Thanksgiving is a time for family and loved ones. At this moment, however, tens of thousands of people are being held in jails all across Virginia even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime. In the eyes of the law, they are innocent, but our criminal legal system is already punishing them and denying their fundamental rights and freedoms. That is a travesty of justice.

The Constitution of Virginia, the Code of Virginia, the United States Constitution, and case law enshrine these fundamental principles: When we are accused of a crime, the government has an obligation to honor our presumption of innocence. We have the right to counsel, the right against self-incrimination, the right to due process, the right to equal protection under the law, and the right to bail that is not excessive.

Being home with your loved ones during the holiday season should not be a privilege if you haven’t been convicted of a crime. Being treated with dignity and respect by the criminal legal system also should not be a privilege.

In reality, on any given night, about 28,000 Virginians are being held in jails, 46% of whom haven’t yet been to trial. People can end up behind bars not because they are guilty, but because they can’t afford bail, don’t have a lawyer or are impacted by biases against them because of their race, gender or other aspects of their identity. That is unjust. A system that does not deliver justice pretrial is not set up to deliver any justice at all.

As with every part of our criminal legal system, people of color and people with low incomes are disproportionately impacted by unnecessary, costly pretrial detention. Black Virginians make up 43% of Virginia’s jail population, even though they only account for 20% of the Commonwealth’s population. Being jailed pretrial not only means separation from loved ones, but also potential loss of job, housing or even custody of one’s children. The consequences are far-reaching and devastating. The pretrial detention system traps people who historically have been marginalized and disadvantaged in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration, while making a mockery of justice itself.

Being held pretrial also increases the pressure to plead guilty to crimes and drives up incarceration rates and exacerbates the racial disparities in our prisons and jails.

Being home with your loved ones during the holiday season should not be a privilege if you haven’t been convicted of a crime. Being treated with dignity and respect by the criminal legal system also should not be a privilege.

That’s why we’re working with several social justice organizations to reform the pretrial detention system in Virginia and advocate for pretrial justice. It’s one of our legislative priorities for the 2020 General Assembly session, and we’re committed to pursuing this ambitious goal. However, we can’t do this all alone. Join our effort by reaching out to your lawmakers and urging them to help reform Virginia’s unjust pretrial detention system. If you’re new to advocacy, check out our Lobby Guide and learn how you can be an agent of change in your community.

It’s on all of us to restore the presumption of innocence and make pretrial justice a reality for all Virginians.

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