Thursday, October 23, 2014

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U.Va. Students Approve New Honor Plea, Reject Jury Changes

Students at the University of Virginia have voted to alter the 170-year-old honor system to include an “informed retraction” option that allows a student to enter a guilty plea after being accused of lying, cheating or stealing, but before a formal investigation begins, and then leave the University for two semesters.

At the same time, student voters rejected a plan to replace randomly selected jurors with elected Honor Committee representatives.

Under the honor system, students convicted of lying, cheating or stealing are permanently expelled from the University, a punishment many have criticized over the years as being too harsh.

Under the committee’s existing doctrine of “conscientious retraction,” a student who comes forward before he or she is suspected of violating the honor code can admit the violation, make amends and remain at the University. 

The new informed retraction option and the specially constituted juries had been paired by the Honor Committee as a package known as the “Restore the Ideal Act,” but second-year law student Frank Bellamy advanced a proposal that included only the additional plea option. Both proposals appeared on the ballot for last week’s student elections.

About 64 percent of the 8,441 students who voted on Bellamy’s plea option approved it last week in Universitywide elections, surpassing the 60 percent super-majority needed to pass a change to the honor system. Only 41 percent voted in favor of the Restore the Ideal Act proposal.

Stephen Nash, the outgoing chair of the Honor Committee, said the committee felt the two proposed reforms needed each other to work. He called on future committees to push for jury reform.

“While an informed retraction encourages honorable behavior once initially reported, absent jury reform it is not able to restore complete community confidence that our proceedings are the most fair, consistent and accurate that they can and should be,” Nash said. “While informed retraction will represent progress on some issues that exist, we hope future committees will continue to contemplate ways to address the long-identified problems associated with random student jury panels.”

Nash hopes future generations of students will continue the dialogue that has been started about the honor system and how it is administered.

“The high level of engagement with honor was evident in the high voter turnout and I think such engagement is healthy and necessary for the honor system to remain an important part of the student experience,” Nash said. “Students overwhelmingly voted to approve part of the proposal, an Informed Retraction, and I hope that such a student-wide ratification will begin to make progress on some of the issues that exist. At the same time, while the return to all-Committee jury panels was not approved by the student body, I am hopeful that future committees and student groups will be able to come up with another solution to address the problems that still exist without reform to our trial proceedings.”

Bellamy took issue with the proposed jury changes and said he was afraid it would get swept along with support of the informed retraction pleas.

“I actually saw an open honor trial last fall and was quite impressed with the student jurors I saw there,” Bellamy said. “So when I saw that the Honor Committee thought student jurors were a problem and wanted to get rid of them, I was very concerned.”

He said putting informed retraction on the ballot separately gave students the democratic option to adopt only the reforms that they wanted, and to ensure that jury reform did not pass on the coattails of the additional plea.

The Honor Committee enacted temporary bylaws after the vote to immediately incorporate the new plea option, so something is in place until a new committee takes over April 1.

“These procedures are considered temporary and interim as we believe continuity between committees is very important,” Nash said. “The temporary and interim nature of the procedures we passed reflects the immediate reality that we need some procedures to explain how we were going to guarantee students this newly ratified right in the short term.”

Nash said it is important for the outgoing committee members to work closely with the newly elected committee members to implement informed retraction.

“It may end up being the same procedures we put into place, as we are confident that those represent the best version of an informed retraction,” he said.

Bellamy, who said he was surprised anything on the ballot passed, was pleased the committee quickly instituted the reforms.

“I hope that this will make students and professors more comfortable with the honor system, while maintaining U.Va.’s unique culture of commitment to honorable behavior,” Bellamy said.

Nash said the honor system is designed to build a community of trust. “At its core the Honor System has the affirmative and positive purpose of encouraging each of us to do what is right and fostering a community based on trust,” he said. “The informed retraction, similar to the conscientious retraction, speaks to this positive purpose of being committed to doing what is right.”

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