Next year in Virginia, the most powerful elected official in our criminal justice system will be up for election in most counties, and in an unexpected turn of events for Chesterfield County, voting day is coming early.

All indications are the outcome of that race will have statewide implications for 2019.

On July 1, Billy Davenport officially stepped down from the post he has occupied for over 30 years, as the Commonwealth’s attorney for Chesterfield County. During his tenure as chief prosecutor to a county that is home to more than 350,000 people, his discretion has had a tremendous impact on the lives of his constituents, as he and his staff prosecuted thousands upon thousands of cases.

He decided whether to take a criminal case to trial and what charges to bring, if any, once they were there. He negotiated thousands of plea deals and chose whether to recommend diversion or incarceration. He sought the death penalty and decided if police officers should be prosecuted for excessive or deadly use of force. He was first elected in 1988 and served eight terms. Looking as far back as election results allow, 1995, he never saw a challenger.

This is an all too familiar story for Virginia’s Commonwealth’s attorney elections – more than 70 percent of these races are completely unopposed. As a result, positions with unbelievable power are frequently left unchecked for decades, but we can change that this year. It’s time to find out who your Commonwealth’s attorney is and where they stand on the issues you care about.

If you live in Chesterfield, get to know your candidates. CAs are the most powerful actors in our criminal justice system and they should be using their discretion to serve justice, help end mass incarceration, and reduce the racial disparities we see in our jails and prisons.

The ACLU of Virginia wants you to know what to look out for as you go to the polls this November. Your Commonwealth’s attorney should:

  1. Have a dedication to serving justice rather than winning cases and getting convictions. That philosophy should show up in everything their office does – from internal and external communications to their prosecutorial policies and hiring practices.
  2. Make a firm commitment to ending mass incarceration and expanding diversion programs that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  3. Pledge to publish all policies and protocols regarding prosecution guidelines, police-involved incidents, bail recommendations, fines and fees, diversion programs, plea bargains, civil asset forfeiture, and immigration considerations.
  4. Adopt a policy requiring a criminal conviction before seizing property from the accused.
  5. Vehemently oppose any attempt to criminalize either a doctor performing or a patient seeking an abortion.
  6. Make a commitment to stop prosecuting low level marijuana possession or at minimum use the power of their office to show support for marijuana decriminalization in the General Assembly.
  7. Support raising the felony larceny threshold to $1,500 or more so we can scale back the horrific effects of over-criminalization. Until it is raised, prosecute theft as a misdemeanor for values less than $1,500.
  8. Eliminate the use of cash bail within their office and pledge to recommend, for all legally permissible cases, presumptive release of defendants without a price tag.

The ACLU of Virginia will never take sides or endorse a candidate, but voters need to be informed of what is at stake in 2019 and where their Commonwealth’s attorney should be on the issues. So get involved! Ask questions!

If you live in Chesterfield County, stay tuned. We will be holding a first-of-its-kind Commonwealth’s Attorney Candidate Forum on Oct. 23 during which residents will get an opportunity to hear from the candidates themselves on these important issues. For more information, sign up for our action alerts here and subscribe to receive all our email updates here.

Candidates should know these issues are important to you and you expect to hear where they stand if they expect to have your vote. 

 

Date

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 5:30pm

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Protesters holding signs that say Stop The War on Drugs, the war on people of color, reform now.

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Jenny Glass

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By Kemba Smith, formerly incarcerated, advocate and author of "Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story"

In the on-going effort to critically analyze our criminal justice system, all stakeholders need to understand the importance of language. It is critical that we don’t fall into the stereotypes of calling people ex-offenders, convicts, or felons - these labels have a negative impact on a person’s whole being. Understanding that whole person and understanding her story helps in re-analyzing what is just and fair regarding if a person is in fact criminally-minded and what their punishment should be. Changing the mindset must start here, if we are to truly make an impact in preventing the over-incarceration of human lives in Virginia and across America.

Changing the mindset must start here, if we are to truly make an impact in preventing the over-incarceration of human lives in Virginia and across America.

In that spirit, I am a formerly incarcerated person, but I am also a loving wife, mother, and daughter.I grew up in Henrico County and went to college inVirginia. While in college, I got caught up in a relationship with a drug dealer. I wasn’t addicted to drugs and I wasn’t criminally-minded. I simply thought I was in love and thought maybe he would change. The relationship became abusive. He killed his best friend because he thought he was cooperating with the authorities, and at that point I couldn’t believe I was with someone who had taken another person life. That love that I had for him turned to fear and the need to protect myself.

I later turned myself in to the authorities, and although I was seven months pregnant with my son, I was denied a bond. The prosecutor promised that if I pled guilty that he would give me a bond to give birth to my son. He reneged on that promise and I remained in custody. A month later the drug dealer that I was involved with was found murdered in Seattle, Wash. This is where the tables began to turn. Eventually, I pled guilty to conspiracy drug charges and was held accountable for possession of 255 kilos of crack cocaine even though the prosecutor admitted I didn’t use or handle the drugs involved inmy ex-boyfriend’s crimes.

In 1995, at 23 years old, I stood in a federal courtroom with the decision of my fate in the hands of an 86-year-old white man, U.S. District Judge Richard Kellham. He should have had the mindset of not just seeing me as an inmate, but as a young pregnant woman who turned herself in and gave birth to her child while she was incarcerated.

He should have seen my parents who loved and supported me in the courtroom with my son. He should have recognized the room filled with people willing to testify as to my character and that I was no threat to public safety. He should have been compassionate enough to listen to the expert testimony regarding the domestic violence and abuse that I endured in my relationship with a drug dealer and how that impacted my decisions that led me down this path into the criminal justice system. Instead he slept during my proceedings.

The judge and prosecutor handling my case should have had the mindset to understand, since the drug dealer with whom I had been involved had been murdered and no longer a factor in my life, to grant a downward departure based on coercion and duress in order to avoid sentencing me so harshly. That mindset was absent, and instead I was sentenced in 1994 to 24.5 years in prison even though I had never been in trouble with the law before and it was a non-violent drug offense.

I was sentenced to prison for longer than I had been living on this earth, and my son would have been a grown man upon my release. Ultimately, and thankfully, President Bill Clinton granted me clemency in December 2000.

The ACLU of Virginia’s report on “Women in the Criminal Justice System: Pathways to Incarceration” highlights the need to change the mindset of our legislators, Commonwealth’s attorneys, judges, magistrates, and supervision officers in understanding why the incarceration of women is increasing in Virginia at a much higher rate than the incarceration of men.

My story falls in line with one of the reasons why young women end up in the system, which is due to domestic partner violence. It is imperative that all stakeholders look beyond what is on paper and discover the full story behind a woman’s criminal history, otherwise it will just be a revolving door at continued increased rates. Thank you to the ACLU of Virginia for taking the first step in trying to reform the criminal justice system for all women in our Commonwealth.  

 

Date

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 1:45pm

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ACLU of Virginia members, community advocates and allies came together at the ACLU of Virginia's 50th Anniversary Kick-Off and Annual Meeting to highlight "Women in the Criminal Justice System".

The event was an interactive experience, featuring shirts and totes printed by Studio Two Three, moving haiku from Richmond-based poet Michael Donovan, a musical performance from the wonderfully talented Susan Greenbaum and an engaging panel of three women who were previously incarcerated and now advocate for others. These were Kemba Smith, author of “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story,” Heidi Christiansen, resident and advocate of Friends of Guest House in Alexandria, and Angela Antoine, CEO/Founder of the House of Dreams Outreach & Reentry LLC in Hampton.

ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Gastanaga presented the State of the Organization, which highlighted how the ACLU of Virginia has grown in membership and staffing in the past two years and laid out the issues that the organization has on its docket for the future.  

Panelists Kemba Smith, Angela Antoine, and Heidi Christiansen spoke at the 2018 ACLU-VA Annual Meeting

As the title suggests, the content of the meeting was focused on women and the unique experiences that they have in America's criminal justice system. In recent times, our country has at last begun to address the sickness that is mass incarceration. When we look at which countries imprison more people on a global scale, the United States of America wins and it's not even close. Many organizations, politicians and advocates have called for us as a nation to study how the intersections of race and poverty have played a role in disproportionately impacting certain communities, namely people of color. This has resulted in a spotlight being shown on black men and their experiences with over-policing and incarceration. While this is a crucial element in our understanding of the injustices of our systems, this has also lead to our society largely overlooking a hugely impacted demographic: women. 

Kemba Smith addressed this concern. "We talk about the men often," Smith said. "What about the women? We are important voices in this movement."

The unique circumstances that women face going into prison, their experiences while incarcerated, and challenges they face upon re-entering into society are many times left unaddressed. Heidi Christiansen attested to the challenge of maintaining relationships with her family, namely her child, while incarcerated. When it came time for her release, she questioned her ability to mother and contribute to her community. Low self-esteem is a factor in the lives of women across the globe. Couple this self-doubt with the isolation of incarceration and it can be crippling. Heidi emphasized how important re-entry programs and support systems are, especially to women. In the best of circumstances, women are still forced to navigate patriarchal systems that are cemented in our culture. When you add the extra weight of a felony conviction, as well as the stigma and hundreds of collateral consequences, it creates obstacles that are nearly impossible to overcome and that we as a society hardly address. It's time to begin to address these issues, and the ACLU of Virginia Annual Meeting did just that. 

Singer-songwrite Susan Greenbaum performed at the 2018 ACLUVA Annual Meeting

The meeting was an opportunity to educate, network, listen and even cry. The beautiful melodies that were sung, the powerful poems that were read and the moving stories that were told were sometimes hard to listen to. We live in trying times, a time when it can be hard to bear your own weight, much less take on the weight of another. This is why the ACLU of Virginia is so grateful to all of the participants, members and organizers that came together on a rainy Saturday afternoon to address the plague of mass incarceration.

As Susan so beautifully sang, "None of us are free if one of us is chained," our community continues to fight for the rights of those impacted by these unfair systems. 

 

Date

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 4:15pm

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ACLUVA Office Assistant Zhue shook hand with guests at our annual meeting

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