- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Ralph Northam has signed two key criminal justice reform bills into law and proposed changes to the state budget, including adding $1 million to investigate the culture at the Virginia Military Institute after a newspaper article described allegations of persistent racism.

The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Monday to consider Northam’s proposed budget revisions. Lawmakers also will review amendments to legislation approved during a recent special legislative session that focused on fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as police and criminal justice reforms.

The two bills signed by Northam on Thursday include legislation that will create crisis response teams around the state to respond to emergency calls involving people experiencing mental health issues.

The bill is named after Marcus-David Peters, a Black high school biology teacher who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer after he ran onto a highway, naked and unarmed, while experiencing a mental health crisis in 2018.

The officer pointed a stun gun at Peters, who then ran toward toward the officer, shouting and threatening to kill him. The officer deployed the stun gun, which appeared to have no effect, then shot Peters with his service weapon.

Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, lobbied for legislation to dispatch teams of mental health professionals, with police in a backup role, to help stabilize people in crisis situations. She said Friday that the legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Northam, was watered down from what she envisioned.

“There’s no police accountability language in there,” she said. “There is nothing in this (bill) that would prevent a person having a mental health crisis from getting a death sentence.”

Northam also signed a bill that will allow judges instead of juries to decide sentences in criminal cases. Virginia is currently one of only six states that allow juries to sentence criminal defendants. The new law turns the sentencing responsibility over to judges, except when a defendant specifically requests sentencing by a jury. The change will become effective in July.

Critics of the current system said sentences given by juries are often more severe than sentences handed down by judges.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey, said many people charged with crimes in Virginia are so fearful of getting a harsh sentence from a jury that they often accept a plea deal from prosecutors that includes a longer sentence than they would typically get from a judge.

“After 224 years, Virginia has finally passed a law that levels the playing field between prosecutors and defendants,” Morrissey said Friday.

The governor is also proposing an additional $1 million to fund an independent investigation at the Virginia Military Institute. Northam - a VMI graduate - and other top Democratic elected officials sent a letter to the public school’s board last month announcing an investigation into its culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures. That decision came on the heels of a Washington Post story that described Black cadets and alumni facing “relentless racism.”

The governor also stripped out funding for a road project in Virginia Beach and a new airport hangar in Accomack, saying both projects need to go through the state’s existing review process before being funded.

Northam’s revised budget includes enabling language for a new redistricting commission voters approved via a constitutional amendment earlier this week during the election.

A bipartisan commission of citizens and legislators equally divided between Democrats and Republicans will now redraw the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts to conform with the 2020 Census. Some Democrats had tried to defeat the measure, arguing that the changes kept politicians too involved in the process.

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