The presumption of innocence is a core doctrine of our criminal justice system, yet in Virginia, individuals merely accused of an offense can sit in jail for days, sometimes longer, before appearing in court. And, when finally given the opportunity to see a judge, many are faced with confronting their charges alone.
In 2021, the Virginia Pretrial Justice Coalition, of which NACDL is a member, supported HB 2286, which would have guaranteed that all individuals detained pretrial have a lawyer at their first court appearance. NACDL provided verbal testimony in support of HB 2286 and facilitated contact with Virginia state legislators through a campaign on NACDL's Legislative Action Center. After the bill failed to report from House Appropriations Transportation & Public Safety Subcommittee, lawmakers approved a budget amendment to require the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court to consult with the Indigent Defense Commission, Virginia Community Criminal Justice Association, and other stakeholders to create a plan to implement the bill’s provisions and to estimate the costs and potential cost-savings of doing so.
In January 2022, the legislation was reintroduced as HB 369 / SB 475, sponsored by Delegate Angelia Williams Graves and Senator Jennifer McClellan. NACDL created a legislative action alert and executed out a social media campaign to provide information about the importance of counsel at first appearance and to promote the pending legislation in Virginia. A social media toolkit on counsel at first appearance, including graphics and accompanying text, was made available for public use. SB 475 passed the Senate Judiciary committee with strong bipartisan support but was then continued to the 2023 session. NACDL issued a new legislative action alert urging Virginians to ask their legislators to support a counsel at first appearance pilot program that was being considered by the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee. Unfortunately, the pilot program was not ultimately included in the budget.