To all Commonwealth's attorney candidates:
Between 1980 and 2016, Virginia’s prison population grew by more than 341%. By 2016, there were more than 120,000 people under correctional control in the Commonwealth. And, as these numbers grew exponentially, other data show that drug use contributed to the criminal conduct of 80% of people incarcerated. Yet, Virginia did not respond to this reality by strengthening and expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and tackling failing systems like education, housing, and unemployment. Instead, police, prosecutors and politicians pushed so-called “tough-on-crime” policies that sought to jail our way out of these public health problems leading to overincarceration, particularly of the poor and people of color.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
As a candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney, you are better positioned than any other public servant to usher in a new era of smart-on-crime policies. You have the opportunity and the “unparalleled power” to make and lead the case for changes in our criminal justice system as a key law enforcement official in your locality and in Virginia.
This briefing book, which will be freely available to any candidate or prospective candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Virginia, is designed to give you a better understanding of why it is important for Commonwealth’s Attorneys to embrace the goals of reducing incarceration, eliminating racial disparities in our criminal justice system and bringing transparency and accountability to their offices. There is much that needs to be done to return fundamental fairness to our system, and much that you, as Commonwealth’ Attorney, can do to help us achieve this goal.
As you’ll see in the polling data reported in this briefing book, likely Virginia voters express strong support for prosecutors who support criminal justice reforms and work actively to reduce systemic racial bias and over incarceration.
Simply put, Virginia voters are eager for reform.
In recent history, almost three-quarters of Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates were unchallenged, and voters were left in the dark about the policies they would pursue as prosecutors. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is a non-partisan organization, and we do not endorse candidates. But we do believe people should vote, and that voters should be well-informed and know what Commonwealth’s attorneys do and the important role they can play in reforming our criminal justice system.
Our aim is to educate and engage voters throughout Virginia about their power to elect a Commonwealth’s Attorney in their city or county who embraces smart justice reforms. Our goal is to see that anyone who seeks the power of this constitutional office is challenged to persuade voters that they are committed to the pursuit of justice, not just convictions. We hope that you will respond positively to that challenge.