More than 100 people filled a room at Virginia Union University on Friday afternoon to discuss some of the root causes of crime in Richmond and the surrounding region.
It was the first in a series of discussions titled “Beyond Containment” meant to spur changes in the criminal justice system that address why people commit crime. Friday’s discussion was meant to examine “the collision at the intersection of criminal justice and poverty,” but often veered into other issues systemic in the criminal justice system, including racism and bias.
The event was put on by the Richmond prosecutor’s office, whose leader, interim Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, and counterparts Shannon Taylor of Henrico County and Scott Miles of Chesterfield County were the panelists.
Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, who moderated the event, asked how many in the room, which had to have chairs added to accommodate the influx of people, had had a negative experience with the court system. More than half of those in attendance, which was predominately black, raised their hands.
“My whole life, I have been affected by the criminal justice system,” said Sheba Williams, a community member whom organizers had asked to share her experience.
At 10, both of her parents were incarcerated. Her father served 18½ years; her mother, six months. While they were absent, though, her community stepped in. She grew up in Church Hill down the street from the Boys &Girls Club.
Then, at 21, she was convicted — wrongfully, she said — of stealing from her employer.
“I still deal with the collateral damage from that to this day,” Sheba Williams said, adding that she was determined to rise above her conviction. She went on to graduate from college and raise three children. “Give people the opportunity to be more than their conviction. It doesn’t begin and end with a crime being committed.”
Miles, the Chesterfield commonwealth’s attorney, called it felonization: A plea deal is offered for a felony conviction, but no jail time, versus a misdemeanor with a substantial sentence. He said he remembers that when he was a defense attorney, many of his young clients took the plea to avoid jail, despite his advice.
“I think about it like that old saying: If the only tool in the toolbox was a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” he said. “We as prosecutors, in this community, have been hammering away for decades — the war on drugs, no parole, mandatory minimums, third-strike rules. Just banging away as if all crime is the same nail.”
Miles and the two other prosecutors said they are committed to looking at individual cases more closely and to using more discretion when weighing a felony or misdemeanor charge because of the negative consequences a felony record can have on education, housing and employment opportunities.
BeKura Shabazz, a legal advocate, said she turned to more crime after she’d picked up her first misdemeanor charge and couldn’t find a job.
“Won’t the right decision, according to you all, but it helped me feed my family and the society that told me I was no more good,” she said, adding that she’s sent three children to college. “So, for me, it was right decision.”
“Prosecutors contribute to crime and I don’t think you all acknowledge that,” Shabazz said.
The date for the next discussion in the “Beyond Containment” series hasn’t been set yet.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized BeKura Shabazz's criminal record. The story has been updated.