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Changes in the new year

The Virginia General Assembly convened for the 2020 regular session on Wednesday, Jan. 8. It is an even number year, so the legislature will meet for 60 calendar days and will also be working on adopting the budget.

Be sure to use virginiageneralassembly.gov as a resource where you can livestream session and committee meetings, look up contact information for members and view the budget. You can also track legislation as it moves through the body at lis.virginia.gov.

I have moved offices this year and will be located at Room 214 in the Pocahontas Building.

Two Democrats — Senators Lucas and Locke — have introduced their version of enabling legislation for the redistricting amendment now pending before the General Assembly. As drawn, the legislation does two things: establishes the procedures for the “backstop” of the Virginia Supreme Court and sets up the “fine print” of the redistricting commission.

Their version of the enabling legislation (SB 203) is strict: no current or former partisan office holders, no employees, nor family members of employees can be considered to serve on the panel. Lobbyists are also excluded.

The legislation also establishes a strong sequester of committee members — they are forbidden to discuss redistricting outside of the Commission, except for public comments and statements.

The legislation establishes several “best practices” for new districts, including the compactness, observation of existing political boundaries, and preservation of communities of interest. It specifically disallows political preference as a community of interest.

Notably, this legislation also requires the citizen selection commission and the commission itself to ‘take notice’ of the ‘diversity’ of the Commonwealth.

On the Supreme Court side (SB 204), the legislation mandates that the Supreme Court appoint a special master to oversee the redistricting process should the General Assembly fail. This procedure looks a great deal like the federal process used when districts are challenged at the Federal level.

While a special master is mandated, the final decision remains in the hands of the court, as is the choice of special master.

It should be noted that this process will play out over the course of the upcoming session and that it is unlikely that the final bill will be in this form.

Democrats have made criminal justice reform a hallmark of their legislative agenda for 2020. While some of the bills are marginal changes, some are major departures. Democrats would do well to remember the example of Chesterton’s fence: those who rush to tear down something should have a solid understanding of why it was erected in the first place.

These bills run the gamut of Democratic ideas — everything from the repeal of the death penalty to raising felony thresholds have been introduced.

Some of the most significant we’ve seen in terms of impact on public safety are ending cash bail requirements and the return of Virginia’s parole system.

Other states have experimented with the end of bail, and the results have been disastrous. For example, a woman accused of anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community in New York was released on her own recognizance. She attacked a second group less than a day later.

Bills have also been introduced that would bring back Virginia’s system of parole.

Virginia’s criminal justice system isn’t perfect, but it works. Virginia has the lowest rate of recidivism in the U.S., with only 1 of 4 offenders committing crimes again after serving their sentence.

Virginia has the 48th lowest crime rate in the nation.

A report from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing found that Virginia, like other states, has experienced a major drop in crime during the period parole has been abolished. What sets Virginia apart, though, is that it did not see a significant uptick in the rate of incarceration.

At the most basic level, Virginia is safer because Virginia is arresting, trying, convicting and incarcerating those most likely to endanger the public.

That’s not to say that there isn’t room for common-sense reforms in Virginia, but by and large our system is working and keeping the public safe from those who would do them harm.

Del. C. Matthew Fariss represents Buckingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. His email address is DelMFariss@house.virginia.gov.