Ch­ester­field’s pros­e­cu­tor pick shows shift­ing at­ti­tude on crim­i­nal jus­tice

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - mwilliams@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6815 Twit­ter: @RTDMPW

The elec­tion of a Demo­crat as com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney does not nec­es­sar­ily por­tend a blue wave in Ch­ester­field. But the un­abashedly pro­gres­sive plat­form of Scott Miles sug­gests a sea change in a county with the cheeky so­bri­quet of “Ar­rester­field.”

Miles, in cam­paign­ing to fill the un­ex­pired term of the re­tired Billy Daven­port, pro­posed the elim­i­na­tion of cash bonds for non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers and the re­duc­tion of felony drug of­fenses to mis­de­meanors, with no jail time, for de­fen­dants charged with sim­ple pos­ses­sion of any drug.

Miles pledged to in­crease di­ver­sity in the of­fice by hir­ing “peo­ple of color, women, mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity, and those flu­ent in Span­ish, so that this part of our gov­ern­ment more closely re­sem­bles the com­mu­nity that it serves.” And in a pre­pared state­ment, he pledged to “stop treat­ing non­vi­o­lent res­i­dents as felons,” work to re­form the cash bail sys­tem, and “be­gin tear­ing down the school-to-prison pipe­line.”

County vot­ers, by a mar­gin of 2,527, opted for Miles’ vi­sion of crim­i­nal jus­tice over that of Repub­li­can John Chil­drey.

We need an al­ter­na­tive vi­sion to the his­toric crim­i­nal jus­tice tem­plate in the U.S., which pushes fear over rea­son and pun­ish­ment over treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. The re­sult has left more than 2.2 mil­lion peo­ple be­hind bars, nearly 4.7 mil­lion on pro­ba­tion or pa­role, and nearly 70 mil­lion with a crim­i­nal record, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the ACLU of Vir­ginia.

Repub­li­cans still dom­i­nate pol­i­tics in Ch­ester­field; Miles will join Su­per­vi­sor Jim Hol­land and Com­mis­sioner of Rev­enue Jene­fer Hughes as Democrats hold­ing of­fice in the county. But in the state’s 7th Con­gres­sional District, Demo­crat Abi­gail Span­berger bested Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Dave Brat by 10,000 votes, sug­gest­ing that the county is trend­ing pur­ple. It wasn’t al­ways so. Daven­port, run­ning as a Demo­crat, un­seated in­cum­bent Charles Wat­son in Novem­ber 1987. Seven years later, he switched to the Repub­li­can Party.

“The party of Harry Tru­man has some­how be­come a party of failed so­cial­ist agenda that drained us of trea­sure, di­vided us from each other, mul­ti­plied the num­ber of poor and has failed to hear our con­cerns. ... The Demo­cratic Party con­tin­ues to get fur­ther and fur­ther away from the con­cerns of the peo­ple,” Daven­port said at the time.

He re­signed in July, 1½ years be­fore the end of his term. Miles, if he wants to keep this job, will have to win re-elec­tion in 2019 to win a full four-year term start­ing in 2020.

Hen­rico looms as a cau­tion­ary tale about read­ing too much into spe­cial elec­tions.

There, Demo­crat Court­ney Lynch, elected last year to fill Hen­rico’s Brook­land District seat long held by the late Dick Glover, had a brief and con­tentious ten­ure be­fore re­sign­ing six months in. Repub­li­can Dan Sch­mitt was elected to rep­re­sent the Brook­land District in Tues­day’s elec­tion, de­feat­ing Demo­crat Danny Plaugher and ren­der­ing pre­ma­ture talk of Demo­cratic dom­i­nance in county pol­i­tics.

But Miles’ nar­row vic­tory, while run­ning on a pro­gres­sive crim­i­nal jus­tice plat­form in what was once a con­ser­va­tive strong­hold, sug­gests that think­ing has shifted dra­mat­i­cally on the is­sue of crime and jus­tice.

“Per­son­ally since Tues­day night, I’ve been on cloud nine,” said Ta­vorise Marks, chair­man of Ch­ester­field NAACP’s Le­gal Re­dress Com­mit­tee.

“I think over­all, it’s a sign of a chang­ing tide here in Ch­ester­field County. I also think it’s a sign of the chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics . ... We’ve be­come more di­verse, and in my opin­ion, more pro­gres­sive.”

Ch­ester­field po­lice have been in­volved in at least a cou­ple high-pro­file traf­fic stops in­volv­ing mi­nori­ties. Marks views Miles as an em­pa­thetic, re­form-minded pros­e­cu­tor whose dis­in­ter­est in prose­cut­ing low-level drug pos­ses­sion cases will re­sult in fewer traf­fic stops by county po­lice.

“Crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, over­all, it can be­gin at the lo­cal level,” Marks said, by re­duc­ing sen­tences for drug use and petty crimes that tend to dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect mi­nori­ties.

Claire Guthrie Gas­tañaga, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Vir­ginia, said the shift­ing at­ti­tudes re­gard­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice were re­flected in the will­ing­ness of all com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney can­di­dates in Ch­ester­field to par­tic­i­pate in a fo­rum last month un­der the ACLU ban­ner.

“I think the times are chang­ing. I re­ally do,” she said Thurs­day.

“Peo­ple are will­ing to have con­ver­sa­tions they weren’t will­ing to have” and “have moved away from the tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture that what mat­tered was lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

As fam­i­lies in­creas­ingly feel the im­pact of that out­moded mind­set on loved ones, they’ve come to re­al­ize that such poli­cies aren’t work­ing and we’re no safer be­cause of them, she said.

In the not-so-dis­tant past, there was a broad­en­ing level of bi­par­ti­san sup­port for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form and an ac­knowl­edge­ment that in­car­cer­a­tion by de­fault was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, ex­pen­sive and racially dis­crim­i­na­tory. We seemed to be mov­ing to­ward a saner, more hu­mane crim­i­nal jus­tice ethos.

And then came At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who pushed back against Oba­maera re­forms in stress­ing max­i­mum sen­tences, re­assert­ing the gov­ern­ment’s right to seize cash and prop­erty with­out bring­ing charges, and cur­tail­ing scrutiny of po­lice de­part­ments with a his­tory of mis­be­hav­ior.

“The na­tional at­tor­ney gen­eral is out of sync and he’s still guided by the old-line con­ven­tional wis­dom,” Gas­tañaga said of Ses­sions, who was fired by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Wed­nes­day.

In a na­tion based on the prin­ci­ple that de­fen­dants are in­no­cent un­til proven guilty, peo­ple in­creas­ingly are re­ject­ing the idea of jail­ing non­vi­o­lent de­fen­dants be­fore their trial be­cause they can’t come up with cash bail. Vot­ers are see­ing the folly in us­ing jails as ware­houses for drug ad­dicted or men­tally ill in­di­vid­u­als in need of treat­ment, not in­car­cer­a­tion.

Or as Gas­tañaga said, “You can’t jail your way out of a pub­lic health cri­sis.”

For so long, pros­e­cu­tors told vot­ers what they be­lieved they wanted to hear. The close­ness of the race in Ch­ester­field sug­gests that tough talk still res­onates pow­er­fully with a large swath of vot­ers. Tues­day’s spe­cial elec­tion is a test case on how much Ch­ester­field has re­ally changed.

Change in the po­lit­i­cal power struc­ture on the Hen­rico Board of Su­per­vi­sors proved ephemeral and pro­vides a cau­tion­ary tale for Miles, his Ch­ester­field sup­port­ers and oth­ers ad­vo­cates for re­form.

“They’re hun­gry for the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to do jus­tice,” Gas­tañaga said.

They have a year to make their case.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Scott Miles, who was elected com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney in Ch­ester­field, took a photo for Chris Cheeks and his sis­ter Laekyn Tay­lor at South­side Bap­tist Church on Elec­tion Day.

Michael Paul Wil­liams mwilliams@Times­Dis­patch.com

Miles

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