Earlier this afternoon, the Virginia State Senate began debating the issue of criminal justice reform. Or, at least, Democrats attempted to have a fact-and-reality-based, intelligent discussion on the issue, but Republicans weren’t having it. Instead, as Cindy of VAPLAN tweeted, “Lots of Willie Horton speechifying by Senate Rs on the floor today.” Just a quick reminder that Willie Horton was:
…a “convicted felon who, while serving a life sentence for murder (without the possibility of parole), was the beneficiary of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program. He did not return from his furlough, and ultimately committed assault, armed robbery, and rape before being captured and sentenced in Maryland where he remains incarcerated.
The controversy over Horton’s furlough became a major issue in the 1988 presidential campaign, as George H.W. Bush brought him up frequently during his campaign. A prominent PAC ad for Bush about Horton has been widely characterized as a case of dog-whistle politics.”
Before and after “Willie Horton,” Republicans have been big fans of “dog-whistle politics,” and of using the “soft on crime” formulation to attack Democrats. Often, Republicans do so without any – or minimal, at best – connection to the actual facts of cases, but that hasn’t stopped them.
So what we heard today in the Virginia Senate was Republicans standing up and listing horrible case after horrible case of rape, murder, etc., with the purpose of…what, exactly? First off, it appears that Virginia Republicans are hostile to any form of criminal justice reform. Second, Virginia Republicans appear to sense a “winning” political issue for them, even if they’re doing so dishonestly and/or cynically, in bashing Democrats as supposedly “soft on violent criminals.”
A couple recent cases cited repeatedly by Republicans included: 1) this horrendous case in Alexandria, in which a progressive prosecutor argued NOT to release the violent criminal, but was overruled by a judge, then – after being arrested and released in Maryland – which was not communicated to Virginia authorities – he went on to murder Karla Elizabeth Dominguez Gonzalez; and 2) the case of Vincent Martin, who was paroled in June after more than 40 years in prison “for the 1979 killing of Richmond patrolman Michael P. Connors,” with the Parole Board coming under a great deal of criticism for how it reached that decision, but also with supporters of the Parole Board decision noting that Martin had been a “model prisoner” with no “infractions,”that others involved in that crime had been released years earlier, etc.
In response to speeches by Sen. Mark Obenshain and other Republicans bashing Democrats, basically, for supporting criminal justice reform, Democratic Senators pushed back. See below for the videos and highlights. (note: Sen. Adam Ebbin and Sen. Jennifer Boysko also pushed back hard, but I don’t have those videos yet…will add later)
Sen. Mamie Locke really nailed it, pointing out – correctly – that Republicans “are very good at changing the narrative, whenever the existing narrative does not benefit their agenda.” Sen. Locke argued that what Democrats are “about is making our communities safe…but at the same time we want those communities to be fair and we want those communities to be just.” Locke continued: “I am here for justice and fairness…It’s not about defunding police or eroding laws, I’m here for justice and fairness. I condemn the violence. I don’t want anybody out there breaking windows or throwing things at the police…or hitting the police. I support law enforcement. I think the Capitol Police did an awesome job and they continue to do an awesome job…and I support the state police…but people who protest … for change and…do so peacefully, we should support that...and those people who do wrong should be prosecuted for doing wrong… but we’re here to bring about change and we talk to people and engage with people who want that same change. So why are we being castigated for wanting to bring about real positive change?”
Sen. Scott Surovell, who’s been an important leader on these issues, argued (correctly) that with regard to the Alexandria murder case, “there’s not a single bill that we voted on that I’m aware of in the last five years or a single bill that’s pending in either chamber that has anything to do what happened in that situation.” Sen. Surovell addressed his Republican colleagues: “If you want to have a debate about that policy, we can have that debate, but it’s not…quite as intuitive or simple as others might think ” Sen. Surovell also pointed out, in the case of Patrick Schooley, Jr. – who committed a horrific rape and murder at age 15 – that Schooley served 41 years in prison, and that the Supreme Court has ruled “we are not allowed to hold that juveniles their entire life; they have to have a reasonable opportunity to parole.” As for Republicans’ referencing Mark Warner firing the Parole Board back when he was governor, as some sort of argument for why Governor Northam should fire today’s parole board, Surovell explained that Warner fired them “because the parole board wouldn’t parole anybody they were to hold over a bunch of Gilmore holdovers and they wouldn’t parole anyone.” More broadly, Sen. Surovell explained that “some of the major reforms…contained in [Democrats’ policing reform] legislation were requested by law enforcement…because they want to raise the standards in this state, because they want to be able to root out bad apples.” And, Sen. Surovell added, “trying to suggest that a bill that is going to improve the quality of policing, trying to improve trying to professionalize our police, trying to get all these agencies to become accredited so they will live by the standards that professional police departments live by, is not…anti-victim or anti-law-and-order…It’s gonna make everybody safer. That’s what all this is about. The only people that are talking about defunding the police are people in the minority party…That’s not our agenda.” Finally, Sen. Surovell pointed out that numerous other states have already enacted reforms, in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, “and we’re late to this party folks…anybody that says they’re surprised or that there’s some shock that we’re doing this hasn’t been paying attention.” Unfortunately, Sen. Surovell concluded, “I’m sure we’re going to continue to hear about horrible scenarios or people that have done bad things,” reminding everyone that “when Lee Atwater was on his deathbed…he called up Michael Dukakis and he apologized [for the Willie Horton ads]…so just think real careful before we…try and turn…all these random criminal cases into something about what we’re here for today.” In fact, “it isn’t why we’re here; we’re here to improve law enforcement, to improve public safety and make Virginia a better place.”
For his part, Sen. Dave Marsden – who has worked in juvenile justice most of his adult life – defended the Virginia Parole Board, explaining that “every one [of the accusations] is refuted by the Parole Board because of misinterpretation, confusion between the role of the Dept. of Corrections and the Virginia Parole Board, corrections that the…victims’ families made that yes, indeed, they WERE notified.” Marsden said that we of course feel terrible about what happens to victims, but “we do have a parole system in Virginia, and we do have procedures…they follow them absolutely to the best of their ability…and I just don’t want to see the Parole Board put into a situation here where they’re being accused of things they did not do…They followed the law in this case.”
For his part, Sen. Joe Morrissey point by point refuted basically everything Sen. Obenshain had said. As Morrissey explained (correctly), Sen. Obenshain was (falsely) portraying “a Virginia that is defunding the police, rewarding rioters, punishing the police, and a chief executive that…has a turnstile where prisoners come in and they go out.” Instead, as Sen. Morrissey explained, the facts completely rebut all that, including on the Vincent Martin case (e.g., Martin served over 40 years, was a “stellar inmate,” “infraction free”…). Morrissey concluded with a shot at Republicans, who released the Inspector General’s report despite the report clearing stating that it shouldn’t be disseminated: “I hope that when we have any discussion regarding parole or [Office of the State Inspector General – OSIG] legislation, that there will be a penalty imposed when a secretive OSIG report that is released to the leaders in the legislature is subsequently disseminated to the press, which is contrary to law.” Exactly.
UPDATED 8/20: Here are videos of Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington/Alexandria) and Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax/Loudoun).
First, Sen. Ebbin rips Sen. Obenshain for “choos[ing] to grandstand on the back of a respected, now-retired, 26-year jurist.” Ouch! Ebbin went on to point out that the tragedy that occurred in Alexandria has nothing to do with legislation being considered in this special session, and also that the issue that happened when the defendant was out of bail happened in another state (Maryland). Sen. Ebbin concluded that Judge Dawkins is “an honorable man” and does not deserve “to be used as a political punching bag today.”
As for Sen. Boysko, she said “I would like to point out once against that the bill does NOT release or give the option for increased numbers of earned credits for violent felons.” Sen. Boysko said she has many friends who have been victims of rape, and that she knows “the pain and the horror they live with every single day.” “However, I will say once again, the bill that we are talking about in this chamber…excludes anyone who has perpetrated a violent crime on a woman – including rape, including murder, including malicious wounding – they are NOT part of the debate in this Senate chamber. We are talking about thoughtful, evidence-based ways to reform our prison system…police reform that we’re worked hand-in-hand with our chiefs of police…the state police…the sheriffs…These are commonsense things…We want a safer community for everyone…”