Richmond jail

Housing units at the Justice Center that replaced the Richmond City Jail.

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.

In 1996, Atkinson pleaded guilty to a first-time, nonviolent drug offense and spent 40 months in prison. But after his release, he completed college and law school and is now a senior staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, N.C. Last year, he was recognized by the White House for his efforts to provide employment opportunities for people with criminal records.

“Once I got out, I had that familial support,” he said in an appearance in Richmond last week at the invitation of Hope in the Cities. “The only thing that separates me from a thousand brilliant men I left behind the wall was that loving family that provided me food, clothing and shelter.”

Not everyone has such a successful landing, if we’re judged by an incarceration rate that’s the world’s highest. Atkinson has dedicated his career to removing the barriers created by contact with the criminal justice system. Even some people who make a living within that system are alarmed that it is creating too many felons and are searching for ways to work around it.

At Monday’s Public Square at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring acknowledged that attempts to push less punitive laws through the General Assembly have not been successful. Virginia’s $200 grand larceny threshold remains among the lowest in the nation. Apparently, lawmakers have been convinced that Virginia is for larcenists, not lovers.

As Herring pointed out, we strip felons of the right to vote, weaken their credit, and render them ineligible to sell alcoholic beverages, drive a commercial vehicle or enter a contract with public schools. They can’t be a care provider for children, the elderly or the disabled. Teaching or obtaining a contractor’s license is out. It’s as if we begrudge them a second chance.

Which means that if Herring is to plot a more progressive course, he will have to exercise his discretion in prosecuting fewer felonies. But he made it clear that this requires community buy-in after the police have been called.

“You all, it’s on you. ... You all are going to have to say, ‘I want you to do something short of convicting some of these people of felonies, and this is what we are willing to tolerate you trying to do.’ ”

That’s bold talk in a place like Virginia, where diversion programs are left for local jurisdictions to figure out and fund. That those programs might actually save the state money does not appear to be a winning argument.

But our zeal for incarceration is expensive and inefficient, the sort of business no true fiscal conservative should want any part of.

Yes, we have a shiny state-of-the-art “justice center” to replace the hot, outmoded and overcrowded jail on Fairfield Way. But as city schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden pointed out Monday, we could have built two new high schools, or three middle schools, or four elementary schools, with the $134 million we spent on the new jail.

Look, I’m as compassionate as the next guy, and I believe inmates should be housed humanely. The sweltering conditions of the old jail were an abomination. But if our community’s jail cells are better appointed than the majority of our classrooms, it speaks to a paucity of values. We should be spending money on educating our children today so we don’t have to spend it warehousing them as adults tomorrow. And a jail is no place for the drug-addicted and the mentally ill, and may not be the place for first-time offenders who present no risk to society.

“There are mechanisms currently being done by various stakeholders in the system to take people out of the traditional criminal justice processes,” Atkinson said in an interview Monday. Prosecutors can decide not to prosecute “irrespective of what the statute says.”

Atkinson said he would go further than Herring in expanding the felony-reduction focus beyond nonviolent offenders.

“How are we going to create meaningful second chances and opportunities even for people who have done something violent?” he asked, adding that people are not the sum of their mistakes.

A prosecutor “has to be able to have the moral courage to say taking this approach isn’t going to make us less safe,” Atkinson said. In fact, when people become unemployable and are pushed into an underground economy because of a felony record, the community becomes less safe than if they had been diverted into a program to get at the underlying issues that landed them in trouble.

“We have to be nimble,” Atkinson said, adding that if legislatures “are not going to ratchet down punishment, we are going to have to look for opportunities to do that ourselves in partnership with the community.”

The communities that have been most preyed upon by criminals may be the hardest sell for such an approach, which is not without risk for a prosecutor whose political aspirations are assumed to run further.

But if Atkinson indeed left a thousand brilliant men behind, we cannot afford to continue this obscene waste of financial and human capital.

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