This moment of graphic, heart-rending tragedy, and the protests that followed, allowed a civil rights movement that had long been building to finally overcome obstacles that until then seemed insurmountable: namely, the apathy and ignorance of the privileged to the suffering of the vulnerable. Those not directly affected by our justice system could no longer look away or stand indifferent to the cause. We had no choice but to pay attention.
In some states, such as Virginia, this reckoning brought with it admirable clarity and purpose. Legislators did not just heed superficial calls for “police reform,” which cynically and ineffectually dominated policy debates elsewhere; they embraced long-standing demands for meaningful reform to the foundations of our criminal legal system, and our failed model of arrest, prosecution and punishment.
As of January 2020, Virginia stood as a paradigm of broken American justice. It boasted one of the most regressive legal systems in the country, allowing 12-month jail sentences for nothing more than being an unhoused person in possession of alcohol, for example. Virginia was also one of only two states that retained mandatory jury sentencing, a relic of common law that nearly eviscerated the right of any defendant to a fair trial.
Over the past 18 months, Virginia has taken major steps to overhaul its criminal legal system, not just by repealing the “habitual drunkard” statute and mandatory jury sentencing, but also by abolishing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, ending mass supervision through probation reform and leading the entire nation in taking concrete steps to limit racist pretextual policing. The changes have been sensible and evidence-informed and, in almost any other era, would have generated broad bipartisan support.
Moreover, these reforms have brought us to a point where Virginians can start thinking constructively about better solutions for keeping our communities safe. Mass incarceration, unconstitutional over-policing of Black and Brown communities and criminalizing children don’t keep us safe. Community-based programs that address the root causes of crime and violence do, including investments in our schools, job opportunities, affordable housing, access to healthful and nutritious food and addressing systemic racism.
Yet as much as reform advocates would like to move forward, five decades of “tough-on-crime” policies and institutions that support them have bred some very potent enemies who have made it clear they are willing to fight dirty to preserve their power.
Neither Virginia nor any other state has reduced police budgets in response to the civil rights protests during the past year. That hasn’t stopped opponents of criminal justice reform from running campaigns claiming they have, however. Nor has the truth stopped opponents from making other baseless claims; for example, constructing an alternate reality around parole in Virginia. However you feel about parole — I believe it should be reinstated — the truth is that Virginia abolished parole 26 years ago. Of the nearly 13,000 people released from Virginia prisons in 2019, fewer than 200 were released as a result of decisions by the parole board. A mere 3 percent of individuals on supervised release in Virginia are parolees; they’re overwhelmingly over the age of 50 and pose almost no threat to the community. In fact, of 1,835 community-supervised parolees in 2019, only 30 were subject to parole violations in 2019.
Lately, opponents have seized on a mythical “crime wave” in their efforts to beat back reform. In reality, crime is down almost universally. Property crimes have declined, burglary and robbery have declined, sexual violence has declined. This is, in fact, a “crime wave” consisting of one rare form of violence — gun violence — and the increase is unique and unprecedented. Common sense suggests that the cause of something that has never happened before is almost certainly something else that is nearly as rare: a global pandemic. Even with the most obvious explanation staring us in the face, however, reform opponents have rushed forward, exploiting the tragedy of the pandemic to stoke fear among voters. Yet they still have not explained how reform somehow “caused” an increase in gun violence while having no effect on any other form of crime.
There’s a reason opponents of reform have had to invent fake controversies in Virginia: They can’t attack reformers on the actual record. Further, they know the truth that was made plain in 2020 still resonates deeply with Virginians, who still have that same clarity and purpose. We know the reforms recently enacted by our legislature will make life more decent and dignified for all Virginians. They will reduce racial disparities and promote evidence-informed approaches to social problems, leading to communities that are healthier, more humane and more equitable. Most of all, these reforms, like others we aspire to in the coming years, will make our communities safer — something all Virginians want.
Truth brought us to this moment; unequivocal, unavoidable, agonizing truth. Virginia courageously seized on that truth, taking bold steps forward to restore true justice to our communities and courthouses. We cannot allow the baseless, irrational politics of fear to drive us back.