Today, on Juneteenth, and every day, the ACLU of Virginia demands racial justice.
While institutional slavery may have ended in the United States only 154 years ago, African Americans continue to be targeted by systematic racism in our criminal justice system. Jim Crow laws, established in the late 19th and 20th centuries after slavery was abolished to enforce segregation and racial oppression in the post-war South, are alive and well in Virginia.
From the laws our police and prosecutors selectively over-enforce against African Americans, to the punishments black people receive in our courts, to their permanent denial of the right to vote even after all sentences have been fulfilled and debts paid , Virginia continues to perpetuate an unequal, racist system.
Take, for example, the disproportionate enforcement of laws against simple marijuana possession. Statewide, African Americans are three times more likely to be charged and prosecuted for that offense, even though usage rates are about the same as for whites. And in some localities, the ratio is as high as eight to one. Consequences can be lifelong, even though simple possession is a misdemeanor. Past criminal records can affect housing, employment, child custody, and have dozens if not hundreds of other collateral consequences.
Black people are greatly over-represented in our state prisons and local and regional jails. There are more than five times the number of black people behind bars in Virginia than white people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and they’re serving longer sentences for the same crimes.
Virginia is one of only three states that permanently bans those convicted of felony offenses from voting again, unless they meet certain requirements and have their rights individually restored by the governor. The majority of those who have lost their right to vote for this reason in the Commonwealth are African American, leaving one in five black Virginians without the right to help choose their elected representatives, even as we count those same people when drawing electoral districts.
For these reasons, and many others, the ACLU of Virginia’s top two policy goals for at least the next three years will be reducing mass incarceration with a focus on ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and amending the state constitution to guarantee the right to vote for every citizen and Virginia resident 18 or older – even those in jails and prisons. We hope you will continue to stand with us as we embark upon this ambitious reform agenda.
We celebrate Juneteenth, but the fight for equality, equity and human rights in Virginia is far from over.