Chesterfield’s prosecutor pick shows shifting attitude on criminal justice
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.
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.