Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring no longer tries to convince himself that the people he sends to prison are going there to be rehabilitated.
It just works as punishment, he said Monday at the 57th Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square. And the lasting punishment of being labeled a felon often seems to outweigh the crime and hurt communities more than it helps them, he said.
Herring said he wants to stop prosecuting simple drug-possession cases as felonies as a first step in reducing the number of nonviolent offenders saddled with the lifelong consequences of such convictions.
His comments garnered support from the other Richmond officials included in the midday forum: Schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. and Deputy Police Chief Eric English.
The forum’s central question was: “Are we creating too many felons?” And the response from those on the panel was a resounding yes.
The discussion was sparked by last month’s Public Square showing the intense racial and economic segregation in the city. During that meeting, Herring said maps showing the poorest parts of Richmond with the lowest opportunities match maps that show the highest crime rates.
A felony conviction for drug possession or for stealing something worth as little as $200 can wreck someone’s future by limiting their job opportunities and affecting their ability to buy a home or car, Herring said.
He cited a 2010 study showing that the U.S. economy loses $60 billion in the form of reduced job opportunities for felons.
“In the eyes of the law, there is no difference between those felonies or homicide,” Herring said.
“The point is, and this is just a small sampling, once we felonize people they’ve got to overcome all of this to live the way you and I expect them to when they come out of the jail, and it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Woody said law enforcement officials need to take a hard look at who they’re arresting, especially when it comes to drug possession.
“It’s no crime to be addicted to drugs. It’s an illness. It’s a sickness. And you need to treat that,” he said. “We should build bigger schools instead of bigger jails.”
Bedden said the city could have built two high schools, three middle schools or four elementary schools with the $130 million paid for the new jail.
“I would say that before we get to diversion, let’s do a better job with prevention,” Bedden said. “I would argue that education is one of the key factors of prevention.”
Bedden presented a series of charts that showed that Richmond is above the state average in almost every form of spending except education.
Herring’s ideas met little opposition among the crowd of about 160 people, but he acknowledged that his approach won’t be universally loved.
He said he’s not advocating an open season for crime in the city and believes that nonviolent offenders ought to be punished — just not with the felony tag, unless as a last resort. But some people won’t see it that way, he said.
“If people think the city is turning a blind eye to criminal behavior, there will be threats to the city,” he said. “We have to reconcile our interest in adopting a different model to the probability that there will be consequences at the state Capitol.”
Richmond would have to come up with its own model for alternative sentences for what now are nonviolent felonies, and it won’t be cheap, he said. But the money would be better spent there than on housing inmates, he said.
Richmond resident Illya Davis said during the forum’s question-and-answer session that problems in many of the city’s poorest and high-crime areas are connected largely to economics.
Davis said community-owned cooperatives could bring businesses such as grocery stores to neighborhoods that need them while also providing opportunities to earn money.
Many of the attendees who spoke shared personal stories.
Kim Davis said he spent 17 years in federal prison because of his drug addiction. Davis said anyone in the room could be one drink or one hit away from a felony.
Davis said he’s now a student with a 3.1 grade point average and has been trying for seven years to get on his feet as well as to help others.
“I can’t get an apartment because I’m a felon. I can’t go into the schools to try to help the kids because I’m a felon,” he said. “That is enough to send a person right back. You keep closing doors on us.”
Daryl V. Atkinson could have been yet another cautionary tale on what happens when felony prosecutions become the default instead of the last resort. Instead, he’s a testament to a life reclaimed.