Virginia spends over a billion tax dollars each year to lock-up more than 37,000 people in state prisons. Almost as many end up in local and regional jails.
In Richmond, a team of young volunteers set out to change that situation.
As the pandemic hit Virginia, 67-year-old Roger Johnson made his way to Walmart. Medical problems put him at very high risk of death if he were to get COVID, so he decided to stock up on cleaning products. Many other customers had the same idea.
“They were like stampeding over one another if you didn’t stay out of the way,” he says.
Johnson got what he could and headed for the door. He had a large store credit in his wallet and thought there was no need to pay, but a security guard knew otherwise and called police. They questioned Johnson and the store’s manager.
“They said, ‘Was he cooperative with you?’ and she said, ‘Yes sir. No problem there," Johnson recalls. ’ ‘Did he threaten you?’ She said, ‘No sir, he never threatened me.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you just release him and let him go.’ She said, ‘I just need him to see the judge.’ I definitely had to go to court, because the young lady requested that I go to court.’"
Officers cited him for shoplifting. What the manager didn’t know was that Johnson suffers from a traumatic brain injury. What he needed, says attorney Tom Barbour, was not punishment but social work.
“Often times what you see when people violate the law is that they’re expressing some need for services: substance use issues, mental health issues, housing instability, employment instability, transportation instability, a lack of a supportive social network,” he explains.
So in 2019 the former Richmond prosecutor set-up a non-profit called the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative.
“We assess someone’s needs, and then we make it our job to find the non-profits and the service providers in the city who can actually work with them to address them.”
He takes no salary and relied on a network of volunteers to raise money, set up a website, do taxes and other jobs, and last year he hired the group’s only paid social worker – Han DuVerney – who was assigned to work with Roger Johnson.
“Hearing his story I thought, ‘Jeez, this is wrong!’ DuVerney remembers.
Johnson, he learned, had been living in his car with no one to help him navigate a complex society.
“I was homeless –very homeless. I’d been homeless for some time,” Johnson told DuVerney.
The Initiative found supportive housing for Johnson, a judge dismissed the shoplifting charge, and taxpayers saved money by keeping this man out of an expensive, high-security jail. Again, case worker Han DuVerney.
“It’s fantastic. He’s having a great time, and at this residence he gets the mental health case management that he never had before living in his Honda Civic,” he says.
The Holistic Justice Initiative has served about fifty people so far, referred to the organization by defense attorneys. That’s not a large enough sample to provide statistically reliable data, but Barbour is convinced this approach is what Virginia and the nation need to end mass incarceration.
“Anecdotally I will tell you this absolutely works, because what you find with people who are in the system is they don’t want to be there," Barbour says. "They don’t want to have done harm to themselves or to someone else.”
He hopes this small-scale model will persuade government to set up a bigger social service organization to work with the courts.
“We can never scale with private support to meet the real societal need. I think that’s something for the criminal justice system to do.”
That could put his non-profit out of business, but frankly, he says, that’s his long-term goal.