Unequal Justice: African Americans in the Virginia Criminal Justice System

Findings and Recommendations

Fair and prudent conduct by police officers, Commonwealth’s attorneys, and judges is the lynchpin that secures public trust in our justice system. Yet, the Committee finds that there is a serious breach of trust between African Americans on the Peninsula and the justice system; a majority of respondents believe that everyone is not treated equally. The promise of equal protection under law dims gradually from sight as the cumulative effect of police strategies in connection with a war on drugs, the zeal of elected prosecutors (Commonwealth’s attorneys), and lifetime voting rights deprivation, weighs heavily on African American aspirations. These are the unresolved problems that the Committee’s recommendations address. The difficulties involved in resolving these problems require the utmost dedication and work. Although these recommendations lead to improvements, they are measured steps toward the larger goal of systemic change.

Finding 1 The Committee received numerous complaints from Virginia citizens. Just over half complained about the justice system while others covered a variety of topics, including equal opportunity in education and employment, environmental justice, free speech, land use and property tax, pay raises for elected city officials, voting rights for persons other than formerly convicted felons, and exploitation of African American farmers. Based on such an outpouring of citizen interest and complaints, the Committee finds that civil rights grievances in the Hampton and Newport News peninsula generally go unresolved or are not aired. Of the complaints, four areas merit special attention: (1) racial profiling of African Americans for traffic stops and suspect surveillance; (2) marginal fees paid to court-appointed attorneys; (3) creditability of disciplinary system against judges and prosecutors; and (4) restoration of civil rights, especially voting rights, for convicted felons.[1]

Recommendation 1.1 The Governor of Virginia should order the Public Safety Secretariat and its State Police Department to issue policy statements to all police departments in Virginia against race-based traffic stops or surveillance, provide training to all police officers in the implementation of that policy, collect statistics on all traffic stops and arrests to monitor whether and to what extent the policy has been implemented, and investigate any officer whose record indicates a racial bias. All records generated under the policy should be readily available to the public, with the Virginia State Police acting as repository for the information.

Recommendation 1.2 The Virginia General Assembly together with the Governor of Virginia should determine what compensation levels for court-appointed defense attorneys are sufficient to mount adequate trial defenses in Virginia and, if increased compensation is necessary, take legislative and executive action to provide funds for the increases.

Recommendation 1.3 The Virginia General Assembly together with the Governor of Virginia should take appropriate action to restore the voting and other civil rights to convicted felons upon their return to society, making among other measures the restoration application an administrative process.

Recommendation 1.4 The Virginia General Assembly together with the Supreme Court of Virginia should order monitoring of judicial sentencing in Virginia to determine whether or to what extent racial disparity exists or is increasing.

Finding 2 Federal penalties under the provisions for first-offense cocaine trafficking impose 5-year terms for 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder and 10-year terms for 50 grams of crack or 5,000 grams of powder. The Committee finds that arrests and sentencing for drug and related offenses contribute greatly to increasing justice control of African Americans under 30 years old. Racial concentration of African Americans in State-controlled institutions also echoes the drug-related pattern of crack cocaine offenses, with the additional aspect of African American juveniles arrested for more violent crimes and tried as adults.[2]

Recommendation 2.1 Heeding the conclusion of the U.S. Sentencing Commission that a 100-to-1 weight disparity for crack versus powder cocaine is too great, the U.S. Congress together with the President and the Department of Justice should review implementation of the Federal criminal code and take all necessary steps to alleviate unequal treatment under the laws on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Recommendation 2.2 The Supreme Court of Virginia should direct its Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission to conduct a full-scale assessment of sentencing disparities by race and gender to determine any unwarranted factors or prejudicial patterns in prosecutions and arrests.

Finding 3 Formal allegations of misconduct by Hampton police officers rose to a 6-year average of 92 per year, which the police department investigated through its internal review process. Disciplinary actions even for the most serious violations, those that led to termination in 22 cases, were reduced in 7 of the cases. This pattern coupled with police policy against disclosing disciplinary consequences of sustained charges against police do little to deflect suspicions that police whitewash or neglect civilian complaints. The Committee finds that there is a perception widely spread in the African American community that the internal review of police misconduct is biased and unreliable as an avenue of grievances, further eroding trust in the law enforcement system.[3]

Recommendation 3.1 The Virginia Public Safety Secretariat should order its State Police Department to team with the Hampton Police Department to review State and local complaint intake procedures and make necessary changes to ensure that citizen concerns and sensitivity are properly addressed and that the results of complaint investigations are made available to the public. The review should also produce recommendations for effective alternative means of disposing civilian complaints of police misconduct, such as neutral party mediation or civilian review boards with power to settle cases.

Finding 4 Overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of African Americans are under criminal supervision, overloading the criminal justice system in Virginia to a crisis level. Antecedents to this crisis are in the devastating consequences of educational, economic, and social disadvantages. The Committee finds that State and local governments pay little attention to the societal treatment of African Americans in general and consequences of drug law enforcement tactics in particular.[4]

Recommendation 4.1 The Virginia General Assembly should place high priority on the work of its Joint Subcommittee Studying the Status and Needs of African American Males in Virginia, providing it with resources and staff support sufficient to fulfill its mandate to study the issues. Upon completion of the mandated study, it should take immediate action to pass corrective and ameliorative legislation.

Finding 5 Transfer of juveniles to face charges and stand trial in adult courts exposes children as young as 14 years old to life-crippling jail terms if convicted. Although these children may have committed heinous crimes, punishing youthful offenders by the same harsh measures as adults is a questionable response that does little to rehabilitate or restore a youthful offender to future usefulness in society.[5]

Recommendation 5.1 The Virginia General Assembly and the Supreme Court of Virginia should order reviews of the Virginia criminal code provisions for juvenile transfer to adult status in criminal proceedings to determine the benefit of these transfers as compared with the tangible and intangible costs for the youth and civil society.

[1] Intro., p. 2; chap. 1, pp. 3–10.

[2] Chap. 1, pp. 7–10; chap. 2, pp. 11–15; chap. 3, pp. 16–21.

[3] Intro., p. 1; chap. 1, pp. 3–4; chap. 3, pp. 16–21.

[4] Chap. 1, pp. 3–10; chap. 2, pp. 11–12, 14–15.

[5] Intro., pp. 1–2; chap. 1, pp. 5, 7–10; chap. 2, pp. 12–15; chap. 3, pp. 17–18.