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Advocates say cherry-picked crime data is meant to scare voters as they head to the polls

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A new poll from Data For Progress found a majority of voters felt as safe or safer following the justice system reforms the state implemented. (Image: Data For Progress)

Criminal justice reform advocates say Republican political candidates are deploying misleading crime data to discount progress in the commonwealth.   

They say cries to reverse Democrats' criminal justice agenda are fear mongering and even dangerous, and they’re worried the rhetoric will lead Virginia back to the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ‘90s, when harsh mandatory minimum sentences led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black men and women.

Following widespread racial justice protests last year that called for police and prison reform, Virginia’s Democratic-controlled  state legislature ended the death penalty, legalized marijuana and gave more people the ability to appeal their cases, among other changes.

“We took aim at some of the most indefensible aspects of our system in Virginia,” said Brad Haywood, Arlington’s chief public defender and a founder of Justice Forward Virginia. “Where people who go to prison for five years for stealing sticker deodorant, mandatory jury sentencing,  we were one of two states that still retained that arcane practice. We had a law called the habitual drunkard law. We got rid of those.”

Many Virginians praised the changes as a leap forward for racial, social and economic justice. 

Then came recent FBI stats showing murders spiked 30% across the U.S. in 2020, the largest single-year increase since the government started keeping these records in 1960. Although murders remain below their record highs in the ‘90s and ‘80s, and the spiking rate has slowed, the alarming statistic became a talking point for Republicans who were unhappy with the progressive reforms.   

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Virginia Republican attorney general candidate Jason Miyares addresses the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon in McLean, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

“With public safety being a top issue for Virginia voters, they see the numbers. The numbers don’t lie,” said Republican Attorney General Candidate Jason Miyares in an interview with VPM earlier this month. “People do not like this criminal-first, victim-last mindset that’s emerged in Richmond the last couple of years.”

Reform advocates point out that FBI stats show Virginia actually saw an overall reduction in crime from 2019. 

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Nolef Turns' Sheba Williams (Photo courtesy Williams)

“Do not overstate crime rates in headlines. ‘Crime is the highest in decades’ is a false characterization of the available data,” said Sheba Williams, Founder and Executive Director of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit that helps people return to society after incarceration. 

A new poll from the organization Data for Progress shows a majority of Virginians say they want the state to increase funding for violence prevention and crime diversion programs. And voters across party lines want more prison diversion programs in Virginia.

“The truth is, the majority of Virginians want to heal the people who are impacted by mass incarceration and to fix the issues in the criminal legal system that have inexcusable inequities,” Williams said. 

It’s unclear exactly what caused the historic spike in homicides, but many speculate that it’s the social and economic toll of the pandemic.