The Hurtt Locker: Criminal Justice Reform Comes to Arlington

The Hurtt Locker is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington’s Committee of 100 hosted a panel discussion last night about the local “criminal justice reform movement” — part of a bipartisan, nationwide public policy conversation that’s playing out at all levels of government in nearly every state.

Panelists included Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Public Defender Brad Heywood, and Sheriff Beth Arthur.

Both Dehghani-Tafti and Haywood touched on cannabis policy in their opening remarks and answered follow-up questions on the topic. Dehghani-Tafti ran on a platform that included cannabis legalization and vowed to reduce prosecutions for cannabis-related crimes.

And though Dehghani-Tafti said she hopes full cannabis legalization makes it across the finish line in the 2021 legislative session, she stopped short of support for outright expungement of records related to cannabis convictions, suggesting law enforcement should have access to those records even if other sectors — say, would-be employers of a potential applicant with a cannabis conviction — did not.

On a related note, ARLnow took a step in the right direction in early March by removing old crime reports from search engine indexing, arguing the move would “give dozens of nonviolent offenders a better chance at moving on with their lives after paying their debt to society.” This may not seem like much, but in an age where our online presence follows us in perpetuity and potentially affects future employment and other opportunities, it’s an admirable move by ARLnow.

Conspicuously absent from the Committee of 100’s event was a representative from the Arlington County Police Department, which assumes the bulk of law enforcement duties in Arlington, something Sheriff Arthur articulated in her opening remarks. It was awkward not having that perspective of the criminal justice system present in the discussion, especially since one might assume the most contentious relationship would be between more liberal criminal justice “reformers” and institutional law enforcement.

Dehghani-Tafti even acknowledged the tension that existed as she prepared to take office after her election last year, stating, “Clearly, I needed to work on building bridges with police. I don’t think that’s a secret to anybody.” Voters deserve to know more about Dehghani-Tafti’s bridge-building efforts, as well as ACPD’s response to the changes her election brought to the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Has it become easier or harder for ACPD to do its job?

Criminal justice reform has also made headlines at the state-level this week. Legislative Republicans are scrapping with Governor Northam and Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran over the release of a number of inmates who pose varying levels of risk to public safety.

There are two separate issues at hand here: facing a potentially-rapid spread of COVID-19 across Virginia’s prison system, the legislature approved a budget amendment allowing the Department of Corrections to release some offenders with a year or less to serve whose continued incarceration posed personal health risks. As someone engaged in criminal justice reform efforts, this seems like a reasonable public policy to me.

Brad Haywood and Sheriff Arthur spoke about the efforts to release non-violent offenders who may be affected by the spread COVID-19 in the county detention facility, with Haywood stating the local effort was taking cues from Governor Northam and the state Supreme Court’s guidance. Haywood also spoke about his effort to seek clemency for a class of about 60 offenders locally, admitting the decision to grant clemency is ultimately up to the governor.

Where many criminal justice reformers across the spectrum may disagree is with the second issue: efforts to release violent criminals who still have much longer sentences to serve, particularly without engaging Commonwealth’s Attorneys who serve the jurisdictions where these individuals committed their crimes or with the victims who were impacted by those crimes.

Sheriff Arthur said law enforcement across the Commonwealth was “outraged” by the process surrounding the pending parole release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of murdering a Richmond police officer in 1979. The process around Martin’s imminent release is also what has legislative Republicans (rightfully so) up in arms. Dehghani-Tafti did not weigh in on the role Commonwealth’s Attorneys play in the parole of violent criminals.

Even the most ardent supporters of criminal justice reform frequently advocate for restorative justice, which involves bringing all parties to the table to seek closure. It does not appear that was an element of the pending release of Vincent Martin. Whether this was administrative oversight or intentional sleight-of-hand, Governor Northam and Secretary Moran should tread lightly, otherwise they risk setting back good faith criminal justice reform efforts.

That said, critics should not attempt to scare voters by conflating the reasonable early release of those who are on an already short timeline and those with years or even decades left on their sentence. And we should call those critics out when they do.

Matthew Hurtt is an 11-year Arlington resident who is passionate about localism and government transparency and accountability. Hurtt is a member of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and was previously the chairman of the Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans. Hurtt prides himself on his ability to bring people of diverse perspectives together to break down barriers that stand in the way of people realizing their potential. He is originally from outside Nashville.

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