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Simple possession of marijuana decriminalized in Virginia, prior conviction records now sealed

Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law several criminal justice reform bills Sunday. Here's a breakdown.

WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed multiple criminal justice reform bills into law Sunday, including measures to reform parole and decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. 

The reform package also includes an amendment that would seal prior conviction records and prohibits employers from inquiring about them, as well as permanently eliminating drivers license suspensions solely for unpaid fines and court costs.

Most of the legislation was proposed back in January in an effort to give Virginians access to "a fair and equitable criminal justice system," Northam wrote in a statement from his office April 12.

"These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance," he said.

WATCH: Gov. Northam proposing decriminalizing marijuana in January

Here's a breakdown of some of the new legislation:

What's the difference between legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing it, and where does Virginia stand?

Under newly-signed House Bill 972, simple possession of marijuana is decriminalized and a workgroup has been created to study the impact of legalizing marijuana. 

Now in Virginia, being found with simple possession of marijuana holds a maximum civil penalty of $25, a huge decrease from the previous $500 maximum fine and upwards of 30-day sentences for first-time offenders.

But decriminalization of marijuana is different than legalizing marijuana. 

Under decriminalization, those sentences and jail time penalties no longer exist, meaning you can't be incarcerated for simple possession. But other penalties like that $25 fine and potential others still exist, and sales still are illegal.

If Northam were to legalize marijuana in the state, generally all of those government-enforced penalties -- including that $25 fine -- would be removed and sales would most likely be allowed. Virginia would then join the ranks of D.C. and 12 other states who have the drug legalized for recreational use.

Northam proposed to require the results of the marijuana legalization study by November 30 of next year, a step exploring potential legalization of the drug in the commonwealth.

A brief breakdown of the SAFE Cannabis Sales Act of 2019 in D.C.

What about suspended licenses and sealed convictions in the commonwealth?

Beyond decriminalizing marijuana, Northam also repealed the requirement that driver's licenses of any person convicted of violating the law who doesn't immediately pay fines be suspended. In addition, Virginians can no longer have their licenses suspended for non-driving related offenses, like drug offenses or fuel theft.

Speaking of drug offenses and convictions, Northam's new package also provides that a person's criminal history record information can't include records of any charges or judgments for those simple possession violations. Employers and educational institutions like college campuses can't require applicants to disclose information related to the arrest or to a criminal charge, except in special circumstances.

Credit: AP
In this Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, photo, the cannabis flower is trimmed at Revolution Global's cannabis cultivation center in Delavan, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

And if you did have a license in the state that was suspended before July 1 of 2019 -- solely because of nonpayment for fines and cost-- the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles is now required to return and reinstate it without a fee.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran called the move "historic and transformative" on Friday, with House Majority Leader Charniele Herring in agreeing.

“As a lawyer, I believe injustice, and that means we must aspire to a legal system that promotes equality under the law,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “I also believe in fairness, transparency, and compassion. These new laws strengthen our criminal justice system."

RELATED: Northam proposes DOC release prisoners with less than one year left on sentence

How about parole sentences and community service efforts?

Other criminal reform measures in Northam's package include parole efforts and bills that raise the age a juvenile can be tried as an adult without court approval from 14 to 16. Furthermore, a Virginia court can now allow an inmate to earn credits against court costs imposed by them by performing community service during their sentence -- before, credits could only be earned before or after imprisonment.

And if someone was sentenced by a jury in Virginia Supreme Court between 1995 and 2000, they are now eligible for parole consideration. 

Parole was abolished in the commonwealth in 1995, but because juries weren't instructed of the change until after a court ruling in 2000, Gov. Northam signed an emergency amendment to clarify.

Virginia Senator Louise Lucas shared her support for the legislation on April 12.

“Virginia’s old laws often led to too many black and brown people getting harsher punishments than the majority of Virginians,” said Senator Louise Lucas. “I appreciate Governor Northam signing these new laws that will help bring equity to our criminal justice system.”

Kyley Schultz is a digital editor at WUSA9, covering everything from DMV politics to house fires and the Nationals. You can follow her on Twitter @KyleyBSchultz

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