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Mr. Speaker, I rise for a point of personal privilege.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As this body’s only full-time criminal prosecutor, I would hope you might indulge me a moment of thoughts on what we will undertake here in a few minutes.
Today we will vote on whether to raise the felony larceny threshold from $200 to $500. That is something I would hope that no one in this chamber does lightly. A felony is the greatest criminal penalty that we as a Commonwealth can lay upon someone. It is a statement of what conduct we consider beyond the pale.
Beyond the pale. That’s a term from my family’s native Ireland. A demarcation between what was and was not within the bounds of English law. What was and was not acceptable behavior to society. By stating what is and is not a felony, we are telling each other what can and cannot be expected from our fellow citizens.
This body is a humbling one, and in the last week I have certainly had an opportunity to be humbled. I was reminded of something that is at the very core of what being a criminal prosecutor means. You see, Mr. Speaker, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are sworn to a higher burden than other lawyers. We are sworn to do justice, not just to win.
Mr. Speaker, law not tempered by mercy is wrath. Mere vengeance cloaked by the Government’s prerogative.
The felony threshold has not been raised here in the Commonwealth since before I was born. In 1980, a quart of milk was $.63. A gallon of gas was $.90. In fact, that year, my young parents bought the home that I would later grew up in in Fairfax City. It cost $115,000. I defy anyone in this body to buy a home in Fairfax County for that amount.
I appreciate the work of so many on both sides of the aisle in crafting the legislation we have before us today. We must make sure that those who have been victims are made whole, and I believe strongly that restitution owed is of the highest obligation. I believe this deal addresses those concerns.
But, Mr. Speaker, I’ve spent more than a decade as a prosecutor in public service, and while representing the Commonwealth I’ve sent thousands of men and women to prison. I know what it is to seek justice on behalf of another, and Mr. Speaker, a $200 felony threshold is no justice.
I can speak firsthand about how this makes criminals and outcasts of those who made simple mistakes. How the young and the foolish bear the mark of Cain for the rest of their lives. Let us be clear. This law disproportionately affects communities of color. The disenfranchised. The poor. We cannot and should not stand silent any longer.
I’m reminded of Victor Hugo’s greatest creation, Jean Valjean. A man imprisoned for stealing bread for his starving sister. He suffered for that theft. As so many of the men and women who I have labeled as felons have suffered for their transgressions. Whether they were stealing bread, or diapers, or an iPhone.
Mr. Speaker, this is not justice. This is not right. This is not acceptable. I can no longer look into the faces of those who I’ve spent my career trying to protect and say that we should make felons of those who have made mistakes.
Tomorrow we will begin the season of Lent. Where many of us will do our best to atone for the sins and transgressions of the past year. I am reminded during this season of Jesus’ final moments.
Mr. Speaker, he was surrounded by thieves. And on the cross he proclaimed that the penitent thief would be the first who would be with him to claim his glory.
It is high time that we raise our felony threshold here in Virginia, and this is the right way to do it. I am grateful to be a chief co-sponsor of this piece of legislation.
We must stand with our downtrodden. Our poor. Those so far from the privilege of this chamber. Mr. Speaker, I urge all members of this body to vote to raise the felony threshold.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.