Editor: The Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition is made up of nearly fifty organizations across Virginia—including names like the ACLU VA, the NAACP, Virginia Justice Democrats, and the Legal Aid Justice Center—that have come together in response to the threat of COVID-19 as it relates to Virginia’s detention systems.
The Coalition calls for the safe release of persons behind bars as quickly as possible and with full transparency, and in the time of a global pandemic, does so as creatively as possible. Every other Wednesday for an hour and a half, the Coalition holds a Virtual Town Hall that is followed by thousands and garners big-name panelists like gubernatorial candidates Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Senator Jennifer McClellan. Its next event is July 15 at 6:30 p.m. on the upcoming Special Session and features the only two General Assembly members with experience behind bars: Senator Morrissey and Delegate Scott. The discussion is sure to be informative to say the least.
Last week, the Coalition hosted a Virtual Town Hall with Commonwealth’s Attorneys Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Arlington County), Buta Biberaj (Loudoun County), Shannon Taylor (Henrico County) and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi (City of Norfolk) that had several highlights worth sharing. Each Panelist agreed that: (a) COVID-19 is a threat, especially to our incarcerated populations and (b) Commonwealth’s Attorneys have a specific duty to reduce harms to that population in this crisis. They each committed to reduce their prison populations by at least 10 percent (after already reducing them significantly, in particular Arlington’s CA) and to advocate to other decision makers that more must be done. But they are only three out of hundreds that exist in Virginia—all 120 counties and 73 independent cities have a commonwealth’s attorney office in their respective jurisdictions. There’s a lot more advocacy to be done.
As a commonwealth’s attorney, they are the top prosecutor in their locality and therefore have enormous power to influence criminal justice reform at the local level—where all change culminates. With respect to the Coalition demands, each has the power to:
- Review the sentences and remaining jail times of those currently in detention and recommend justifiable release
- File motions to reconsider bond determinations for those being held pretrial
- Recommend the release of defendants before trial—no one should be needlessly held in detention during a pandemic when they have not been convicted of a crime
- Encourage local Sheriffs to consider using safer alternatives to detention, like home arrests, during a pandemic if people must be detained
- Influence the Governor and Members of the General Assembly to make changes to the law, especially as the Special Session approaches
Many of us do not know who our commonwealth’s attorney is, even though they are elected every four years, but now is the time to reach out to them and demand change. Our current system is not working; people are dying. Addressing the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and racism provides an opportunity for real change and ending the prison industrial complex is where true criminal justice reform can begin. Keeping people in conditions where social distancing is not possible unnecessarily risks the lives of those staying and working in those facilities. Once again, the coronavirus exposes long-standing inequities in our criminal justice system that we can no longer ignore. Despite the virus being dubbed a ‘great equalizer’, anyone from a marginalized community can tell you that equality is not the proper way to frame it. Search for your local CA’s contact details here and become and advocate for change now.
Johanna Gusman, Sterling
Political Action Chair for NAACP Loudoun