About three quarters of Virginia voters say they think the criminal justice system works differently for different people; and that those differences are based, mostly, on racial and economic factors.
That’s one of many findings in a new poll conducted, this fall, by the ACLU of Virginia. The poll gauged hundreds of voters’ attitudes about the shape of Virginia’s criminal justice system. “We wanted to see what the appetite for reform was amongst likely voters, statewide in Virginia and kind of get a baseline for where folks are ahead of session,” said Jenny Glass, the ACLU’s Director of Advocacy.
The results of the poll come as lawmakers gear up for the 2019 General Assembly and days after the U.S. Department of Justice reported treatment of inmates at Hampton Roads Regional Jail to be potentially unlawful and unconstitutional.
According to the poll, 65 percent of voters say Virginia’s criminal justice system is failing at handling people who are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill.
Fifty-nine percent say the state is failing at rehabilitating those in jail or prison so they can reenter society. “That’s because their families that are interacting with the system because of those things, and it isn’t working for them,” said ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga.
Seventy-one percent of voters say they support eliminating criminal penalties for the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. According to data gathered by the ACLU, nationally, people of color are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
A majority of voters polled say they want the state to work toward remedying inequities and investing in treatment, rehabilitation and job training programs. “They want a system that works the same for everybody,” Gastañaga said. “They want a system that deals with mental illness issues and addiction as public health issues and not as punitive criminal justice issues.”
At the same time, 4-in-10 voters say they think Virginia is too “soft” on crime. The poll shows that message resonates more with Republicans, less-educated voters, and voters in southern Virginia. Gastañaga said she’s encouraged by the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill Congress passed this week, which President Trump is expected to sign. The bill would ease sentences for some federal drug crimes and provide inmates with more opportunities for rehabilitation. “A number of things that we’re talking about are very much in line with what happened in Washington,” Gastañaga said. “If it can happen in Washington, it ought to be able to happen in Richmond.”