Rethinking Richmond’s Criminal Justice System

by | Aug 1, 2019 | LOCAL POLITICS

Under the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, nonviolent criminals get a chance to fix the problems that led them to crime in the first place. 

For Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner, going to work every day is about much more than just winning cases. 

“This is Richmond. This is the capital of the confederacy,” she said. “We have such a concentrated population of people who are living so far below the poverty line. We have multi-generations coming up through the projects.” 

But with a job description that doesn’t leave room for more than simply defending clients in court, it can be difficult to make sure that the people she represents feel taken care of, and don’t end up back in the criminal justice system again. 

“The old way of being a public defender was focusing on the criminal charge,” Paner said. She noted that it’s typically hard for public defenders to help their clients succeed, in simple ways such as getting them connected to services that will improve their lives and prevent them from re-offending. 

That’s where the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative (VAHJI) comes in. Founded by former prosecutor Tom Barbour and public defender Jerald Hess, the VAHJI seeks to reduce recidivism, and make Virginia a safer place by providing what they call “holistic justice services” for clients referred to the initiative by public defenders. 

“Our intention is to work on the underlying problems to reduce the chance that people will have to come back to us,” Barbour explained. For the VAHJI, working on those problems means efforts like sitting with clients through substance abuse programs, or helping them find healthcare. 

“[We’re not trying to] recreate the wheel of social services that already exists — we’re trying to be the grease for that wheel,” Barbour said. The VAHJI intends to continue working with clients even after the completion of their cases to ensure that their needs are taken care of. 

United States District Court Eastern District in Richmond, Virginia.

The logic of the VAHJI is that if the problems that lead a person to commit a crime are addressed and fixed, the person will be less likely to commit a crime in the future. This helps keep people out of the criminal justice system, treat those currently in the system more humanely, and ultimately keep communities safer. 

“Right now the justice system doesn’t really ask why people get into these situations,” Barbour said. “It only asks ‘Did you do this?’ and ‘What should our response to this be?’ The Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative is interested in asking why this person is coming into the justice system, because we think the answer to that question will allow us to create outcomes that send them back into a productive life, without over-incarcerating nonviolent people.” 

Although the VAHJI is still in its pilot phase, its ultimate aim is to be so successful that the need for it to exist diminishes. 

In our best case, we don’t exist,” Barbour said. “The public defenders will be staffed and budgeted to do holistic justice, and there will be a legislative mechanism to determine whether someone is an actual, unmanageable risk.

Rather than simply asserting that their method of criminal justice is best, the VAHJI is collecting data to show, with numbers, that holistic justice is the right path for both individuals and their communities. Collecting data is also important to the VAHJI, in that it is a way for them to illustrate the results of the work they are doing in order to secure funding. 

“If you want federal grants, if you want state grants, you need to have the numbers,” Paner said. “Everyone is data driven these days, and you’ve got to be able to measure your results to tell us what you’ve got.” 

Once the VAHJI finishes its pilot phase in early August, efforts to secure fundraising will begin. Barbour anticipates that the VAHJI will fully launch in early 2020. 

With its emphasis on collecting data, the VAHJI has the potential to illustrate that a more humane, effective criminal justice system is possible. Paner said that the holistic approach to criminal justice was a “godsend” and that programs like the VAHJI are the future of defense for low-income people. 

Echoing Paner’s sentiment, Barbour underscored just how important criminal justice reform is. 

“Criminal justice reform is the social issue for my generation,” he said. “It’s our slavery, it’s our Vietnam war, it’s our civil rights litigation, it’s our apartheid. It is the most obvious problem in our country that still hasn’t been fixed.” 

With programs like the VAHJI seeking to help people rather than punish them, the criminal justice system in the United States could witness a tremendous positive change. 

Jimmy O'Keefe

Jimmy O'Keefe

Jimmy O'Keefe is a senior at VCU studying journalism and political science. Jimmy enjoys booking shows, eating ice cream around town, and hanging out with Oregon Hill's sweetest street cats.

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