Home Crime Virginia AG Mark Herring Outlines Priorities for Criminal Justice Reform

Virginia AG Mark Herring Outlines Priorities for Criminal Justice Reform

Cash bail reform, cannabis reform, expanding re-entry programs, building a more inclusive/diverse judiciary...

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From AG Mark Herring’s office:

HERRING OUTLINES PRIORITIES FOR BUILDING A MORE JUST, EQUAL, AND FAIR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IN VIRGINIA
~ Recommendations build on work as AG, innovations by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, and proposals by legislators ~
RICHMOND (November 18, 2019)—In an op-ed in Sunday’s Virginian-Pilot, Attorney General Mark R. Herring outlined a set of priorities for building a more just, equal, and fair criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The proposals will help move Virginia away from mass incarceration, eliminate racial disparities in outcomes and access to justice, and improve public safety while saving taxpayers money. They will also build on his work over the last six years as attorney general to reform the criminal justice system, and the years of work by legislators, community leaders and advocates, civil rights organizations, and innovative Commonwealth’s Attorneys and law enforcement agencies.

“New Democratic majorities in the Virginia General Assembly and a growing slate of reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorneys offer a potentially once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a criminal justice system that is more just, fair, and equal,” Attorney General Herring writes. “Ours must be a Commonwealth where justice, equality, and opportunity are guaranteed for each and every person, no matter where they live, what they look like, how they worship, who they love, or how much money they have. Virginia cannot have different systems and standards of justice depending on the color of a person’s skin or their wealth.”

Attorney General Herring writes that in the upcoming General Assembly session he will be supporting “bold, long-overdue reforms that will make communities safer, strengthen families, ensure justice and accountability, address unacceptable racial disparities, and save taxpayers money.”

Attorney General Herring’s entire op-ed is available here from the Virginian-Pilot, and the criminal justice reform priorities he outlines for the 2020 General Assembly session include:

CANNABIS REFORM

Attorney General Herring is working for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, action to address past convictions, and a move towards legal and regulated adult use in Virginia. In calling for reform, Attorney General Herring cites the unnecessary negative impact of a criminal conviction for possession, the expense of enforcing the current system, and the disparate impact on African Americans and people and communities of color.

In July, Attorney General Herring reiterated his call for reform after new data showed that marijuana arrests reached their highest levels ever in 2018 when nearly 29,000 people were arrested, 52% of who were under the age of 24, and 90% of who were arrested for possession as opposed to selling. Marijuana enforcement is estimated to cost Virginia approximately $81 million per year, and the Virginia Crime Commission found that nearly half of all arrests for first offense marijuana possession involved African-Americans.

CASH BAIL REFORM

Attorney General Herring will be supporting reforms to Virginia’s cash bail system which, in its current form, can lead to bizarre outcomes where dangerous people with money can go free while nonviolent people sit in jail for days, weeks, or months because they can’t afford to pay bail. This can cause a person to lose their job, housing, and support systems. Attorney General Herring will be pushing for Virginia to move away from the use of cash bail as its default for low level offenses and instead expand pretrial services that have proven to be effective and cheaper.

In 2017, for example, approximately 28,000 Virginians were released under pretrial supervision instead of sitting in jail. Ninety-four percent of them showed up for their court date and 94% stayed out of trouble. Pretrial services cost about $3 a day per person versus about $85 per day if a person is jailed.

Attorney General Herring previously wrote to the Virginia State Crime Commission during their study of cash bail to raise policy and constitutional concerns with the current systems.

EXPANDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR RECORD EXPUNGEMENT

Virginia is one of the nation’s least forgiving and most restrictive states for individuals who have earned the opportunity to have old convictions and charges expunged from their records. While many other states have some form of a “Clean Slate” law, the Commonwealth appears to be one of just nine states that does not offer any sort of judicial “record closure” for any adult convictions, nor does it offer any automatic expungement for those who are eligible for expungement. This means that a relatively minor charge or conviction, like marijuana or alcohol possession, can become a permanent stain that limits a Virginian’s job, educational, and housing opportunities.

Attorney General Herring supports expanding record expungement opportunities and simplifying the process to build a more just and fair criminal justice system and to address the disproportionate burden that criminal convictions place on African Americans and people of color.

BUILDING A MORE INCLUSIVE, DIVERSE JUDICIARY

Attorney General Herring believes that Virginia’s criminal justice system should reflect the Commonwealth and its diversity, but unfortunately Virginia is falling far short of that goal.

While Virginia’s population is about 20% African American, 10% Hispanic/Latino, and 7% Asian, data from March 2019 shows that 12% of Circuit and District Court judges are African American, 0.4% are Hispanic/Latino, and 0.2% are Asian. Overall, nearly 87% of Circuit and District Court judges are white, but only 70% of Virginia’s population is white, and as of March 2019, 51 of Virginia’s 64 judicial circuits and districts had one or zero African American judges, including 35 districts or circuits that had no African American judges.

As Democrats take the lead on judicial selection, Attorney General Herring will encourage legislators to give stronger consideration to inclusion, diversity, and representation on the bench.

INCREASING SAFETY, TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN POLICING, USE OF FORCE, AND DEATHS IN CUSTODY

Attorney General Herring supports proactive steps at the state level to increase public safety and help increase trust and communication between Virginia communities and the law enforcement agencies and local and regional jails that serve them. This includes finding ways to provide state-level support for communities who choose to create Citizen Review Panels to assist their police departments, expanded use of independent investigations of deaths in custody or during an interaction with police in order to promote public confidence in the outcome, more thorough and public disclosure of deaths in custody, and a continued emphasis on making 21st century policing skills like crisis intervention, implicit bias, and de-escalation training the new standard. In 2015, Attorney General Herring invested in a series of trainings on 21st century policing and implicit bias for law enforcement agencies around the state.

EXPANDING RE-ENTRY PROGRAMS IN LOCAL AND REGIONAL JAILS

Re-entry services make communities safer, save taxpayers money, and help ex-offenders lead productive lives after the serve their time. These services are a win in every way, and Attorney General Herring believes they need to be made available in every local and regional jail so that people receive the treatment, training, skills, or services they need to successfully return to their homes and communities. He also supports the creation of a re-entry certification program to help encourage local re-entry programs to enact more standardized best practices, and the incorporation of re-entry principles in the training of all sheriffs’ deputies and local/regional jail employees.

Attorney General Herring has invested in re-entry by hiring Virginia’s first Re-Entry Coordinator to help local jails start, strengthen, and coordinate re-entry efforts. He has also hosted statewide and regional trainings for re-entry stakeholders and launched the Virginia Re-Entry Portal, the state’s first centralized clearinghouse and aggregator for information and resources for those working with returning citizens.