Fear-mongering Fail

Fear-mongering Fail

New poll shows Virginians feel safe after criminal justice reforms.

As Election Day approached last month, Republicans landed on a closing argument of public safety. They tried to position themselves as tough on crime, describing recent changes to Virginia's criminal-justice system as potentially threatening to the safety of neighborhoods and communities. Advocates for criminal justice reform worried that the outcome of the election might be seen as a referendum to pull back some of the changes to Virginia law that happened when Democrats were in control of the General Assembly and the governor's office.

"It was all based on anecdotes and no data whatsoever because the data doesn't support those claims," said Brad Haywood, founder of Justice Forward Virginia and chief public defender for Arlington County. "Voters didn't buy it."

A new poll from Data for Progress shows a majority of Virginia voters say they feel safe after reforms. The poll was conducted in late October during the closing days of the campaign, asking 654 likely voters in Virginia their opinion on everything from decriminalizing marijuana to ending the death penalty. It found that voters want to see more reforms, and that they're willing to support candidates who are willing to push forward rather than pull back.

"Virginia was on this tough on crime path from 1994 to 2019, and then suddenly we had this big course correction in 2020 and 2021," said Rob Poggenklass, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia. "And when you look at the poll results it seems like folks were just fine with that and they want to continue to see it happen."

THE POLL RESULTS will be important heading into the next session of the Virginia General Assembly, which starts next month. Republicans are already talking about rolling back some of the reforms that happened under the last administration, which saw a flurry of activity when Democrats held the trifecta of power in Richmond — both legislative bodies and the entire executive branch. The reform that has received the most amount of pushback is the one prohibiting police officers from stopping drivers based on a hunch or a pretext for things like an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror.

"No one wants to be in fear of having an air freshener hanging from their rearview mirror potentially land them with engagement with police," said Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE for Youth. "And so for the police to have the ability to pull folks over for very minor and non-criminal reasons, no one is excited about going back to those days."

When asked if the law "should not second guess police officers' motivations for conducting traffic stops. They know how to best reduce crime and keep us safe," 54 percent of respondents disagreed. But the responses also showed a deep partisan divide. Democrats were more likely to say they disagreed with that statement, and 66 percent of Republicans said they actually agreed with that proposition. During the debate in the General Assembly on pretextual policing, Republicans argued that Democrats were in favor of pretextual policing when it meant stopping people for using a cell phone.

“All of a sudden these defund-the-police activists in the General Assembly have decided that we need to crack down on pretextual stops by police,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26) during the debate in 2021. "If you’re concerned about pretextual stops, you ought to be concerned about it across the board, not just in limited circumstances.”

THE BUDGET will be another place where lawmakers will clash over criminal-justice reform next year. And, yet again, this is an area where the poll will be instructive. When asked if the government should prioritize funding for state prisons and jails or funding for crime prevention programs, the overwhelming majority of voters said they would rather see the money go toward prevention. Even 73 percent of Republicans said Virginia should prioritize prevention over incarceration.

"What makes communities healthier, safer and more equitable are things like good-paying jobs, education, health care and affordable housing," said Haywood. "It's common sense, but it's something we lose sight of in the moment when we get freaked out or we're anxious, and people have been feeling that way a lot during the pandemic."

THE POLL ALSO found that voters disagree with attempts to criminalize abortion. Voters support more equity between state prosecutors and public defenders; prosecutors are paid far more. When asked about the failed War on Drugs, voters said they would rather see a public health approach than engaging in more mass incarceration. When asked about funding priorities, respondents said they would rather see money for alternative sentencing and prison diversion programs than more funding for prisons. Ultimately, the progressive Data for Progress poll found that Republican policy positions on criminal justice reform were unpopular with voters — even unpopular with Republicans in some cases.

"Contrary to what many state lawmakers might argue, Virginians do not support their egregious attempts to undo the progress made in the state's criminal justice system," wrote Brian Burton, senior analyst at Data for Progress. "Should these representatives continue in their pursuit of such a regressive agenda, or should they choose not to fight to protect the state's progress, they are likely to be in for a difficult time come Election Day next year."

"What makes communities healthier, safer and more equitable are things like good-paying jobs, education, health care and affordable housing."

— Brad Haywood, founder of Justice Forward Virginia and chief public defender for Arlington County