Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Leading the Way on Criminal Justice Reform

By Brad Haywood

“It has been said that 2020 will be the first time in 20 years when criminal justice reform has been a priority in the legislature,” remarked Senator Scott Surovell. “I’d argue it’s more like the first time in 200 years.”

Senator Surovell isn’t kidding. After decades, if not centuries, of “tough on crime” policies dominating state government and local civic discourse, Virginia has finally embraced the moral imperative of criminal justice reform. And Northern Virginia — particularly Arlington County and the City of Falls Church — has been leading the way.

This paradigm shift, and its strong connection to local community, were on display last Wednesday night, Dec. 11, 2019, at an event sponsored by Justice Forward Virginia at Clare and Dons’ Beach Shack, here in Falls Church. In addition to Surovell, the event featured presentations by Delegates Marcus Simon, Jennifer Carroll Foy, and Patrick Hope, and Senator Barbara Favola — all five of whom have pledged to carry the justice reform torch through the General Assembly session in 2020 and beyond.

Delegate Simon represents Falls Church, obviously, and Delegate Carroll Foy spent several years as an Assistant Public Defender at the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. Simon and Carroll Foy serve on the Courts of Justice Committee, and have consistently been the two strongest voices for reform in the Virginia House of Delegates. In addition, Delegate Hope is taking the lead on ending abusive solitary confinement practices, abolishing mandatory minimums and restoring parole. For the second year in a row, Senator Favola is taking steps to pass what may amount to a de facto moratorium on capital punishment. And Senator Surovell has long been a leader in the Virginia Senate on matters affecting the rights of defendants in Virginia’s justice system.

Justice Forward Virginia, the only statewide advocacy organization committed solely to criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth, is itself based in Arlington. I happen to have founded Justice Forward, and now lead the group along with a number of other current and former public defenders, several of whom have connections to this community. In my other professional capacity I am the chief public defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, Delegate Carroll Foy’s former office.

This is to say nothing about our new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was sworn in just this week. Dehghani-Tafti’s victory represents an incredible opportunity to continue reshaping the local justice system for the better — a system that has not always reflected the values of our community. I say “continue” because this process did not start in 2019. Although we lacked the critical mass necessary for a comprehensive push forward, for years there has been an impetus for and momentum toward modernizing the justice system in Arlington and Falls Church, as evidenced by our drug treatment court, investment in treatment alternatives, and the lengthy planning process for creating a behavioral health docket. One-third of our local judiciary was sworn-in in the last 12 months, and the office I lead has been under reinvigorated leadership for just over two years, during which time we have raised standards for indigent defense practice and institutional advocacy.

Those of us who work on criminal justice reform don’t expect to maintain quite the same high profile as we have in 2019. We do hope our local community remains connected and engaged, however, as we move toward creating a more fair, rehabilitative and evidence-informed justice system, both on a local and statewide level. In fact, we need the community’s involvement in order to accomplish these goals. Although this has been a pivotal year across the Commonwealth — including in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Albemarle Counties, all of which also elected reform-oriented prosecutors — our work is far from finished. Lasting, systemic change requires legislative action. Adherence to basic principles such as making diversion the rule, treating drug addiction as a matter of public health, funding a robust system of indigent defense, and respecting the right to a fair trial shouldn’t be subject to a referendum every four years, and shouldn’t depend on where you live. The principles that define a modern, humane, evidence-based approach to criminal justice ought to be permanent, universal, and codified in the Virginia Code.

Arlington and Falls Church should be proud of leading the way, but we can have an even greater impact. On behalf of Justice Forward Virginia, we invite you to join us, Delegates Simon, Carroll Foy and Hope, Senators Surovell and Favola, and the rest of the advocacy community, as we take the fight for a more fair criminal justice system to Richmond.

Brad Haywood is the chief public defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.