If you’re a fellow Virginia resident, we wanted to give you a heads up that elections for your Commonwealth’s Attorney are quickly approaching. If you don’t know what a Commonwealth’s Attorney is, they are the head prosecutor in your local prosecutor’s office. In most other states, the "CA" is the District Attorney.
While Commonwealth’s Attorneys races don’t often get a whole lot of attention, this is a very exciting time for criminal justice reform in America. And the outcome of your Commonwealth’s Attorney elections will have a huge impact. So if you’re interested in criminal justice reform, pay attention! Because of the relatively small size of these elections, your vote will matter.
Do you care about the legalization of Marijuana?
Like the “CEO” of any given office, the Commonwealth’s Attorney sets the overarching policy for their respective office. Therefore, their influence is tangible and direct. For example, given their limited resources, Commonwealth's Attorneys dictate what types of crimes get priority. Do you think it’s a bit absurd for individuals to being prosecuted relentlessly for simple possession of marijuana? The Commonwealth’s Attorney view matters. Indeed, there is currently a fight brewing in Norfolk, where the head Commonwealth Attorney chose not to pursue marijuana appeals, which you can read about here.
It’s no secret that I believe that prosecuting marijuana cases is truly counter-productive. And I applaud Commonwealth's Attorney Greg Underwood’s efforts in taking a stand.
Commonwealth’s Attorneys and bail reform.
Are you interested in bail reform? For those of you unaware of the issue, as it stands, an individual’s ability to stay out of jail pending his or her criminal trial in large part depends on his or her financial ability to post a bond. As a defense attorney, my concern has always been that a person’s financial resources say little about their danger to the community or propensity to return to court to face their charge(s).
For the indigent client who is unable to post bond, remaining in jail outsized effect on their life. Often, because they are incarcerated, they lose their job, when they are already living paycheck to paycheck. And from there, the consequences cascade down.
If you share my concern, the Commonwealth’s Attorney can help (or hurt) the situation. Indeed, the CA’s viewpoint on any particular case is a big factor for any judge in deciding whether individuals should be granted bond on any particular case, and what should their conditions of release.
Last year, Richmond City Commonwealth Attorney Michael Herring took the positive step of indicating that he would no longer seek cash bail. So you can see the tangible effect of support for cash bond from a Commonwealth’s Attorney.
You want an expungement? The Commonwealth's Attorney matters.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney also places a huge role in expungements. Did you know that in Virginia, if you’re acquitted of a crime, you’ve still got to sue the government for them to seal the records of that charge? Did you know that if you’re convicted of a misdemeanor 20 years prior, you’ll never be eligible for an expungement under the current state of Virginia law? Check out more about Virginia expungement law here.
Well, Commonwealth’s Attorneys play a huge role in expungements. Some offices are better at outright agreeing to expungements that should be straight forward, and some offices fight tooth and nail to prevent expungements as the norm. So who the Commonwealth Attorney is matters.
Have you ever heard of VACA? Most people haven’t.
Commonwealth’s Attorneys also play an important role in what laws get passed in our General Assembly. Through the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), the CAs actively lobby our state legislature on any given bills and also support their own changes to the law. As such, they can help (or hurt) the progression of criminal justice reform in shaping our laws.
For example, I firmly believe that issues like changing Virginia expungement laws (like Kentucky recently did) would be possible with the support of Commonwealth’s Attorney's offices, the same people who you elect.
When are the elections?
The above issues are just a handful of issues to consider when choosing your Commonwealth’s Attorney. But for your opinion to matter, you first have to show up! So take note – elections are coming up quick! Primaries for the Commonwealth’s Attorneys are June 11, 2019. And the General Election is November 6, 2019. For more information, you can click here.
Want to get involved?
If you’re interested in getting involved, many candidates are holding “meet and greets,” fundraisers, and canvassing projects. Check out your local races and show up!
If you’re interested in some guidance, you can go to Justice Forward Virginia’s website. In the coming weeks and months, Justice Forward Virginia will be providing a lot of information about local races. So stay tuned!