Two women are facing off in next week’s election for the top prosecutor’s job in Henrico County.
Incumbent Shannon Taylor, 51, a Democrat, is running for her third term as Henrico’s commonwealth’s attorney. She first took the post in 2012 and within a month cleaned house, firing seven of the outgoing administration’s more senior attorneys, including her current Republican challenger, Owen Conway.
Conway, 54, who currently handles criminal defense cases, said she’s not running for revenge but says she sees “a lot that can be improved in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office looking at it from the outside.”
“I would not have changed the last eight years. I have gained such invaluable experience by working with defendants. It will make me a much better prosecutor having done defense work for eight years,” Conway said. “I feel like I can do a better job for the citizens. I have no other political ambitions. I truly want to serve. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.”
Taylor, who also was a defense attorney before taking over the Henrico office, said she wants to carry on with the “criminal justice reform” platform she’s run on in the past.
“When I came in, in 2012, I had a vision for this office that was going to be, in my opinion, that was different than the way things had always been done in Henrico County,” Taylor said.
She has attempted to make the criminal justice system more compassionate for those suffering from drug addiction, mental health issues and poverty by offering more lenient sentences for those who seek treatment or participate in diversion programs.
“One of my first policy decisions was changing the notion or the mindset that just because someone had been charged with a felony did not mean that a conviction of a felony should be the automatic result,” Taylor said.
She said she has sought to “provide people opportunities to change the course of their decision-making with resources, so when faced with the proverbial fork in the road — good choice or bad choice — giving them the structure to make better decisions next time.”
Conway, who also wants to see more access to services to treat mental health and substance-abuse issues, called Taylor’s policy of handling cases inconsistent and arbitrary, and pointed to it as an example of a lack of leadership.
A main issue for both candidates is overcrowding at the two county-run jails, and both agree that the issue stems from higher incarceration rates of people with substance-use and mental health issues. They differ, though, on a solution.
“I have had clients, based on the fact that there is nowhere for them to go, they are being held in jail,” Conway said. “I think often everyone agrees, including the judge, that that’s not where they should be, but there is nowhere else for them. ... As commonwealth’s attorney, I’ll be in more of a position to assist with these changes than I am currently.”
Conway said she doesn’t support building a new jail but does support a lower-cost, low-security facility for people who could serve time in alternative ways, like in treatment.
Taylor is part of a panel of county officials who have met several times to address overcrowding. The panel has determined that defendants with pending charges of simple possession are being held in Henrico at higher rates than in neighboring communities. General District Court judges expressed concerns about defendants who have been let out and then overdosed, so they are more likely to be held so they could benefit from some of the jails’ substance-abuse programs or simply detox while awaiting trial, Taylor explained.
“So the importance of recognizing what is happening at the jail is understanding that we need to do a better job having resources available for individuals, whether they [are] inside the criminal justice system, or outside the criminal justice system when it comes to addiction recovery,” Taylor said. “If those populations could be addressed more expeditiously and having them released, that would significantly help the jail population.”