Wise prosecutor concerned by parts of Northam's 'radical' justice reform agenda

Mike Still • Jan 6, 2020 at 2:15 PM

WISE — Parole reform, marijuana decriminalization and changes to what constitutes a grand larceny offense are problematic parts of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 criminal justice reform agenda, according to one Southwest Virginia prosecutor.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III, a member of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ legislative watch committee, said that VACA members are still reviewing various prefiled bills for the 2020 General Assembly session, which starts Jan. 9.

While VACA may not have official positions on Northam’s agenda, Slemp said he had concerns about some of the bills and the governor’s announcement Friday of his reform agenda.

“I am deeply concerned by many of the proposals outlined in Gov. Northam’s radical legislative agenda announced today,” Slemp said. “Virginia is one of the safest states in the nation. Yet our governor has made clear that he wishes to see violent criminals released from incarceration early and to disarm law-abiding citizens by restricting their constitutional rights.”

Slemp said Northam’s announcement would “ignore the voices of victims, undermine the efforts of law enforcement, and risk the safety of all citizens across the commonwealth.

“It is regrettable that the governor wishes to impress his friends in California and New York rather than heal the wounds he is causing in Virginia,” Slemp added.


House Bill 33 would give parole consideration to persons convicted before June 9, 2005 of non-capital felonies committed after Jan. 1, 1995, when the General Assembly abolished parole. House Bills 35 and 250 would provide parole eligibility for persons who were juveniles when sentenced to life in prison for single or multiple felony offenses and who have served 25 or more years of their sentence.

On the Senate side, SB 91 would repeal the 1995 abolition of parole and make provisions for eligibility to persons sentenced since 1995. SB 103 would also bring back parole for offenders sentenced when they were juveniles.

Slemp said he opposed returning to the state’s previous parole system.

“It’s a system from the 1800s that was rejected entirely or in large part by the federal government, the District of Columbia, and 27 states prior to the turn of the last century,” Slemp said. “The parole system lied to jurors when they sentenced individuals upon conviction. It also lied to victims when it told them they would be safe from the criminal for a set period of time. The reality of the parole system is that the amount of time a criminal spends in prison isn't determined by the citizen-jurors or judges that heard the evidence. Instead, that time is determined by a group of appointed bureaucrats who were empowered to ignore the decisions of juries and judges and cut a sentence by 75 percent.”


Several House and Senate bills in the 2020 session would provide for expanded expungement of offenses from juvenile and adult criminal records. The bills provide for a range of circumstances for nonviolent felonies, alcohol offenses committed as a juvenile, acquittal of charges, and even prostitution if the offense was committed under threat, intimidation or deception by another.

Slemp said he supported expungement for people who were acquitted or had charges withdrawn against them. In cases where a person was convicted, placed in a first-offender program or were a minor at the time of the offense and conviction, he disagreed with many of the proposed measures and felt that those records should be maintained.

“If a store owner is trying to hire a manager, the government of Virginia should not actively involve itself in deceiving the owner by allowing an embezzler to remove the prior theft conviction from his record,” Slemp said. “Nor should we allow a felon or domestic abuser to hide their conviction in order to purchase and access firearms illegally.

“These new, relaxed and liberal expungement procedures erase that accountability,” Slemp said. “These proposals say that it is OK to lie to our citizens about the consequences of crime.”


Three piece of legislation — House Bills 101, 263 and 286 — would increase the minimum amount of money, goods or property to make a theft grand larceny from $500 to $750, $1,500 or $2,000. Slemp said the proposed increases amount to “a cost of living increase” for thieves.

“Stealing $500 amounts to a significant theft,” Slemp said. “Why should we encourage people to steal from our local businesses or to defraud the elderly or write fake checks to our banks? Reducing the punishment for thefts sends a signal to our society that it is OK to steal your neighbor's hard-earned property.”


Slemp called legislative proposals to legalize marijuana’s manufacture and retail sale or at least decriminalize possession to a civil offense “problematic” since marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

House Bills 87, 265, 269 and 301 would eliminate existing misdemeanor jail and fine penalties, imposing a civil fine for simple possession. HB 87 and 269 would also set regulations for marijuana cultivation, manufacture, secure transportation and microbusiness ventures and tax revenue for education or mass transit.

“Everyone in Virginia should be concerned that we are rushing to legalize a drug that studies seem to show has a demonstrated capacity to damage the cognitive abilities of youth,” Slemp said.


Slemp said he generally supported stiffened penalties for violation of protective orders. Four measures on the General Assembly’s legislative plate — House Bill 159 and Senate Bills 82, 144 and 145 — provide for a range of actions including:

— A mandatory three-year prison sentence for violation of protective orders while armed.

— Allowing protective orders as long as a lifetime for persons convicted of violating a protective order homicide, kidnapping, assaults and bodily woundings, extortion, or criminal sexual assault.

— Prohibiting the subject of a protective order from using any electronic device to remotely control any appliance, utility, or device located on or within the victim’s residence or surrounding property.

— Making a person convicted of assault, assault and battery, or bodily wounding upon any party protected by a protective order guilty of a Class 6 felony.

“I support any proposal that protects the safety of crime victims from acts of family abuse or violence, force, or threats against them,” Slemp said.


Three measures prefiled for the 2020 session cover community service, bond terms and probation terms.

Slemp said he supports House Bill 277, which would allow persons convicted of crimes to work off fines and court costs during community service while imprisoned or jailed. Under existing law, community service work can only be done before or after a jail or prison term.

Slemp criticized House Bill 285, which would prohibit a judge from requiring a secured bond as a condition of pretrial release on a felony or misdemeanor offense.

“This bill would allow murders, rapists, domestic abusers, child molesters, and others charged with criminal offenses in Virginia to be released immediately upon arrest without ensuring the safety of victims, witnesses, or the community,” Slemp said. “If the person poses a higher risk, the court can issue a secured bond. If the person does not pose a risk, the court allows the defendant to sign a document promising to appear in court and not get into any more trouble before their case is heard. Taking this discretion away from judges in these circumstances would make our commonwealth less safe.”

Slemp also questioned House Bill 295, which would limit probation terms for persons convicted except in cases of violent felony, an act of violence or cases requiring registration with the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry.

“Generally, the term of probation is imposed by the court after considering all the evidence of a case, the defendant’s past conduct, and the defendant’s risk of future criminal activity,” Slemp said. “I oppose any efforts to take this discretion away from judges.”