Criminal Justice Policies in the Virginia Democratic Primary

This Tuesday marks Virginia’s gubernatorial primaries. For the Democratic Party, there are two nominees, Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam.

In the race, both candidates have been typecast (and to some extent, have typecasted themselves). Perriello is a progressive while Northam is a pragmatic.

Perriello, a former U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 5th congressional district, is the clear Bernie-inspired upstart, with endorsements from Senator Sanders himself as well as Elizabeth Warren, David Plouffe, and John Podesta (and Dave Matthews and John Grisham).

Northam, the current Virginia Lieutenant Governor, is the establishment favorite, having garnered endorsements from many of the Democrat Party regulars (incumbent governor Terry McAuliffe and Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine).

As Tuesday’s primary approaches in my home state, I took the time to examine both candidate’s criminal justice platforms:


Northam’s plan for criminal justice starts with emphasizing that Virginia should join 40 other states in making automatic the restoration of voting rights to citizens convicted of felony crimes.

He also argues for reform of Virginia’s juvenile justice system through the increased use of community-based alternatives to juvenile correctional centers, which could include addiction and mental health treatment centers. This is a particularly necessary policy, as Virginia’s rate of youth incarceration stands 75 percent higher than the national average.

Increased mental health and substance abuse treatment for all Virginians, not just those charged with or convicted of crimes, also figured in Northam’s criminal justice platform. This has been an increasingly bipartisan-supported proposal since the suicide of state senator and former gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds’ son in 2013.

He also trumpets a package of reforms passed this year in Virginia, which includes ending the suspension of driver’s license for outstanding court fees.

And finally, he argues for raising the state threshold for felony larceny to $500 from its laughably low, nation-leading current level of $200.

In closing, he emphasizes that he would continue McAuliffe’s efforts to “attack systemic inequalities” through pre-K education, decriminalizing marijuana, reforming drug laws (although he does not mention any drugs besides marijuana), and expanding the use of drug courts.

All in all, Northam’s proposals are admirable. Like most of his campaign, however, they are not adequately bold.


In his criminal justice platform, much longer in length than Northam’s, Perriello argues that Virginians are not receiving equal rights under the law. In his opening parry, he broadly criticizes financial waste, racially discriminatory outcomes, and lack of reform within the criminal justice system.

Perriello claims that “Virginia has one of the largest prison populations in the country”. In fact, Virginia has the 10th largest prison population, which is roughly equal with its status as the 12th largest state. In terms of incarceration per capita, Virginia falls slightly below the national average.

The meat of his platform is broken up into four sections: ending the criminalization of poverty, turning the school-to-prison pipeline into a “school-to-workforce” pipeline, increasing the effectiveness of incarceration and policing, and treating addiction as a medical problem.

Ending the Criminalization of Poverty

In order to curb the entanglement of crime and impoverishment, Perriello argues that license suspensions should be limited to driving-offences. The restriction of transportation privileges for unpaid fines further punishes those already financially struggling.

Harsh sentencing laws are also mentioned as a way through which a cycle of poverty and crime is initiated and perpetuated. The platform, like Northam’s, mentions Virginia’s low threshold of $200 for felony larceny. Unlike Northam, however, it fails to name a target for raising that figured.

And finally, in fighting the link between poverty and crime, Perriello proposes raising the caps on court-appointed counsel fees above the current $445 for felonies and $158 for some jail-time misdemeanors. This is an important proposal as public defenders offices across the country struggle with budget cuts and increasing caseloads.

Turning the School-to-prison Pipeline Into a “School-to-workforce” Pipeline

Perriello points out that Virginia is the number one state in the nation in referring students to law enforcement. More startlingly, African Americans make up 20 percent of Virginia students but 70 percent of law enforcement referrals. This is a troubling trend, and one he is right to call In order to fight against the criminalization of students, Perriello proposes reexamining “zero tolerance” school policies, which prefer calling the police over dealing with disciplinary problems internally.

For those that are convicted of juvenile offenses, Perriello, like Northam, pushes for greater diversion programs and downsizing youth incarceration facilities to allow for more specialized, localized incarceration

Increasing the Effectiveness of Incarceration and Policing

Incarceration is an expensive business. Perriello pitches legislative, prosecution, and sentencing reforms as ways to reduce costs. His zeroing in on “focusing imprisonment on those who present a real threat to the public”, however, promotes a false binary of the good/bad criminal that further reinforces American carceral Perriello mentions bringing back parole as a possibility for certain prisoners deemed to not pose a threat to public safety. The parole mechanism can be dangerous, nevertheless, as it allows racial biases to play out.

In the realm of policing, Perriello proposes a training emphasis on community policing alongside  non-lethal tactics. Data and transparency, he rightly argues, should be promoted in order to better understand where policing works and where it comes up short. Body cameras are also references as a way through which to improve policing.

While these policing proposals are not inherently bad, their use in other contexts have had mixed results. Police brutality captured on body cameras have not stopped the murder of many. In this area, bolder proposals are needed, including special committees to streamline best practices and mandate accountability. This is especially true in a state like Virginia, with its rural and urban districts, many of which have long, problematic histories of racism and abuse.

Treating Addiction as a Medical Problem

The opioid crisis is well documented across the country. Perriello argues that addiction should be viewed as an illness, which punishment has no role in solving.

He proposes to shift law enforcement efforts away from users and towards higher-level traffickers and distributors. This would be done through encouraging law enforcement to adopt diversion approaches in conjunction with health and social workers.

Additionally, and perhaps more radically, Perriello states that he would attempt to end the disqualification from social services and public funds for those individuals convicted of drug crimes.

Overall Analysis

Perriello’s platform is impressive in its length. Like Northam, however, it could include more specific details on target numbers, funding sources, and structures to promote reform.

Ending the criminalization of poverty is a big theme in criminal justice reform circles these days. As such, Perriello is smart to include the theme in his campaign. But he makes no mention of money bail, a critical and increasingly recognized area for reform.

Currently, escaping pretrial detention often depends on a accused citizens’ ability to pay an (often arbitrary) sum to the court. For obvious reasons, this arrangement prejudices against the impoverished. Proposals to abolish money bail are gaining traction in California and other states. Such arrangements for non-major crimes have been prohibited in the federal system since then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy guided the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 and the Bail Reform Act of 1966 to passage.

Similarly, ending the school-to-prison pipeline has become a buzz phrase in liberal circles. But such attempts are more difficult than Perriello’s platform concedes.

Ending the criminalization of students does little to aid their life chances. Elsewhere, Perriello has mentioned his support for workforce training programs. While this is not a bad idea, bolder steps are needed.

One of these could be targeting funding for in-prison education programs. Under McAuliffe, Virginia has already received commendation for its technical education classes behind bars. It also has a number of programs teaching college-level courses to incarcerated students. But why not go bolder and work to further expand such programs?

Increasing incarceration and policing’s “effectiveness” can be categorized as more rhetoric than sound thinking. If we’re serious about downsizing incarceration and the carceral state, effectiveness is not the problem. Rather, a reconceptualization of the role of Virginia’s prisons should be Perriello’s goal. For one, cutting sentence lengths across the board could be a start.  

Admittedly, a Republican-controlled legislature (with plenty of old Southern Democrats to boot) is unlikely to support such proposals, but that’s true with most of the Democrat’s proposals. At the worst, Perriello could push the criminal justice reform conversation further to the left.

Poll-Based Proposals, As Proven By Silence on the Death Penalty

Notably lacking in both candidates criminal justice platforms is any mention of the death penalty.

In January of this year, Virginia held its first execution since 2015, and only its fourth since 2011. While a growing number of citizens across the country mourned this and other similar acts of killing, little serious discussion seems to have arisen in Virginia politics around the issue.

While state-level polling data on capital punishment views is scarce, recent surveys seem to have found relatively strong support in Virginia for the continuation of the practice. A January 2016 poll of 931 adult Virginians found that 64 percent supported capital punishment in murder cases. In this light, Northam and Perriello’s silence on the death penalty is not surprising.

The two Democratic candidates poll-based views also hold true for other criminal justice issues.

The same Virginia 2016 poll found that 84 percent of respondents supported juvenile justice reforms to reduce the size of correctional facilities. Additionally, over 60 percent of those polled supported the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

Aligned with Virginians views across the spectrum, neither Northam nor Perriello’s proposals can be viewed as particularly bold. Reforms in mental health and addiction treatment are popular across the board. More difficult is figuring out how to pay for the additional expense inherent to the expansion of such services.

Nevertheless, between the two candidates, I prefer Perriello’s platform. It is more in-depth, broad-based, and well-researched. Still, it could be more forthcoming with specific policy proposals.

Hopefully Tuesday’s election will earn Perriello the Democratic Party’s nomination, allowing the further development of his criminal justice views in the months leading up to the November general election.