top of page
Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA)
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
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. 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
bottom of page