Virginia: A longtime public defender runs for prosecutor to fight “family separation”
Every year, the United States’s enormous reliance on incarceration separates millions from their families for some period of time, a reality that has yet to stir a transformation of our criminal justice practices. “Every day, we lock parents up for decades in our prisons regardless of how it will affect their children, and no one bats an eye,” Sarah Lustbader of The Appeal wrote in the Washington Post last year, at the height of the protests against President Trump’s immigration policies. “Those who are demanding that children not be treated as collateral damage when it comes to immigration should be just as vocal when it comes to criminal sentencing.”
A candidate for prosecutor has picked up the challenge in Albemarle County, the Virginia jurisdiction that surrounds Charlottesville. “Family separation is not just an ICE policy,” Jim Hingeley wrote on Facebook this month, linking it to pretrial detention and mass incarceration. Hingeley was the chief public defender of Albemarle County and Charlottesville from 1998, when he opened the office, to 2016. He is now running as the Democratic nominee against Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, a Republican.
I talked to Hingeley about his concerns regarding family separation, and why he thinks the prosecutor’s office is a place from which to fight it. “I saw families that were torn apart, and I saw the consequences of that,” he replied, alluding to people he represented as a public defender. He denounced the isolation produced by incarceration, from the impact of prisons’ geographic remoteness to the way in which pretrial detention cuts people off from resources they may need for a strong defense. “Their prospects for success after incarceration were very considerably diminished because of family separation,” he said. He also evoked the effects on children, who studies have found experience more hardships when a parent is incarcerated.
Prosecutors have the discretion to alleviate these problems via charging or sentencing decisions that divert more people from incarceration, and Hingeley said he would pursue approaches that keep more people “in the community” and “out of jails and prisons.” For one, he has also pledged to not seek cash bail, which is a system that keeps people detained pretrial over a financial inability to pay.
He also wants to charge more cases at the misdemeanor level, instead of the harsher felony level. In Albemarle County, a higher share of the more serious arrests result in felony-level convictions than in most of the state’s other large jurisdictions, according to an analysis published by Justice Forward Virginia, a nonpartisan political action committee.
Reducing charges in this way would make people eligible for diversionary programs they would otherwise be barred from, so that their offense triggers consequences other than incarceration. If more people faced “some kind of sanction … in the community,” as opposed to receiving a prison sentence, it would lower “the number of people who are going to be separated from their family and from community resources,” he explained.
Lower charges would also mean shorter sentences in cases where prosecutors recommend incarceration, and fewer collateral consequences. State law provides that anyone who is convicted of a felony loses the right to vote for life, and Tracci, the incumbent prosecutor, joined a legal brief in 2016 against then-Governor Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to reform this. By contrast, Hingeley said he applauds McAuliffe’s policy, and that he would be mindful of the loss of voting rights when deciding whether to charge an offense as a felony.
Other candidates are also running for prosecutor elsewhere in Virginia on a platform of ending mass incarceration. Hingeley says he is keeping an eye on their races to form an alternative to the politics of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, the group that lobbies on behalf of state prosecutors. “I’ve worked against the prosecutors’ association in the legislature on behalf of poor people,” he said, calling them “a very regressive force.” “If I’m elected and other progressive prosecutors are elected,” he added, “we would be small in number, but we can constitute a different voice.”
Our full interview with Jim Hingeley is available here.