Virginia continued to demonstrate the critical importance of state houses and governorships with a handful of new, progressive laws passed by the Democratic legislature and signed by a Democratic governor that came into effect July 1. Abortion rights, LGBTQ+ civil rights, the decriminalization of pot, an end to incarcerating juveniles for life—all happened in the state because of Virginia’s 2019 flip of the legislature to Democrats.
The Reproductive Health Protection Act overturns a number of abortion restrictions that had been on the books in the state. That includes the repeal of mandated counseling prior to an abortion, a mandatory ultrasound, and a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have the procedure. Nurse practitioners will be available to provide first trimester abortions, making the procedure that much more accessible. The new law also removes a requirement that clinics providing more than five abortions a month be classified as hospitals, easing regulations for them. “It makes Virginia the first state in the south to proactively protect a woman’s access to abortion care and reproductive health,” said Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a sponsor of the bill. “We want to be proactive in protecting the doctor-patient relationship and a woman’s access to care.” That’s a big deal.
So is Virginia becoming the first southern state to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people in public employment, housing, and credit, with the Virginia Values Act. The law, effective as of July 1, also creates protections for all Virginians, including LGBTQ+ people, in “private employment and places of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, and status as a veteran.” It’s the first state in over a decade to add these protections and the first since 1993 to add such sweeping protections against discrimination in public accommodations where they hadn’t existed before.
Another big deal for Virginia: As of July 1, hundreds of people who were incarcerated for life as juveniles now have a shot at getting parole. Prior to this, juveniles could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. “It’s a huge victory,” Heather Renwick, legal director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, told Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal when the law passed in February. Beyond ending life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors, “the bill will provide broader relief and parole eligibility for all kids sentenced in the adult system,” she said. It’s not a guarantee of parole, but it’s an end to the barbaric practice of knowingly locking minors up for life. This makes Virginia the twenty-third state to end the practice.
Finally, possession of small amounts of marijuana (an ounce or less) is no longer a felony. It’s not legal, but it’s decriminalized, with the new maximum penalty a $25 civil fine. That’s huge for a state that had 29,000 arrests for weed possession in 2018, and which was holding dozens of people—disproportionately Black people—in jail for simple possession; 127 people in 2017, to be precise. Cops will still be able to search people’s cars and possessions if they smell the drug, and having more than an ounce is still a felony. So is growing it and distributing it, even if as a gift, and those offenses are punishable with one to 40 years in prison.
The law seals past charges and convictions, and new charges won’t be sent to the state’s Central Criminal Records Exchange. It also makes it a misdemeanor for most employers or schools to ask applicants about past convictions. However, court records will remain public, so potential employers or schools can still get that information even if they can’t ask for it or go searching in the records exchange. Marijuana is still illegal in the state unless obtained through the new medical marijuana program, which will be fully launched by the end of summer—the coronavirus allowing.
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