“The Draconian Nature Of These Sentences Is An Injustice”
Surovell said Tuesday that his proposal would have ensured that the punishment fit the crime. “The attitude of the majority of Virginians towards marijuana use has changed dramatically since many of these individuals were originally sentenced,” he said. ”And to refuse to acknowledge the draconian nature of these sentences is an injustice.”
Williams said she has started to inform incarcerated people and their families about the unhappy fate of the proposal. Many have been waiting since last year to see if they will have an opportunity for re-sentencing.
According to Williams, the entire session was ”horrible for anything criminal justice-related. This is not a priority for the party that is in power in the House.”