People generally understand that mass incarceration is neither smart nor fair. What they often don’t realize is that each component in the criminal justice system plays a role in that process. It is not just legislators who believe that being “tough” on crime is a way to get elected and to remain in office. Our prosecutors, judges, police and correction officials also contribute to the problems we face. There are many well-meaning, hardworking people who work throughout the criminal justice system but they are limited in what they can do by that very system.
The Commonwealth Attorney is in a position to create structural and systemic change to a system in need of repair and I will, as well, be an advocate to the other components of that system. In other words, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem and to help light the way for others to follow. Unfortunately, Charlottesville is a contributor to mass incarceration and to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. We need to systemically examine all policies that feed mass incarceration and racial disparities.
The people who commit acts of violence or prey on our community need to be punished, and an office under my leadership will do so. However, many people who are non-violent and do not prey on the community would be far better served through mental health services, substance abuse treatment or other holistic services that provide healing, opportunities to rebuild family structures and reduce the burden to taxpayers.
It is now a well accepted fact that incarceration rates do not equate with reductions in crime, particularly the crimes that threaten the safety of our communities. It is also well known that the cost of incarcerating more than 2,200,000 people nationwide (and more than 35,000 here in Virginia at a cost of more than one billion dollars a year), is not worth any benefit that we receive.
We, as a nation, represent 5% of the word’s population, yet we incarcerate 25% of the world’s prisoners at an enormous cost. Moreover, this burden falls most heavily on minorities causing unnecessary suffering to individuals, to their families and to entire communities. Something is seriously amiss.
I intend to engage in best, evidence-based, practices that will enhance public safety while ensuring the constitution is respected and that will reduce the costs of jails and prisons.
I am proud to announce my candidacy in the Democratic primary for the position of Commonwealth Attorney for the City of Charlottesville. If elected I will make significant changes in the way the criminal justice system works in Charlottesville and be an advocate for criminal justice reform. I would establish (or change) the following policies:
1. Keep as many non-violent people out of the criminal justice system as possible by referral to social service, treatment services and other agencies;
2. To reduce as many first time felony cases to misdemeanors as possible so that people have a chance to become productive members of our community;
3. Assure that the office would be a death penalty free;
4. To argue for low or no bail for those unable to afford pre-trial bail;
5. Not to overcharge crimes in order to secure pleas bargains and to constrain the power of judges and juries to impose overly lengthy sentences;
6. Not to charge anyone with an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. Instead find another comparable offense to charge;
7. To carefully scrutinize all cases secured by searches to determine whether the search was legal and whether any racial element infects the process;
8. To carefully scrutinize all cases brought by our local drug task force, especially with informants:
9. To carefully review policies and practices that may increase racial disparity;
10. Not prosecuting mere possession of marijuana;
11. To make sure each defendant is aware of the evidence against them (discovery is very restrictive in Virginia).
In addition, I will convene a citizen advisory council to advise the office on policy and to give feedback on our practices. Also, as part of this campaign and thereafter, to have a community wide discussion about criminal justice, including what role Charlottesville should play in the war on drugs and the war on immigrants, as well as sentencing reform and to identify what other services need to be tapped to make our community as safe and just as possible.