Last November Virginia gained national attention when a sweep of wins from Democrats raised questions about the historical Republican stranglehold on the state. Like many, I celebrated those wins with two minds: confidence that Governor Northam was a win over Gillespie no matter how conservative he might be, and grief over the knowledge that what passes as a Democrat in Virginia today is a man who boasted about twice electing George Bush. Northam was a clear win with an undercurrent of profound loss, though I (like many) took incredible hope from the slate of victorious candidates across the state who stood against men like Northam in refusing to fund their campaigns through sources like Dominion Energy, an entity that has near-overt governing power in the state.
Since November progressives in Richmond have been engaged in analysis: what did this political cycle mean for progressive electoral politics moving forward? My general read is that we will have to back candidates on the local level who refuse corporate backing and who resists the dominant trends in the Democratic party as a whole. On a broader scale we need to see primaries as the critical target for progressive campaigns. If primaries are lost to corporate candidates who are opposed by the likes of Gillespie, we must back the candidates we have. Political work is necessarily framed by contradictions such as these: we have to compete for power on local, state, and federal levels. In the current American political landscape, no movement has the consolidated political strength to push a consistently progressive platform at all three levels, but over time and with attention to primaries we can push that platform through from the ground up.
I’m a strong believer in celebrating victories, and I celebrated in November. The election cycle saw more potential for progressive change than any before it. It was a win. It also came with losses. Both are unreservedly true.
At the time of the election, the clearest losses seemed to be in the area of immigration policy, where Northam lacked either the political wisdom to read the moment or the political will to act with decency. He spoke out against sanctuary for undocumented individuals, making clear early the moral costs of backing candidates chosen by corporate power. There was no question Gillespie would be worse on immigration, but Northam worked hard to be clear he would not be good. He has not been good on immigration, and now he has shown he will perform poorly on criminal justice reform.
This week Northam signed a bill that will both raise Virginia’s felony threshold and fundamentally alter our reentry system. The bill has been touted as a win for criminal justice reform. I believe it is a serious loss. This bill raises Virginia’s felony threshold from $200 to $500. The raise is essential, without question. Virginia has one of the lowest felony thresholds in the nation. It is just one component of an ecosystem of policies that make our state one of the most brutal criminal justice systems in the nation, which boasts ones of the most brutal criminal justice systems in the world. Tough on crime advocates in Virginia have long been emboldened by the sweeping reforms seen under Governor George Allen in the mid-90s: conservatives in our state demand policies that would be seen as inhumane in other parts of the country. Raising the threshold should be a victory but for two things: the new threshold is still far too low and it came at an exceptional cost to reentry services. The deal struck to pass this raise includes new legislation that ties probation to one’s ability to pay fines and restitution upon reentry. Now in the state of Virginia, probation officers are authorized to act as collection agents for the state, keeping individuals on indefinite probation for a period of up to ten years if an individual cannot pay.
This new policy is nothing less than a compounded nightmare for individuals upon reentry. Restitution payments can be high, and reentering individuals often have nothing to support them as they restart their lives. Many exit prison without a place to live, most require medical care that they cannot access, many lack even a legal ID to prove who they are on a job application. The practical concerns of an individual released from prison with literally only the clothes they were arrested in (a potentially dangerous situation if you were arrested in August and released in January) would be enough to question the wisdom of immediately hitting them with a bill for restitution, but the situation is significantly worse. That same individual released with only the clothes on their back is also faced with laws prohibiting them from driving. They face a job and housing market where it is legal to discriminate based on prior convictions. The probationary system itself places unreasonable burdens on returning individuals, further limiting movement and housing choices, and requiring a whole host of actions for which it can be difficult or even impossible to follow. These burdens making it nearly impossible to find, receive, and regularly access work. When individuals do find work, wages are often too low to sustain housing, much less support restitution payments.
To this landscape of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we have now enabled probation officers to demand restitution payments as a component of their probationary supervision. Failure to pay can result in rearrest. Failure to pay will prolong probation, thus prolonging the myriad ways that probation increases risk of arrest by criminalizing otherwise legal behavior (driving, voting, relocation, etc.) Finally, because reinstating voting rights is tied to exiting probation, this legislation promises to extend the period of time returning citizens are locked out of the voting booth, the place where their voices are most needed to fix this dystopian web of punitive policies.
To be clear: that Governor Northam is willing to sign this bill into law is nothing less than the translation of “tough on crime” to “tough on reentry.” The bill defies all logic, and its costs are far greater than its gains. One cost will be seen in 2020, when Northam’s actions decrease democratic turnout at the polls. While Governor McAuliffe was a clear win for corporate power, he understood the value of voter rights restoration to democratic process and he acted accordingly, restoring the rights of hundreds of thousands of Virginians. Governor Northam lacks these values, and the cost will be tremendous not only to the public, but to his party.
I tracked this legislation through the general assembly this year, as I have for several years now. In the 2017 legislative session I joined New Virginia Majority (NVM) and a host of formerly incarcerated individuals to lobby against tying rights restoration to the payment of court fines and restitution. We won in 2017, and for a time we looked set to win again in 2018. Why Democrats would take this “compromise” after such win in the voting booth in November is unclear. What this means for the future of Virginia politics is also unclear.
It’s been a frantic spring, and when I noted early this morning that Northam signed this bill into law I found myself caught in a thought that profoundly encapsulated for me the losses we’ve sustained this year. Looking in sadness as my news feed, all I could think was this: “I was so caught up on our campaign to convince the governor not to build prisons to incarcerate children that I failed to sufficiently pressure him not to restock our existing prisons with people struggling to get out of poverty.”
What a clear illustration of our losses.
It’s heartbreaking, to see electoral wins so set back by policy. We have sustained real losses this spring, and that makes it hard to retain space in one’s heart for the equal truth of our wins. I understand that a single soldier can fight in a winning battle and be surrounded by fallen loved ones. I’m also not partial to military metaphors, as the US has been at war nearly half my life. Most people I know fighting mass incarceration have been at war their whole lives, many are fighting for the second generation.
That fight continues. Virginia successfully defended itself against a Gillespie governorship. Such a thing would have added state-level Trumpism to our existing federal nightmare, and I am thankful to have defeated it. Now, we need to take an honest account of where we are at, and we need to do better. That battle will look different from week to week as we lead up to 2020, and the fight for 2020 is already in motion. This month our fight opposes the construction of new prisons designed to incarcerate our children. It’s an essential fight, and the people leading it are incredible heroes. You can join the RISE for Youth Coalition today (Friday April 6th) at 5:30 at Peter Paul Development Center. You can also join us next Thursday, April 12th, at 7:30 pm at the Virginia State Capitol. We’ll have speakers to update you on the fight to free our kids and a candlelight vigil to recognize the harm done by Virginia’s juvenile incarceration system. I hope to see you there.