My Commitment to You

As the only non-lawyer on the House Criminal Law subcommittee, I play a key role as a victim advocate.  I will continue to use my tenacity and respect for the Law to work with attorneys and law enforcement in crafting enforceable laws that keep a focus on real world impacts.  As a former Secretary of Public Safety overseeing prisons, I also have dealt with the high cost of putting all our efforts on punishment and not also working to prevent crime. 


According to the head of the Fairfax County Police anti-gang unit, Virginia now has the toughest laws in the country. I will continue to work to strengthen our laws wherever needed, such as my bill to make it a criminal offense to brandish a machete following attacks involving my District. Law enforcement needs your help, too. Please report any suspicious activity or gang graffiti by using the police non-emergency number: 703 - 691 - 2131. Your eyes and ears in the community may give police an important link in their investigative and prevention efforts.

Most proposals to combat gang activity are taken seriously by the General Assembly. We've created “gang free zones” around schools, created a witness protection program, and allow police and prosecutors to close down houses that harbor gang activity in the same way they can close down houses of prostitution.  We added prosecutors to work across county and city lines in Northern Virginia to effectively build cases against gang organizers; made bail harder to get; directed that schools be informed if any student is arrested for gang activity; and made it a crime to recruit or intimidate someone into joining a gang.

Earlier bills of mine are also relevant to gang activity. In 1996, I increased the penalties for conspiracy and solicitation to commit a crime when minors and handguns are involved. In 1997, my bill to treat the aggravated malicious wounding of a pregnant woman with the intent to kill the fetus the same as murder became law. This is a particularly heinous form of gang vengeance.

However, the more I work with the issue of gangs, the more convinced I've become that the #1 thing we can do to prevent gangs is reduce class sizes, especially in elementary schools.  A child who feels they are part of society, doesn't have to join a gang to "belong."


The national Polaris Project named Virginia law as one of the most improved in their 2011 rankings.  I was please to receive this email: "Thank you for everything you did and for being one of our champions on this important issue.  If it weren't for you efforts on HB 1893/1898 the law would not be nearly as strong as it is today."

Changes in the law are fully discussed in this link.  In brief, human trafficking was brought fully under Virginia’s abduction and kidnapping laws.  Anyone who participates in any way to bring about an abduction is as guilty as the person who actually holds the person and – as it relates to most human trafficking – the penalty is 20 years to life. Abduction of any one under 18 for the purpose of manufacturing child pornography was added to Virginia law. In addition, where a connection to an abduction can’t be proven, anyone who benefits from making anyone engage in forced labor or services, concubinage, prostitution, or the manufacture of any obscene material or child pornography can be sentenced to 2 to 10 years in prison


Working with a frustrated Fairfax police investigator -- whom I'd gotten to know as Director of CASA (program to help abused children) -- I crafted HB1731 (1999) to allow police to step-in and make an arrest before a child is physically contacted by a sexual predator who is cultivating him/her through the Internet. I was delighted when the Fairfax County Police Child Services Unit made me their first "Honorary Member" for this work.

In 2006, my bill (HB1066) expanded the definition of child abuse/neglect to cover any parent or custodian who allows a child to be alone with someone who is required to register as a sexual offender.

In 2005 (HB2564), I was able to get long-overdue reform to provide consistently greater criminal penalties against parents or grandparents who sexually abuse their child or use the child in the commission of any sexual crime, such as pornography.

In 2003 and 2004, I was shocked that bills to require that, if it did not breach the tenets of their church structure, clergy must report suspected child abuse – as doctors and teachers must – were defeated despite strong support from all but one member of the clergy who expressed the view that the clergy’s first duty was to minister to the adult.  That view prevailed. 


In 2008, successful bills from the Criminal Law subcommittee, which I chaired, of the Governor's Sexual Violence Commission included not making victims pay for medical services following rape, not requiring an initial victim polygraph, and removing subsequent marriage to a 14-year-old as a defense against prosecution for rape.

Working closely with prosecutors, in the 1999 Session, I was able to re-define the level of injury or force that must be proven in marital rape and largely ended the great discrepancies in prosecution and sentencing throughout the state (HB1732). In 2004, the separate offense of marital rape was done away with completely.

I also carried successful legislation – HB2017 (1997) and HB583 (1998) – to ensure that police can respond rapidly to domestic violence calls with accurate information about past incidents and have the power to make arrests upon evidence of probable harm.

In 1999 (HB1874), my bill made it clear that protective orders require stalkers to stay out of visual and voice contact as well as physical contact.

In 1997 (HB1044), my bill prevents persons charged with specified felony sex offenses who have been previously convicted of one of those offenses from being released on bail.

In 2003, I worked with House Majority Leader Griffith (R) to established a civil process to review violent sexual offenders being released from prison.   As of 2008, 20-25 per year are being committed to a secure mental institution upon a determination that they are a danger to society.


In 1997 (HB1926), I worked with police to come down hard on the "date rape drug," which is widely available largely because drug traffickers push this cheap drug among young users as a way to enhance the effect of cocaine, heroine, and alcohol. Seizures of "roofies", "roach", "row-shay" (to list just some of the street names) nationwide exceed most other illicit drugs. It is small; it is cheap; and an overdose can kill. When I learned that police weren't going after it because the penalties were too low, I got legislation passed to make the penalties for giving, distributing, or possessing Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) the same as cocaine, marijuana, and other Schedule I drugs. In addition, just as rape can be prosecuted under Virginia law if the victim was too drunk to resist, use of a "date rape drug" is punishable by 5 years to life. As an accessory, a person who gives the victim the drug can draw the same sentence.


Two playmates witnessed the random, brutal stabbing of an 8-year-old Alexandria boy, Kevin Shifflett, in the spring of 2000.   My legislative study and subsequent changes in the law allow child witnesses to such violence to testify via closed-circuit television. HB 2014 (2001); HB2058 and HB 2059 (1999); and HJ 280 (1998).

Crime victims feel helpless when prosecutors believe the evidence is not strong enough to file charges. An alternative is to sue the suspect for damages, which requires less proof. In 2001 (HB2189), I removed a major hurdle to this means of pursuing some measure of justice by extending the 2-year statute of limitations on civil suits related to a crime.

Also in 2001, my bill (HB1661) prevents insurance companies from discriminating against victims of domestic violence in providing insurance including health, accident, life and property damage.

When I was Secretary of Transportation and Public Safety, Virginia became the first state to process and use DNA evidence. We are a leader in the development of a criminal DNA records bank to assist in solving violent crime. Virginia became the 6th state to use computerized finger-print identification which cleared a huge backlog of unsolved burglaries and other property crimes.


I am proud of my long involvement combating drunk driving. One of the most significant bills I got passed was HB924 (2001) aimed at hardcore drunk drivers. Virginia finally joined 45 other states that allow prosecutors to tell the judge/jury if a defendant unreasonably refused to take a breath test. "Experienced" drunk drivers previously took a chance that they might escape conviction on a technicality if there was no breath test evidence.

In 2004, we spent many hours on the Criminal Laws Subcommittee significantly strengthened drunk driving laws in reaction to the steady increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths nationally and in Virginia since 1999 after almost two decades of decline. There were more drunk driving fatalities than murders in 2002. Most of the tough new laws are directed at hard core drunk drivers, who make up more than 1/3 of arrests, and often are driving with BAC’s over .20.


Local and state police do not have the authority to deport. Unless the person we detain has a criminal record, federal authorities release them back into the community pending a hearing -- for which they may not show-up. If federal authorities are given the resources to quickly determine legal status and the resources to return undocumented immigrants to their country, then cooperative efforts with local and state law enforcement could be productive. Of course, the ultimate measure of the success of deportation is border security and the ease with which a deportee can re-enter.

In addition, specifically related to day laborers, law enforcement would be greatly enhanced by federal reform that realistically sets the number of work visas. Police could then more readily deal with those who have a legitimate reason to be in this country and those who don't. Finally, federal enforcement of the duty of an employer to check the legal status of any employee is not being evenly applied. Law-abiding employers are being undercut by competitors who are hiring undocumented immigrants because they can use their status to pay them less.


In 2000, my bill (HB309) made it illegal for a person to sell a gun if they can’t legally own a gun. Closing this loophole creates an even playing field between small licensed dealers who go through criminal and mental health background checks to get a license and large chain stores, like K-Mart, that have only one corporate license covering all their stores. This legislation also lays the groundwork to cover people who go from gun show to gun show, acting like dealers, but who are un-licensed because they don’t have a place of business.

In 2004, I voted against a bill that passed which overturns all local gun laws.  Because the bill passed, Fairfax County must have General Assembly approval to ban guns in county offices, recreation centers, or parks.


In recent years, Virginia has been second only to Texas in the number of executions. One reason is that 21 days after a person has been convicted in Virginia, new evidence cannot be considered. While I have voted for the death penalty, I vowed during my service as Virginia Secretary of Transportation & Public Safety (yes, prisons as well as pavement!) that I would do all I could to erase the 21-Day Rule.

With the active involvement of many religious organizations and the credibility of DNA analysis, in 2001, we moved a long way towards this goal. Appeals can now be granted based on new biological evidence.  However, we couldn't get enough votes for a one-year moratorium on executions while the Virginia Supreme Court completes its study of other kinds of evidence, such as another person’s confession.

In 2004, the 21-Day rule was carefully lifted for non-biological evidence. A person gets only one appeal and court review must find the evidence meets the highest standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” before the appeal can proceed. The new law excludes anyone who pled guilty. Unfortunately, this also includes plea bargains or “Alfred plea” even if the new evidence includes another person's confession.


As Secretary of Transportation and Public Safety for the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1986-90, Vivian Watts was responsible for a 5,350 bed construction program carried out on 13 sites, two of which were new prison locations. Use of prototype pre-cast components for cellblock construction and pre-engineered buildings for dormitories produced cost savings and significantly reduced construction time. From the date of legislative authorization, facility openings ranged from 10 months to 3 and 1/2 years for a new 2100-bed cellblock facility. Equally important, while lifetime staffing costs were reduced through modification of existing designs, basic similarities in layout will facilitate systemwide management and training, as well as, appropriate crisis response.

Mrs. Watts played a key role in the timely identification of changes in growth trends in inmate population. From initially questioning the validity of time series forecasting techniques to weekly tracking of year-to-date comparisons, she provided strong direction for projection modeling changes and the need for additional expedited construction. A sophisticated simulation model which tracks 122 variables was developed for population forecasting. (Note: The 2001 Joint Legislative and Review Commission Report on Forecasting recommended that this simulation methodology and consultative model be used by other major state agencies and noted that the prison over-building which occurred in the mid-nineties was a direct result of its not being used.)

As an outgrowth of this construction and forecasting experience, Mrs. Watts directed the development of a 10-Year Master Plan for construction. The Plan included time lines for site identification, environmental review and permitting, budget authorization and the letting of construction contracts. In addition, the Plan contained regional location recommendations by type of facility, appropriate use of inmate labor, assumptions about effects of sentencing alternatives and a recommended balance between dormitory and cellblock construction based on translating simulated population forecasts to security level requirements.

In prison operations, due to improved training and central management direction, the Virginia Department of Corrections achieved the lowest escape record in its history and one of the lowest in the nation. Management direction also led to the reduction of overtime by 50 percent.

Correctional program initiatives included the institution of the Literacy Incentive Program (LIP or "No Read/No Release") which has become a national model. In addition, an integrated prison mental health program was established which included licensure of a 180-bed intensive care facility. Separation of Youth Services as an independent agency from the Department of Corrections was achieved. Secretary Watts' personal interest in the expansion of prison industries, led to acceptance by industry and labor representatives of the concept of competitive bidding for private sector running of prison shops and establishment of a Prison Industries Authority.

Secretary Watts also had oversight for the State Police, Criminal Justice Services, Commonwealth Attorney Services, and served on the Supreme Court's Commission on the Future of the Judiciary. During her tenure, the number of state police officers were increased 16 percent and all officers were issued body armor and semi-automatic weapons to replace .38 caliber revolvers. Computerized fingerprint identification capability was established with a statewide network of remote terminals for local law enforcement access. Sentencing guidelines, developed by her secretariat in cooperation with the judiciary, are now in use throughout the Commonwealth. Secretary Watts also headed a delegation of law enforcement and corrections officials in an on-site exchange program with Israel.

Finally, as Secretary, Mrs. Watts was directly involved in the development of efforts to increase legislative, media and public understanding of the magnitude of the corrections challenge. Her development of a variety of charts and concise presentations of the current factual status of commonly held perceptions helped expedite decision making. She initiated improved communications with sheriffs and local jails which led to identification of more efficient procedures for the movement of inmates and improved data base development. She actively served on the steering committee of Commission on Prison and Jail Overcrowding, which was formed in her last year as Secretary. The 55 recommendations made by this Commission represent a blueprint of the governmental, administrative and program changes and continuing commitments which are necessary to deal with increased incarceration rates.