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Understanding The Old Dominion State’s Criminal Justice System

Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services is the State of Virginia’s system for investigating, apprehending, convicting, and punishing criminals who break the law. It incorporates law enforcement agencies, court systems, and legislative organizations in their effort to protect the public from those who would otherwise take advantage of them. Specifically, the VDCJS “is charged with planning and carrying out programs and initiatives to improve the functioning and effectiveness of the criminal justice system as a whole” per Virginia Code § 9.1-102.

The VDCJS overviews a number of services, which includes conducting research and evaluation on criminal justice issues, developing short and long term criminal justice plans, distributing funding to localities, agencies, and nonprofits in the law enforcement area from both federal and state sources, proving training, technical assistance, and program development, establishing and enforcing minimum training standards for law enforcement, and licensing and regulating private security in Virginia.

The main beneficiaries of the VDCJS are:

  • Local and state criminal justice agencies
  • Private agencies
  • Private security practitioners and businesses
  • The public at large
  • Local governments
  • Federal government
  • Advocacy groups

VDCJS takes a system-wide approach to criminal justice. It has an overarching responsibility to see how changes made to a single system, program or service affects the statewide criminal justice system as a whole. Because of this outlook, changes made by the VDCJS are comprehensive by necessity. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice can be found at 1100 Bank Street, Richmond, VA, or contacted by phone at 804.786.4000.

Virginia has six classes of felony and four classes of misdemeanor.

They also have traffic violations, a special type of misdemeanor, which are reserved for offenses committed in a vehicle which are less serious than felonies or misdemeanors.

Felonies in Virginia are serious crimes and come with harsher punishments that typically involve prison, fines, and loss of certain rights.

  • Class 1 Felonies are punished with death or life imprisonment if the person convicted was at least 18 years old at the time of the crime and not found be intellectually disabled as described in Virginia State Code § 19.2-264.3:1.1. There is also a fine of up to $100,000 if imprisoned for life.

    • If the person convicted was under 18 years of age at the time of the offense or is determined to be intellectually disabled, the punishment is imprisonment for life and a fine of up to $100,000.
  • Class 2 Felonies are punished with imprisonment of between 20 years and life. There is also a fine of up to $100,000.

  • Class 3 Felonies are punished with imprisonment of between five and 20 years. There is also a fine of up to $100,000.

  • Class 4 Felonies are punished with imprisonment of between two and 10 years. There is also a fine of up to $100,000.

  • Class 5 Felonies are punished with imprisonment of between one and 10 years. This term can be reduced at the jury’s or court’s discretion to no more than 12 months. There is also a fine of up to $2,500.

  • Class 6 Felonies are punished with imprisonment between one and five years. This term can be reduced at the jury’s or court’s discretion to no more than 12 months. There is also a fine of up to $2,500.


A misdemeanor in Virginia is a less serious crime, and common punishments include probation, county jail time, fines, or a combination of all three.

  • Class 1 Misdemeanors are punished with imprisonment of up to 12 months. They are also punished by a fine of up to $2,500.
  • Class 2 Misdemeanors are punished with imprisonment of up to six months. They are also punished by a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Class 3 Misdemeanors are punished with a fine of up to $500.
  • Class 4 Misdemeanors are punished with a fine of up to $250.


How the Virginia Courts are Organized


vaCriminalJusticeSystemTheSupremeCourt.jpg The Supreme Court of Virginia. Courtesy of Morgan Riley

The mission of the Virginia judicial system is to resolve disputes in a just, prompt, and economical manner. Critical to that mission is a court structure composed of “honest judges and court personnel and uniform rules of practice and procedure.”

The Virginia Court System comprises of four levels. From the highest level, they are the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the circuit courts, and the district courts. There are 31 judicial circuits and 32 similar judicial districts. More than 2,600 people including the judges, clerks, and magistrates within the judicial branch of Virginia.


vaCriminalJusticeSystemLovingV.jpg Loving v. Virginia 1967. This case made interracial marriage legal countrywide. It was one of the most important cases in the fight for equality in America, and in Virginia.

1. Supreme Court of Virginia

The Supreme Court possesses both original and appellate jurisdiction, though it’s primary function is to review decisions made by lower courts. As a matter of right, the Supreme Court is able to deny appeals on all cases except those that involve the death penalty, those that involve the State Corporation Commission, and those that involve disciplinary actions against an attorney.

The Court's jurisdiction is limited to cases of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, and actual innocence. The Supreme Court also hold jurisdiction over matters filed by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission relating to the official reprimanding of a judge's actions, the actions leading to their retirement, and the actions leading up to their dismissal.

There are seven judges on the Supreme Court that are elected by a majority vote from each house of the General Assembly for a twelve year term.


vaCriminalJusticeSystemWilliamMorva.jpg William Morva was the last person to be executed in Virginia. He was executed in 2011 for the murder of two people.

2. Court of Appeals

The Virginia Court of Appeals is responsible for appellate review of final decisions of the circuit courts in matters of domestic relations, administrative agency decisions, traffic infractions, and criminal cases except when the death penalty is involved. Those cases are appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals also hears appeals from final decisions from the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (VWCG).

The decisions of the Court of Appeals are final in traffic and misdemeanor cases where no incarceration punishment is involved, in domestic relations matters, and in cases that originated before administrative agencies and the (VWCG). The Supreme Court may review those decisions as well if it finds that the final decision of the Court of Appeals involves substantial enough constitutional question as a determinative issue. They may also review cases where there are matters of significant precedential value. In all other circumstances, parties may petition for an appeal from the Supreme Court.

The Court has 11 judges split into three judicial panels with a rotating membership.


3. Circuit Courts

Circuit Courts are the only trial court of general jurisdiction in Virginia. They have Jurisdiction over civil actions, criminal cases, and appeals of a certain nature.


Civil Matters

  • Concurrent jurisdiction with general district courts of monetary claims more than $4,500 and up to $25,000.
  • Exclusive original jurisdiction of monetary claims exceeding $25,000
  • Attachments
  • Validity of a county or municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw
  • Divorce proceedings
  • Wills, trusts and estate matters
  • Property disputes
  • Adoption proceedings


Criminal Cases

  • All felonies, offenses that may be punished by imprisonment of more than one year
  • Misdemeanor offenses that were appealed from district court or originated from a grand jury indictment
  • Transfer or certification of felony offenses committed by juveniles



  • Appeals from the general district court or juvenile and domestic relations district court (heard de novo)
  • Appeals from administrative agencies


The circuit court also handles cases for which jurisdiction is not specified in the State Code of Virginia.

At the beginning of each term of the circuit court, a grand jury is convened. These juries consider bills of indictment to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe that a person accused of committing a serious crime is innocent. The grand jury does not hear both sides of the case does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. In addition to the grand jury, a special grand jury may be convened to investigate any condition which tends to promote criminal activity in the community or which indicates malfeasance of governmental agencies or officials. This grand jury has subpoena powers and may summon persons, documents, or records needed in its investigation.


4. Virginia’s District Courts

Virginia’s District Courts consist of the general district and the juvenile and domestic relations district courts. There are 32 districts in the state and there are general, juvenile, and domestic relations courts in every city and county.


General District Courts

a. General District Courts hear criminal cases involving misdemeanors under state law and offenses that are violations of ordinances, laws, and by-laws of a county or city where the court is located. A misdemeanor, as defined in Virginia, is any charge that is punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine up to $2,500, or both. Fines collected are distributed to the city, town, or county treasury.

b. General District Courts also hear civil cases that do not exceed $25,000. Civil cases are varied, and include suits for damages sustained in a car accident, suits by creditors to receive payment on debts, and more. In Virginia, claims for $4,500 or less can be initiated only in general district courts. A small claims division, separate from the general jurisdiction, has jurisdiction over civil actions involving claims that do not exceed $5,000.

c. General District Courts hear cases involving traffic violations. If convicted of certain traffic violations, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles will assess points against the convicted person’s driver’s license. The judge has discretionary influence on further fines.

d. The General District Courts hear preliminary hearings in felony cases, which are cases involving offenses that may be punishable by imprisonment of more than one year. At the preliminary hearing, the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant for a grand jury hearing. The grand jury determines whether the accused will be indicted and held for trial in the circuit court.


5. Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts

Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts in Virginia handle numerous cases related to young offenders and household environments. In Virginia, a juvenile is defined as a person under the age of 18.


a. Juvenile delinquency and status offenses

b. Juveniles accused of traffic violations

c. Children in need of services or supervision

d. Children subjected to abuse or neglect

e. Children who are abandoned or without parental guardianship

f. Foster care and entrustment agreements

g. Children for whom relief of custody or termination of parental rights is requested

h. Adults accused of child abuse or neglect, or of offenses against family or household members

i. Adults involved in disputes concerning the custody, visitation or support of a child

j. Spousal support

k. Minors seeking emancipation or work permits

l. Court consent for certain medical treatments