by Anne-Marie J. Leake
In a May 13, 2021 press conference, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney declared gun violence a “public health crisis,” stating, “Broad support is important. It tells funders and the state and federal governments that Richmond is serious about the public health crisis of gun violence. That means more support for our city to address this crisis.”
According to the most recently available FBI data, violent crime is 59% higher in Richmond than the national average. Where is this influx of violent criminals while they await processing through the city’s judicial system? The Richmond jail.
Any holistic, community-wide solution addressing the causes of increased violence must also take into consideration equipping our jails with adequate staff and other resources necessary to decrease violent behaviors inside the jail and to provide the mental health support and vocational training necessary to return individuals to the community ready to work and live within the law. This is an issue that is facing jails across the country and one in which Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving is a forward-looking leader.
Sheriff Irving will soon be announcing the details of an innovative approach to move away from the use of force and toward de-escalation and addressing the underlying traumas of offenders within the jail. Several years ago she brought Andre Norman into the facility to speak – a former gang leader who has transformed his life and overcome poverty, gangs, and prison to become an international speaker and Harvard Fellow. Mr. Norman has developed the Academy of Hope, globally recognized as a best practice to reduce violence in incarceration facilities. With pandemic restrictions loosening, this program will start at the Richmond City Justice Center this July.
No compromise on safety
As Mayor Stoney pointed out, money is at the top of the list of needed resources. When Sheriff Irving took office in January 2018, there were 85 vacant deputy positions. Not willing to compromise on safety by decreasing staff to inmate ratios, she began a public relations campaign to attract new hires and has paid the overtime necessary to maintain safety and order in the facility. She has transparently and proactively addressed what she knew would become a budget shortfall with the Mayor and the city CAO. She continues to advocate for adequate budget dollars, knowing that abandoning safe staffing levels could ultimately prove to be more costly than the overtime necessary to uphold them.
In the meantime, under Sheriff Irving’s leadership the Sheriff’s Office has secured $3.5 million in federal, state, and private grant funding for mental health and substance recovery, inmate job readiness, staff training, and safety equipment. The Sheriff’s office is audited annually and receives the top audit scores for financial management processes under Sheriff Irving.
Strategic approach to vicious circle
According to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office in response to FOIA requests, the current deputy turnover rate in Richmond of 11-12% is significantly lower than the state’s average of 25-35% as reported by the Virginia Sheriff’s Association. Use-of-force lawsuits, like the shooting death of an unarmed man involving Sheriff Irving’s Democratic primary opponent; the resulting increase in civil unrest and decrease in public support; low pay; and the pandemic are contributing factors in many choosing to leave and lower numbers entering the law enforcement field. Further underscoring the prevalence of this issue, in 2020 the Richmond Police Department saw a 47% increase in the number of officers who left the department and Henrico Police saw a 32% increase in departures.
Sheriff Irving says the vicious circle of contributing factors must be addressed strategically to make law enforcement a desirable career path once again; this statewide and nationwide problem requires a collaborative solution that includes enhanced re-entry readiness programming for inmates with the goal of reducing recidivism, of particular importance to her as a product of the city’s Creighton Court housing who understands the community that many of the jail’s residents come from and return to.
Sheriff Irving recently described her vision in detail in responses to a candidate questionnaire from Richmond Together, a group of citizens advocating for “bold, transformational change” in the city. She notes there has been a dramatic change in the types of offenders coming into the Justice Center over the past 12-18 months, coinciding with the pandemic and elevated social unrest, offenders who are more violent and who exhibit a greater disregard for life. Sheriff Irving states, “The nature of the work we do has changed and we must change with it as well. The types of programs that we offer must be different and innovative to reach these individuals.”
In addition to building a trauma-informed re-entry program partnership with Andre Norman, who brings specific insight into and success with the jail population, Sheriff Irving also plans collaboration with the other six jail facilities throughout the nation that received the same federal re-entry programming grant that her office secured from the U.S. Justice Department.
Sheriff Irving’s opponent in the June 8 Democratic primary, William Burnett, has been very clear in laying out the intention of his platform: a return to the era of his mentor, former Sheriff C.T. Woody, that would be an unwelcome step backward for a city that delivered a rebuke to Woody in the 2017 primary, particularly for the inmate deaths, use-of-force incidents, and lawsuits that plagued his administration.
For more information about Sheriff Irving’s 2021 re-election race and her endorsements from the Richmond Crusade for Voters, LiUNA, and over 50 state and community leaders, visit IrvingforSheriff.com and facebook.com/irvingforsheriff.