RICHMOND — Representatives from various advocacy groups spoke at a press conference Friday to express support for a list of bills concerning criminal justice reform and to promote an upcoming rally at the State Capitol for incarcerated people and their families.
The third annual Virginia Prison Justice Rally on Saturday will include written statements from prisoners in the commonwealth as well as remarks from former prisoners, their family members and representatives from prisoner advocacy organizations. According to the group’s website, hundreds are expected to attend.
“The numbers matter. They let the legislators know that this is an important issue,” Virginia Prison Justice Network Co-Founder Phil Wilayto said at the press conference. “And what is most fundamental … is that this is a prisoner-led effort.”
The group’s co-chair, Lynetta Thompson introduced speakers at the press event held in the Pocahontas Building. They each spoke about bills that their groups would or would not support concerning topics ranging from marijuana law to parole eligibility, calling on support from representatives in the General Assembly.
One report from Prison Policy Initiative, a group against mass incarceration, shows that Virginia’s prison and jail incarceration rate each grew tremendously from 1978 to 2015. According to data from 2010, people of color are overrepresented in Virginia prisons while whites are underrepresented. Virginia’s incarceration rate per 100,000 people is higher than the national average by almost 70 people, according to 2017 data from the National Institute of Corrections.
Virginia Prison Justice Network Co-Founder Hassan Shabazz, whose statement was read by Thompson at the press conference, said the growing incarceration rates are because of punitive measures like mandatory minimum sentences and the abolishment of parole.
“The goal of tomorrow’s rally is to aid those on both sides of the prison walls to become conscious of that burden and then provide the base and foundation for us to work together to alleviate that problem,” Shabazz said.
Parole was abolished in Virginia for felonies committed during or after 1995, which means offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentences with the option of earning an early release through good conduct. Until five years later, however, judges were not required by state law to notify juries about the change.
Lillie Branch-Kennedy, founder of nonprofit Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised, said most jurors assumed during those five years that offenders would only serve a portion of their sentences. In Fishback v. Commonwealth, a 2000 Virginia Supreme Court case, it was ruled that jurors must be instructed about the abolishment of parole.
“Despite that victory, the ruling was not retroactive or applied to countless others whose jurors were kept in the dark,” Branch-Kennedy said.
She said the following legislation could provide answers for those who were affected:
SB 793: Provides parole eligibility for incarcerated people charged with non-capital felonies who were sentenced by a jury prior to Fishback v. Commonwealth and after the abolishment of parole as well as for those whose jurors were not instructed about the change. Introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. In committee.
HB 996 and HB 33: Bills providing expansions similar to the Senate bill above. Introduced by Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. Both have been referred to committee.
“Our hope is that Virginia can transcend its normal political divisiveness to once again bend its heart toward justice by passing these bills during the 2020 General Assembly session,” Branch-Kennedy said.
Gin Carter, co-founder of The Humanization Project, announced her group’s support for HB 1532. The Humanization Project is a creative writing project that aims to humanize the lives of people behind bars. Introduced by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the bill would expand the system that allows incarcerated people to earn credits that would apply retroactively to existing sentences.
“There are some truly incredible people doing amazing work from behind bars,” Carter said. “We are excited that this bill will help them get back to their communities and families where they can have an even bigger positive impact on society.”
Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said at the press conference that the ACLU cannot support Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana.
The governor proposed last week to fine people $50 for possessing small amounts of marijuana rather than charging them with a criminal misdemeanor.
While the ACLU is in favor of marijuana legalization, Gastañaga said decriminalization and civil offenses still hold and create a number of issues — someone who wants to contest the citation would have to do so without a lawyer, and those who cannot afford to pay upfront would have to go to court, which usually includes more costs and fees. The group instead wants to see a full repeal of the prohibition on marijuana, she said.
“These are not advances, these are going backwards,” Gastañaga said. “Right now, we are unable … to support the governor’s proposals and will be communicating that to the administration now that we’ve seen the bills.”
Wilayto closed out the press event by inviting the public to attend Saturday’s rally. There will be a meeting afterward to create groups to attend General Assembly committee meetings in support of the bills discussed.
“It’s really important for people to come out and stand in solidarity for our sisters and brothers behind bars,” Wilayto said.
The rally will be held Saturday at the Bell Tower on Capitol Square from 1 to 2 p.m.