A coalition of prosecutors in Virginia is asking state lawmakers to do five things they say will reduce the state’s prison population, assure justice for more people, save tax dollars and – in the long run – make us all safer. Their game plan is to find better ways of addressing certain crimes.
Jim Hingeley is the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Albemarle County and a founding member of the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice – a group asking the state to eliminate a law aimed at petty thieves. The third time they steal something, regardless of its value, they’re in serious legal trouble.
“You can steal three bags of potato chips – each one worth 75 cents – and upon the third theft you can be charged with a felony and sentenced up to five years in prison,” he says.
And if people commit non-violent offenses, Hingeley and his allies say convicts should have a chance to erase their criminal record.
“We know that their conviction can be an impediment to employment, to housing, to food assistance, to licensing to education,” Hingeley explains.
Depending on their crime, the progressive prosecutors say people who’ve served their sentence should have their records expunged if they stay crime free for a period of time.
The group also wants to end so-called mandatory minimums.
“Mandatory minimum sentences say to the sentencing judge, ‘We’re going to tie your hands. We, the legislature, we don’t care what the actual facts are, what the circumstances are, what the prospects for rehabilitation of the offender are. We don’t care about any of that stuff. You have to sentence to a mandatory minimum," Hingeley says. "We’re just saying that courts should have the discretion to impose an appropriate sentence rather than a predetermine sentence that’s not right in all cases.”
And they think cash bail is very unfair – leaving poor people to await trial behind bars, sometimes causing them to lose jobs or custody of their kids. Hingeley says there are better ways to assess whether it’s safe to release someone and whether they’ll show up for trial.
“They can be required to check in by phone or in person so that they can be supervised and monitored. They can be required to be referred for treatment services, for example drug treatment. They can be given assistance in finding employment if that’s what’s needed.”
And judges could just use risk assessment tools – evidence-based information about individuals facing charges that can predict who’s a good risk for release.
Finally, the alliance wants lawmakers to end the death penalty in Virginia – something done by 22 other states. Hingeley notes people of color are sentenced to death more often than whites, capital punishment is not a deterrent and since the early 70’s we’ve seen that the system is flawed.
“Ten percent of people who receive death sentences were actually innocent. They were exonerated. That’s a huge problem. The injustice of their conviction and execution cannot be reversed.”
There are just a dozen progressive prosecutors who’ve signed off on the agenda – commonwealth’s attorneys from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Portsmouth, Charlottesville, Henrico and Albemarle Counties, but Hingeley says that’s not the only number lawmakers should consider.
“We have 121 prosecutors in Virginia, so if you say, ‘Well there’s just 12 of you who are doing this,’ it doesn’t sound like much, except we represent 43% of the population of Virginia.”
And while these reforms may have been unthinkable ten years ago, Democrats now dominate the General Assembly and many of them have been eager to reform the criminal justice system.