Un-carceration: Prosecutor candidate Deaton talks jail reform
Steven B. Deaton is gunning for the Democratic nomination for Charlottesville commonwealth's attorney– again– and on a rainy Wednesday, May 8, under the protection of the Pavilion's roof, he made his case.
"We have filled our jails and prisons with nonviolent offenders–it's time to reverse that trend," said Deaton, speaking directly about race in the matter by recommending the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which points out that the United States incarcerates 25 percent of the prisoners in the world, and that the majority of those in jail are African-American men.
Deaton is challenging current Commonwealth's Attorney Warner D. "Dave" Chapman, who unseated Deaton in 1993. Deaton says there's a need to scale down prison growth, an issue he says Chapman hasn't taken up.
"Some people don't want to talk about this," said Deaton, who is now in private practice. "We need to stop the prison-industrial system and start something new. I think we can make much better use of our money."
As Deaton pointed out, the state has built a new $100-million prison in Grayson County, despite declining crime rates locally and nationally.
"The goal of the criminal justice system," said Deaton "should not be to fill up as many jail spaces as we can, but to see how many can be left empty. And we should strive to see how many jails and prisons are not built."
Deaton explained that that could be done with crime prevention through education.
"The Commonwealth Attorney's Office should be speaking to youth groups on ways to avoid problems with the law," said Deaton. "For every one crime we prevent, we save the state money, help a young person from ruining their life and prevent a potential victim from harm. It's time to end the madness of mass incarceration, especially with nonviolent offenders."
"He's actually quite late to that discussion," says Chapman, who contends he has advocated a variety of measures to hold people accountable, especially nonviolent offenders, besides giving them jail time. "We've been looking at that the past few years."
For example, Chapman suggests that doing away with weekend jail sentences might be a good place to start.
"We already say it's okay for low-risk, nonviolent offenders to be in the community during the week," he says.
Chapman says he's also been a proponent of sentences that require people to report to a work site or do community service.
Drug and mental health treatment, employment services, routine drug testing, and enhanced supervision to forestall readmission to jail are other ways to keep people out of jail, Chapman says.
"I am with sleeves rolled up right in the middle of this," he says.
Indeed, in response to concerns about overcrowding at our own Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, Chapman and jail officials are considering a day center to monitor low-level, repeat offenders, as opposed to spending an estimated $25 million on a jail expansion.
"If he's 'rolled up his sleeves' on that issue, great," says Deaton, "but I have yet to hear him speak publicly about the need to stop building more prisons. That's the issue. It's like that quote from the movie Field of Dreams. With prisons, if you build it, they will fill it. We need to stop building them, and I haven't heard [Chapman] say that publicly."
Nominations for commonwealth's attorney will be voted on at the Democratic primary on June 11.