Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Conducting a review of policies

Bryan Porter in 2016 (Courtesy photo)
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Prosecutors wield a significant amount of authority. We affect the community in a variety of ways, some obvious, others more indirect. Given the authority inherent in the office, and the executive discretion that is bestowed upon us, prosecutors must be introspective, thoughtful and willing to change archaic practices. New ideas must be embraced, and old, ineffective ones modified or dropped altogether.

To this end, I am currently conducting a top-to-bottom review of my office’s policies in a number of important areas, such as how we treat juvenile offenders and whether to expand our misdemeanor diversion program.

This review has already produced results, two examples of which are our Mental Health Initiative and the Treatment Court program which commences this summer. Other changes, such as eliminating recommendations for cash bail for low-level offenses, are already in place. I also serve on the statewide task force that produced a new, far more transparent criminal discovery process, an arcane process that produced one of the more important reforms in recent history.

Earlier this week, I publicly released several additional changes to our method of doing things. First, I am concerned about the efficacy and fairness of our practice of interdicting “habitual drunkards.” An archaic code section allows people to be “interdicted,” after which they face more serious charges for alcohol-related arrests.

The initial reasons for this regime may have been well-intentioned; however, people charged with “interdiction” offenses receive short jail sentences and no treatment for the underlying problem. I am convinced that we can attack these situations more effectively and have enacted a moratorium on naming anyone else an “interdicted person.” I would like to significantly decrease the number of people on the interdiction list or perhaps eliminate it entirely.

Also, my office will no longer indict a specific set of driving-related cases, known as Habitual Offender charges, as felonies. This venerable code section allowed certain people to be declared a Habitual Offender for non-payment of driving fines and costs. The H.O. declaration causes a “super-suspension” of the person’s driving privilege, in some cases resulting in a felony charge that carried a one-year mandatory minimum sentence simply for driving.

Recognizing the unnecessarily onerous situation this law created, the Virginia General Assembly changed it several years ago and no new H.O.s are being declared. However, those declared before the legislative change were “grandfathered” and our office continues to see a number of H.O. cases a year. I believe a felony with a one-year mandatory minimum for non-dangerous driving is overkill and we will no longer present such charges to the Grand Jury.

Finally, the General Assembly has changed the law regarding license suspensions. Effective July 1, citizens will no longer have their driving privileges suspended for non-payment of fines. Additionally, those whose licenses are currently suspended for non-payment will have the suspensions lifted as of July.

Our office continues to see driving on suspended cases because the removal of suspensions does not go into effect for seven weeks. This is patently unfair; those on the wrong side of an arbitrarily-set date could face conviction. Therefore, effective immediately, my office will move to dismiss all driving on suspended license cases in which the charge is related to the non-payment of fines and costs.

I note that these policies do not relate to suspensions or revocations related to drunk driving. My office will continue to diligently prosecute such cases. Because a significant part of my job is public safety, I will never waver with regard to that commitment and will continue to hold violent offenders accountable for crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, gang offenses and shootings.

There will likely be additional changes to our policies during the next six months. I am calling our review “Vision 2020” and intend to release a document that summarizes the policy reforms when they are complete.

Bryan Porter is the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.

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