Legislative Session in High Gear
Virginia’s General Assembly is moving quickly to deal with bills and budget amendments during a short session. We have been following several mental health related proposals. Our bill tracking chart is available here:
Our website has a list of legislators on the finance committees that decide what bills get funded.
There is also the Advocacy Packet from Mental Health Advocacy Day, and our Legislative and Policy Priorities for 2021.
Contact your own legislator with a brief email expressing your support for issues you care about. Put the item or bill number in the email subject heading, and that you are a constituent. You can find your legislator here:
Two proposals with potentially huge impacts for mental health are in the criminal justice system.
Mental Illness and Criminal Justice
A proposed change in criminal procedure could bring about a major shift in what happens to individuals with a serious mental illness who are charged with a crime.
Unlike many other states, Virginia courts do not allow a defendant to present evidence of their mental state when the crime was committed until they are sentenced. They cannot present evidence of serious mental illness or intellectual disability at bond hearings or their trial. The only exception is in the rarely accepted plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, a very high standard that can result in indefinite confinement to a state hospital.
Virginia's current process results in defendants with serious mental illness spending more days in jail at every step in the judicial process, and has a disproportionate impact on people of color and low income.
As amended and passed out of their respective committees, the House and Senate versions of the bill differ, with the House version restricted to developmental or intellectual disabilities. We hope the House language will eventually conform to the more inclusive senate version. Both bills are now in finance committees.
is the more limited House Bill (in its current version).
Death Penalty Abolition
For the first time, bills to abolish the penalty of death and substitute life without parole have passed legislative committees, but they face opposition in the full House and Senate.
MHAV supports abolishing the death penalty because people with severe mental illnesses are at a substantial disadvantage in defending themselves when they face criminal charges, and those difficulties are compounded when the charges are so serious that the death penalty is sought. Our current system is imperfect, and fails to always identify who has a mitigating severe mental health condition.