Virginia Criminal Justice System
The Evolution of the Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system is a popular topic of conversation these days. There are some who believe that the system works very well, and there are others who believe that we need to completely overhaul our “broken” justice system. Like most things in life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Many of the claims against the criminal justice system are, quite frankly, untrue. However, our criminal justice system is made up of human beings and therefore, it is not perfect.
It’s important to realize that public attitudes about crime, punishment and justice have changed over the decades, just as they’ve changed on many topics such as smoking, dieting and whether we should wear seatbelts.
Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys are committed to continuous improvement of our justice system. We are never finished looking for ways to do things better. That’s why Virginia’s prosecutors have taken the lead in numerous programs designed to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. We’ve led efforts to establish drug, veteran, mental health and other specialty courts. We’ve developed diversion programs for non-violent offenders and, recently, we’ve worked to implement an important overhaul of the rules governing discovery in criminal cases. But we’re not finished. We will always be looking for ways to improve the Virginia’s criminal justice system in a way that is fair and just.
Prosecutors: Leaders in Innovative Criminal Justice Solutions
(Ideally, we would be able to discuss actual examples here. We need the list of the alternative programs by jurisdiction.)
There is nothing more important to Virginia’s prosecutors than ensuring that our justice system is as fair and effective as possible. We never want to stop improving, and we are open to better ways of doing things. Commonwealth’s Attorneys all over the state work with local courts and the legislature in their efforts to improve our justice system.
Best Practices in the Pursuit of Justice
At VACA, we play an important role in keeping Virginia’s criminal justice system fair and effective. We coordinate with prosecutors across the country and with organizations such as The National Association of District Attorneys, the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, the National Association of Prosecution Coordinators and the American Prosecutors Association. We monitor new developments in the nation’s criminal courts, and we bring the very best practices back to Virginia to share with our members. This way we can ensure that Virginia’s prosecutors are on the cutting edge of new strategies to improve the safety of our citizens.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES
Criminal Law Reform in Virginia
Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys understand that our criminal justice system can always be improved. We are committed to making our system fair and effective. However, as prosecutors, we believe it’s important to keep crime victims at the center of criminal justice reform. Prosecutors are charged with looking at reform through the eyes of their entire community, which includes victims and defendants and also their families.
Anyone who’s consumed modern media knows the more unusual something is, the more airtime and ink it will get. Although erroneous convictions remain rarer than ever, the media are quick to cover allegations of erroneous convictions – whether true or simply allegations – in 24/7 news stories, television series and crime TV.
Virginia’s prosecutors understand their role in addressing the public’s concern about police misconduct and criminal justice reform. Despite the care with which prosecutors have approached their work, including officer-involved shootings, there is a perception among some that prosecutors are only in it to win, rather than to pursue justice. This misperception is something prosecutors are actively addressing by helping to educate the community on the checks and balances within our legal system.
Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys are taking an increased role in educating their communities on the realities of the criminal justice system and their role in seeking justice. This website is an example of the commitment of Virginia’s prosecutors to help provide important information and clarify much of the misinformation circulated by those with distinct agendas other than public safety.
In Virginia, prosecution as an adult is reserved for those juveniles who are charged with the most serious types of offenses. Sadly, being under age 18 does not prevent someone from seriously harming or killing another person. Virginia prosecutors take their role in determining when to prosecute a juvenile as an adult very seriously. We believe juveniles should be prosecuted as adults only when the facts warrant it after an exhaustive investigation of not only the offense, but also the rehabilitative options available for the particular juvenile involved.
Virginia lawmakers decide whether the death penalty is legal within our state. Under Virginia law, the death penalty is reserved for only the worst of the worst homicide cases. Virginia prosecutors take their role in determining when to seek the death penalty very seriously, and only do so when the facts warrant it after an exhaustive investigation and communication with the victim’s family.
Commonwealth’s Attorneys are big supporters of re-entry and rehabilitation programs. We believe that programs designed to help people lead productive, meaningful lives are an important part of a high-functioning criminal justice system. (https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/correctional-services/grants/papis-virginia-prisoner-reentry-program)
In the vast majority of Virginia criminal cases, the Commonwealth’s Attorney does not make the charging decisions. (See, section of website describing VA procedure/Hyperlink) However, offenses involving law enforcement officers are a rare exception to the normal procedure. Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys investigate many of these cases and take very seriously their responsibility to pursue indictments where appropriate without regard to the offender’s occupation. We also know that the community wants officer-involved shootings to be objectively reviewed without fear or favor. In some instances, circumstances may warrant the services of a special prosecutor from outside the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, ; however, many cases are appropriately handled by the local Commonwealth’s Attorney who will conduct her investigation as an independent entity from the police department involved.
Body Worn Cameras
There is much public discussion these days about body worn cameras (BWCs). Virginia’s prosecutors believe that body worn cameras are a good thing. However, many areas of the Commonwealth’s simply do not have the financial and manpower resources to effectively deploy body worn cameras. While Virginia law does not mandate body worn cameras, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services published a Model Policy on Body Worn Cameras in 2015. (https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/content/body-worn-camera-model-policy). Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys believe that any local jurisdiction seeking to implement BWCs should do so in accordance with the Model Policy and in collaboration with other criminal justice stakeholders. In jurisdictions around the nation, implementation of BWCs has resulted in dramatically increased resource consumption by police departments, defense attorneys and prosecutors to review, redact, manage and store the voluminous amount of digital evidence created by the use of BWCs. Therefore, it is important that BWCs be adopted only after sufficient resources are in place within the entire local criminal justice system.
Victims of Crime
Each year in Virginia, thousands of our citizens become victims of crime - some more violent than others. As prosecutors, we believe it’s important to keep crime victims at the center of criminal justice reform. We also believe that the recent “victimization” of violent criminals is a dangerous path we need to be careful in traveling. If we normalize crime by making every offender a victim of circumstance, we risk blurring our inherent sense of right and wrong. Prosecutors are charged with looking at criminal justice policy through the eyes of their entire community, which includes both victims and defendants.
While there is always room for improvements in the criminal justice system, crime victims must have a strong voice in the process. People don’t choose to be crime victims, and they deserve powerful advocates who can help them transition from victims to survivors. Part of our job as prosecutors is to provide victims a forum to advocate for themselves and be heard.
In the future, this page will be dedicated to sharing the stories of crime victims to help the public better understand the toll crime takes on their communities.
For more information about Virginia’s crime victims’ rights, visit the VDCJS website: (https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/victims/summary-virginias-crime-victim-witness-rights-act.pdf)
THE COMMUNITY'S ROLE IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Victims’ Rights Laws
The rights of victims are set forth in the Virginia Constitution
“That in criminal prosecutions, the victim shall be accorded fairness, dignity and respect by the officers, employees and agents of the Commonwealth’s and its political subdivisions and officers of the courts and, as the General Assembly may define and provide by law, may be accorded rights to reasonable and appropriate notice, information, restitution, protection, and access to a meaningful role in the criminal justice process. These rights may include, but not be limited to, the following:
The right to protection from further harm or reprisal through the imposition of appropriate bail and conditions of release;
The right to be treated with respect, dignity and fairness at all stages of the criminal justice system;
The right to address the circuit court at the time sentence is imposed;
The right to receive timely notification of judicial proceedings;
The right to restitution;
The right to be advised of release from custody or escape of the offender, whether before or after disposition; and
The right to confer with the prosecution.”
VA. Const. art. I, Section 8-A
Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys work hard every day to give meaning to the Victims’ Rights provisions of the Virginia Constitution stated above. They provide victims with early notice of their rights, and with ongoing notice of all critical phases of the criminal case. Prosecutors strive to treat the victims of crime with the utmost dignity and respect and communicate regularly with them to give information and get input. Finally, and most importantly, Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys are committed to upholding every crime victim’s right to justice.
For more information about Virginia Crime Victims’ Rights, visit: (https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/victims/summary-virginias-crime-victim-witness-rights-act.pdf)
How to Keep Your Community Safe
It’s a fact. All the police and prosecutors in the world can’t make a community safe if the citizens are not active partners with law enforcement. Individuals who choose to participate in keeping their communities safe and hold criminals accountable are the most powerful force in crime prevention and reduction.
Every community in Virginia has the potential to reduce crime, and the local criminal justice system should reflect each county’s shared value system.
A strong partnership among communities, police officers, prosecutors and judges is the best crime-fighting weapon available in Virginia. When all the parts of the criminal justice system and community work together to address problems and develop shared solutions, we can achieve long-term public safety.
Here are some examples of how you can contribute to a more safe and healthy community:
Participate in or form a local community/neighborhood crime watch groups
Serve on jury duty when called
Participate in your local police and/or prosecutor Citizens Academy
Contact your local Commonwealth’s Attorney to find out how to support the efforts of his/her office
Get to know your neighbors and local law enforcement members
Use your security system if you have one
Improve the lighting in and around your house. Make use of timers or motion sensors for your lights
Keep doors and windows locked
Consider installing security cameras
Keep your vacation dates off social media
Don’t let mail or newspapers accumulate
Report suspicious behavior around your neighborhood
Never leave valuables in plain sight in your car
Don’t keep garage door openers inside a parked car outside
Keep legal guns secured and out of the reach of children
Get involved in local organizations that support at-risk children
A VIEW OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The criminal code in the Commonwealth’s of Virginia is established by elected representatives of the people, such as members of the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. Prosecutors do not create laws, and this includes any mandatory sentencing requirements. Prosecutors do work with lawmakers to advocate for laws that impact public safety and the rights of victims.
Law Enforcement –
Each city and county has local law enforcement agencies that are responsible for preventing crime, investigating alleged crimes and for apprehending offenders. They respond to citizen calls for assistance. They impartially investigate crimes, gather evidence, arrest and charge people, and work with prosecutors to hold offenders accountable.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney (Prosecutor)
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of as minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.” Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 3.8 comment 1.
As “ministers of justice,” Commonwealth’s Attorney’s role is to represent the Commonwealth in criminal matters to pursue justice, not simply convict. They are responsible for protecting the rights of both victims and the accused.
Criminal Defense Attorneys
Defense attorneys are advocates for the accused. They are solely charged with zealously representing their clients and protecting their client’s interests. They make sure all rights afforded to the accused are upheld.
The Courts and Judges
Judges interpret and uphold the rule of law, assess the evidence presented by prosecutors and defense attorneys, and control how hearings and trials advance in their courtrooms. Their job is to make sure that the rules of court are followed by all parties. Their role is to be impartial decision-makers in the pursuit of justice. In Virginia, magistrates, along with police, make charging decisions in the majority of cases. Judges rule on appropriate bail and other conditions of release, set dates for court hearings, and impose sentences of those convicted based upon the jury’s recommendation, the defendant’s criminal history, the prosecutor’s and defense attorney’s requests and Virginia law.
Community corrections is a function of the Commonwealth’s government operated in partnership with local, county-operated community corrections agencies. The Virginia Department of Corrections is the government agency responsible for community corrections and operating prisons and correctional facilities in the Commonwealth’s of Virginia. Community corrections activities include supervision, community-based sanctions, and services directed at offenders who have committed felony crimes and have been placed on probation or parole.
Probation and Parole
The Virginia Department of Corrections provides supervision for those individuals placed on probation by a judge. https://vadoc.virginia.gov/offender-resources/offenders-under-community-supervision/probation-parole/
While parole in Virginia was abolished in 1995, those convicted of crimes before that time, and those who have reached a certain age are eligible for parole. The Virginia Parole Board is responsible for conducting hearings regarding the potential release of those inmates under the Board's release authority. Prosecutors do not make decisions as to when people are paroled or how much time they actually serve based upon the sentence a judge imposes. Below is a link to the Virginia Parole Board for more information.