Our February meeting featured two speakers on criminal justice reform.

Dale Brumfield of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty gave an update on repeal of the death penalty in the 2021 General Assembly session. Virginia has executed more people than any other state–almost 1400–starting in 1608. Dale described the 30-year history of uphill efforts to abolish the death penalty in Virginia, culminating in passage of repeal bills in both bodies of the Virginia legislature. After differences in the language of the two bills are reconciled, Governor Northam is expected to sign the repeal bill in early March. What accounts for victory this year? Dale pointed to unprecedented constituent pressure, resulting from last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and to leadership from Gov. Ralph Northam and legislators like Mike Mullin, who carried the House repeal bill. Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, and the first state of the former Confederacy to do so. 

Jess Sapalio of the WJCC Coalition for Community Justice discussed how current law, reflecting Virginia’s slavery legacy, creates racial inequities, and how the Coalition is working to reform the system. (View the slide show here.) The Coalition wants to work collaboratively with local governments and police forces to establish Civilian Oversight Boards. These boards, empowered under legislation passed in the 2020 special session of the Virginia legislature, promote accountability and transparency in policing, and help to address over-policing in Black-majority neighborhoods. Statistics show that Black people account for 13 percent of the population in James City County, but 41-44 percent of arrests in recent years.

The Coalition is also working to document and address inequities in the granting of bail and other pretrial procedures. The Coalition Court Watch Program (paused due to COVID) uses volunteers to collect data documenting the disparate treatment of people of color in first court appearances and bail hearings. These data show that about two-thirds of Black people are held without bail, compared to 37 percent of white defendants. In addition, 40 percent of people in Virginia’s jails have not yet been found guilty of a crime and the majority of these are people of color. The group is supporting a number of reform bills, including to require systematic data collection in courtrooms, eliminate presumptions against bail, and provide counsel at first appearances before a judge. Jess welcomed inquiries and participants. The group meets every other Wednesday at 7pm via video. Contact Jess at jsapalio@gmail.com to get involved.

In other news:

Want to view a recording of the February meeting? Click here.