Republican Congressman Dave Brat visited Chesterfied County Jail today (10/17) to hear from incarcerated drug addicts.
Many inmates told Brat, who is up for re-election next month, that they wanted more resources as well as changes to sentencing guidelines.
Brat offered encouragement and said he was on board with some reform, but pushed for the inmates to find support systems, distractions, and employment. “You have to find some substitute for drugs--get exercise, or academics, reading books, going to the Bible,” he said.
The inmates said the punitive damage inflicted by court fines, misdemeanor arrests, and the stigma of their position made recovery that much more difficult.
One inmate, Kelly Howerton, described finding her friend while they were using heroin, “walking into him with his eyes open, overdosed on the toilet.”
Howerton called the police for help, but her friend died. She says she wound up in jail after police accused her of supplying the friend’s drugs. “I think about it every single day. It’s something that will never go away.”
Her story blended with others of inmates who said they’d received punishment rather than help from the government at crucial moments.
Brat said he supported some pieces of criminal justice reform packages snaking their way through Congress, though he said programs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He advocated making smaller, incremental changes, including changing laws that suspended driver’s licenses after certain crimes. “It’s bipartisan--most everybody wants this stuff,” he said.
He said the federal government should send more money to states and localities to find programs that best fit their needs. “The federal government is probably not the best tool to help people with mental health issues,” he said. ”You think you can send money up there and solve problems down here?”
At one point, Brat seemed to liken his campaign with the difficulties faced by an addict.
After one inmate described the difficulties she would face after release in finding work and stability--and Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard mentioned the need for additional funding for longer-term stays--Brat turned the conversation back to his campaign against Democrat Abigail Spanberger.
“You think you’re having a hard time--I've got $5 million worth of negative ads coming at me,” he said. “How do you think I’m feeling? Nothing’s easy. For anybody.”
An odd moment from @DaveBratVA7th's visit to an addiction support group at Chesterfield County Jail: After an inmate describes some of the difficulties she'd face upon release, Brat says his life isn't all roses either, pointing to attack ads from @SpanbergerVA07 pic.twitter.com/uVDW4jsAhs
— Ben Paviour (@BPaves) October 18, 2018
Watch clip of the extended comment.
“You think I’m a congressman, ‘Oh, life’s easy, this guy’s off having steaks every day.’” he said. “Baloney. I’ve got a daughter, she’s got to deal with that crap on TV every day.”
“So it’s tough,” he continued. “No one out there’s got some easy life. Right?”
“And you've got it harder,” he acknowledged. “I’m not dismissing that. You’ve got some fierce, real anxiety with coming up with a job or whatever. And what you’ve got to find is a support system.”
In an interview after the event, Brat said it was difficult to make a blanket statement on whether the felons in the room should be allowed to vote.
“It depends,” he said. “That’s the long answer for a lot of this stuff. For what? That's why it’s more complex.”