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A Closer Look at the Narrative Surrounding Virginia's Crime Rate

A Glock 30SF .45 Auto semi-automatic pistol with a standard ten-round magazine is seen with .45 Auto full metal jacket ball ammunition, in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Cliff Owen/AP
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A Glock 30SF .45 Auto semi-automatic pistol with a standard ten-round magazine is seen with .45 Auto full metal jacket ball ammunition, in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

If you've seen many political ads this fall, you may have the impression that Virginia is experiencing a crime wave. But, criminal justice advocates say the numbers tell a different story.

You may have been hearing about rising crime, a narrative that's worrying many people in the criminal justice reform movement. They're worried that fears of rising crime might undermine efforts to bring back a parole system or abolish solitary confinement or defelonize drugs. They're particularly concerned about the narrative of rising crime because, well, they say it's just not true.

"Contrary to media narrative, the nation saw an overall reduction in crime in 2020 compared to 2019. In Virginia, overall crime is actually down by more than 10%," says Sheba Williams, founder of the group Nolef Turns.

She points to an analysis from the think tank Third Way that shows Virginia is one of five states where overall crime rates actually fell by more than 10%. Despite this, a new report from the Sentencing Project shows Virginia is one of a dozen or so states where more than half the prison population is Black, the result of a criminal justice system that exploded after the war on drugs and years of get-tough-on-crime politics.

"The staggering increase in incarceration is not by accident. It is the direct result of decades of ruthless public policy decisions fueled by a common racist narrative popular in both political speech and the press," explains Williams. "The alleged inherent criminal behavior of Black and brown people and the subsequent need for ever-expanding state surveillance in control of Black bodies to make white people feel safer."

Brad Haywood at Justice Forward Virginia says misleading claims of rising crime are a useful narrative for those that want to fight against criminal justice reform.

"We have the usual suspects, the tough-on-crime lobby, who have seen this opening and they've used it to counter this reform narrative," says Haywood.

After the murder of George Floyd last year, Virginia took action on a number of criminal-justice reform efforts — action items that have been years in the making — things like legalizing marijuana and ending the death penalty. Now he says all of that is under attack from people who are trying to perpetuate a myth of rising crime.

"Their approach was to tell people, the public, to rely on their worst instincts — to their fear, their distrust," Haywood explains. "And what did this look like in practice, it came in the form of distorting crime stats, like focusing on what they call a crime wave."

He acknowledges the rise in gun violence, although he says that's a pandemic-related anomaly. And that Third Way report noted a rise in homicides, although it also pointed out that statistic was an outlier compared to all other crimes. Premal Dharia at the Institute to End Mass Incarceration says the long-term trend about what's been happening behind bars is one that remains troubling.

"We lead the world in incarcerating people, and we disproportionately incarcerate Black and brown people," Dharia says.

And now that advocates for criminal justice reform are finally seeing some measure of success, she says efforts at addressing that disparity behind bars are imperiled by misinformation and fear.

"An important if not central structural obstacle is the creation and proliferation of often misleading narratives that stoke fear, that play into old political tactics and that are often not grounded in actual needs and desires of our communities," explains Dharia.

The statistics on crime also show another interesting trend: there appears to be no difference in crime trends between Republican-led states and Democratic-led states.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.