Originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 59, printed August 23. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
By Dale Pughsley
Many groups today are currently touting themselves as Criminal Justice Reformers. The designation allows a wide range of individuals and groups to list their work under this rubric. But what exactly constitutes “Criminal Justice” and the systems it uses to function?
Essential to the definition of Criminal Justice is the term “Criminal,” which is defined as a person who commits a crime or something involving crime. “Crime” is defined as a violation of the Penal Code for which one can be punished by the state. However, what behaviors are criminalized is decided by the government, specifically the legislative branch here in America’s Democratic Republican system.
Justice, on the other hand, describes how the law is administered. From here the procedures, remedies, and punishments involved with the process of criminalization and punishment all become part of what’s known as the Criminal Justice System.
In Amerika, the lawmakers who are creating law have to run campaigns that cost money. These campaigns are financed by corporations and individuals who have interests, thus they “support” the officials who share their interests. Campaign finance, as it’s euphemistically called, is used to make candidates and their message more visible. Advertisements, events and staff cost a lot of money. So we must always remain aware of the corporate interest in lawmaking.
Criminal Justice policy is no different. With this in mind, when we examine Virginia’s Criminal Justice policy over the last 25 years, we see that the state has adopted what’s known as Truth in Sentencing (TIS) measures. That is, requiring prisoners to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence without any possibility of parole. Now, if we accept the premise that money drives politics or, in other words, lawmaking, then we must begin our analysis of Virginia’s criminal justice system by asking what is the corporate interest in it?
Now, it’s widely accepted that Law correlates to Order. In other words, Law is produced in a society to establish order. Yet here in Virginia laws are always being made and still there’s no order. In fact, what I see the Law produce in Virginia is prisons – 45 of them, to be exact.
These prisons are filled primarily with Black people (65 percent), while the state population itself is only 20 percent Black. There are some poor whites (35 percent) who are also contained in Virginia’s prisons, but in comparison to the state’s overall white population (70 percent), it’s clear there’s a major problem with disparity in impacts.
This means that Criminal Justice in Virginia involves locking up Black people and throwing away the key. In fact, contrary to Ralph Northam’s current venerations, second chances aren’t something Virginia’s lawmakers have had a lot of tolerance for over the last quarter-century. After his gubernatorial election in 2017, Northam himself announced that he supports TIS.
Simply put, the current Criminal Justice policy in Virginia is racist. Whether or not it’s the result of disparate treatment, impact or both, Black communities are the primary beneficiaries of Virginia’s Tough on Crime policy.
The legacy of criminal justice in Virginia has its roots in slavery. Afrikans brought to Jamestown in August 1619 were in fact the first Black criminals and prisoners in Virginia. Their enslavement, too, was rooted in economic interest. To support the criminalization of their blackness, an ideology of white supremacy developed. This ideology is still an inherent ethos of the State’s punishment culture.
Mass Incarceration in Virginia was driven by the profit motive, coupled with the need to contain and control its surplus populations.
Now, when we consider the question of Reform, we have to ask if the phenomenon being rejected is inherently destructive or just being used destructively? Regardless of where you come down on that question, what we all must accept as the logical conclusion is that CJR in Virginia requires a political struggle. Specifically, TIS must be rescinded in favor of a policy that is both fair and equitable. Therefore, any real effort at CJR must involve implementing policies that exclude the profit motives of corporations and racist or (for my liberals) “racially biased” notions of lawmakers.
Dale Pughsley #1108909 (JPay.com) is a Political Prisoner and Jailhouse Lawyer in the Virginia Department of Corrections.