What Gives Me Hope The Sweeping Change of Decriminalization Criminal & Traffic Defense | Immigration | Personal Injury
It wasn’t too long ago that lengthy prison sentences were the answer to drug and other nonviolent crimes. The sentences were given to “send a message”that drug crimes would not be tolerated, and offenders would pay with long stints in prison. After prison, former inmates found themselves jobless, lacking the proper skills to succeed, and worse off than they were when they entered the legal system. It’s no surprise then that recidivism, or the tendency for those convicted to reoffend, is high among those with drug convictions. As we enter into a new decade, I’mproud to see this view of drug addiction, as well as mental illness, is changing. Today, prosecutors are more understanding than ever about the need for a change in howwe approach drug crimes and cases involving those withmental illnesses. Some have seen the writing on the wall and have shifted focus. Rather than simply punishing a person with jail andmoving on to the next case, they are open to considering a holistic approach aimed at allowing the person to seek the help they need in exchange for a better outcome. Citizens in various counties have taken it upon themselves to speak with their votes and elect prosecutors who are willing to take a reformative approach to criminal justice. In fact, Fairfax, Arlington, PrinceWilliam, and Loudoun counties all elected new prosecutors this past November. This was an incredible move, as some of these counties were held by old guard administrations that have occupied the offices since the 1960s. I am seeing a shift in howwe approach drug addictions and those suffering frommental health issues. Many prosecutors understand the power in helping a first-time offender find programs
that will offer them assistance and ultimately avoid a conviction if they participate, rather than simply imposing a harsh punishment. While some prosecutors resist this change, a number are working with defense attorneys, asking us what they should understand about these situations, and giving our clients an opportunity to state their concerns. Many are beginning to understand that it’s not always their job simply to convict the client and impose punishment. Virginia law, unfortunately, is behind when it comes to decriminalization and rehabilitation. For example, it’s very difficult to get anything expunged from your record. Only a not-guilty verdict or a“nolle pros”will allow a conviction to be expunged. Keep inmind that under Virginia law, evenminor traffic matters can be criminal convictions. This means any well-adjusted and law-abiding citizen can have a lifelong record because of one mistake. Kentucky recently revamped its expungement laws, making it easier for those with a conviction to lead healthier, happier lives. This allows
rehabilitated individuals to find a job, attend their children’s school events, and enjoy the freedoms we’re all afforded without worrying about a conviction from their past haunting them. I have been in contact with several members of the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate who give me hope that Virginia may soon change its laws to allow those with a conviction to seek an expungement. I believe we are headed in the right direction with this law. As a society, we deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, just, and gives those charged with nonviolent offenses the opportunities and avenues to help themselves. As we head into a new decade, I’mmotivated to continue working withmy clients and prosecutors to find real solutions for people who find themselves caught in the justice system.
Have a happy NewYear.
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