By Jenny Gathright, DCist.Com
During the last two years, Virginia has seen historic changes to its criminal justice system — changes that may not have been politically possible just a few years ago in the once-purple state. Lawmakers legalized recreational weed and abolished the death penalty. And they funded a package of more than a dozen bills focused on policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, including a ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds (they fell short of passing the most progressive reforms).
Progressive Democrats in the state had hoped to build on these changes in the next legislative session, under the leadership of a new Democratic governor. But as the razor-tight race for governor has narrowed, rhetoric around criminal justice reform on the campaign trail has become increasingly fraught, putting Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe on the defensive and Republican Glenn Youngkin on the attack with the help of conservative media.
Both candidates have chosen to take a “tough on crime” framing of the issues, touting their strong relationships with police and distancing themselves from attempts to reduce police budgets. McAuliffe’s response to the political attacks from Youngkin has progressive advocates worried that the conversation around criminal justice reform has been stripped of nuance — and that McAuliffe has let conservatives dictate the narrative around crime.
“There’s a whole lot more work to be done when we’re talking about fixing this system that impacts millions of Virginians and Americans,” says Sheba Williams, Executive Director of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit that works with Virginians who have court involvement. “But so far, there’s a lot left to be desired with the conversation from each of the individuals that are running.”