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New Polling: Virginia Voters Reject “Tough-on-Crime” Policies, Show Widespread Support for Evidence-Informed Criminal Justice Reforms

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Interesting new poll results from Justice Forward Virginia:

New polling: Virginia voters reject tough on crime policies, show widespread support for evidence-informed criminal justice reforms. Advocates push forward. 

Civil rights advocates say fear-mongering hasn’t blocked voter support  for efforts to build a more just, equitable, and humane criminal legal system in Virginia. 

December 13, 2022 – Despite attempts by reform opponents to promote harmful criminal justice policies, voters aren’t buying in. New polling of Virginia voters finds widespread support for criminal justice reforms. Data for Progress reports that a majority of Virginia voters feel safe after past criminal justice reforms and support policies that prioritize community safety over prisons and jails. 76% of likely Virginia voters support funding crime prevention programs over state prisons and jails–83 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Republicans.

Virginia voters have experienced the positive impacts of criminal justice reforms and they are ready to see public safety funding be spent proactively on strengthening their communities rather than incarcerating even more residents. Virginia-based advocates Sheba Williams, Executive Director of Nolef Turns, Brad Haywood, Arlington County and City of Falls Church Chief Public Defender, Rob Poggenklass, Executive Director of Justice Forward Virginia, and Valerie Slater, Executive Director of RISE for Youth agree that evidence-informed criminal justice reforms keep communities safe. Taking a public health approach to substance use, continuing to prohibit law enforcement from using the traffic code to act based on racist hunches, getting lawmakers to agree to study the state of Virginia’s juvenile justice system, and giving judges a “second look” at extreme sentences for incarcerated people who can safely return home, are just a few efforts criminal justice reform advocates are behind heading into the Virginia General Assembly’s legislative session in 2023, and voters stand with them.

Disingenuous “tough on crime” campaigning and policies aren’t grounded in the actual needs and desires of Virginians nor their communities, and voters recognize that. Reform opponents are attempting to repeal pretextual policing prohibitions passed in 2020, but when asked about the successful efforts to tackle racial profiling in traffic stops through prohibition, voters report feeling as safe or more safe in their communities by a +53-point margin. In March of 2021, Virginia became the first state to prohibit the kind of low-level traffic stops that disproportionately affect people of color, referred to as pretextual policing. An NBC News analysis of data showed early on that pretextual policing prohibitions are working, reporting decreases in the percentage of Black motorists searched by police during traffic stops in the state.

“After decades of over-policing, Virginia has begun actually investing in what communities need and Virginians feel safe, if not even safer, because of it,” said Brad Haywood, Arlington County and Falls Church Chief Public Defender and Founder of Justice Forward Virginia. “They’re most supportive of redirecting funding from a punitive system to one that is more compassionate and empathetic. Virginians want to take what we’ve wasted on arrest, prosecution, and punishment and to reinvest it in the programs and services that prevent violence, address behavioral health and make communities truly safe and more equitable.”

Virginia voters are rejecting Republicans’ criminal justice agenda and want to see policymakers continue building on the criminal justice reforms made in previous years. The new polling highlights voters’ strong opposition to a lengthy list of criminal justice policy positions supported by reform opponents. In particular:

  • Pretextual traffic stops (54 percent disagree)
  • Aggressive policing and sentencing (60 percent disagree)

The recent polling also reveals that voters are more likely to support candidates that pushed for transformative policies across all facets of the criminal justice system, with voters most strongly supporting the state government shift from a carceral approach to a public health one when addressing substance use (+60-point approval) and addressing Virginia’s senseless addiction to extreme punishment by creating mechanisms to review extreme prison sentences (+52-point approval).

“The notion that Virginia cannot be both safe and just, is a political ploy. The residents of our state deserve to have their opinions valued. The harm that leaning on carceral systems has caused cannot be reversed since Virginia abolished parole in 1994 but it can be improved for the good of all Virginians. Residents no longer want to invest their tax dollars in funding mass incarceration; they want to care for their neighbors and assure they have access to their basic needs. This is the time to listen to the people,” says Sheba Williams, Executive Director of Nolef Turns.

Virginians also support significantly reshaping the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system, with likely voters supporting a prohibition on detaining children in adult jails and having juvenile justice handled by the Department of Health and Human Services by +17-point and +25-point approval margins, respectively. Yet efforts to create a workgroup to study transferring the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services were vetoed in 2022 by Virginia’s Governor–a disconnect between the criminal justice system desired by Virginians and the one being pushed by current Republican leadership, one with massive human costs. 51 percent of Virginia voters support reevaluation of the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system and its current organizational structure. We need to and know if the current structure is, in itself, a hindrance to rehabilitating Virginia’s youth.

“Virginians have taken a clear stance and agree that moving DJJ to the Public Health Secretariat is a necessary step towards positive change. A paradigm shift that helps us continue building a youth justice system that serves youth and keeps families and communities safe by addressing and meeting the needs of the whole youth and not just the behavior that led to justice system involvement,” says Valerie Slater, Executive Director of Rise for Youth.

“Virginians are interested in solutions for their communities, not partisan soundbites in campaign ads. Most residents recognize that substance abuse, mental health, and poverty are public health and economic issues that more policing and lengthy prison sentences will not fix. We stand with the communities who want change in Virginia, not more of the same,” says Rob Poggenklass, Executive Director of Justice Forward Virginia.

Polling was conducted by Data For Progress in October of 2022. Read the full poll results here.

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RISE for Youth is a nonpartisan organization committed to dismantling the youth prison model and ensuring every space that impacts a young person’s life encourages growth and success. RISE promotes the creation of healthy communities and community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.

Nolef Turns is a community-centered leader in decreasing the prison population by supporting and empowering those who are most affected by crime, trauma, and incarceration. We treat everyone with dignity and respect and do not pass judgment, as we seek justice and redemption.

Justice Forward Virginia is a non-partisan advocacy organization created to bring attention to the urgent need for criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth–at the most fundamental level–and to advance legislation for comprehensive reforms to Virginia’s criminal justice system.

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