Real Reform v. Clickbait Reform: Your Guide to Making a Difference

Part of the challenge of changing the criminal justice system for the better is that, by and large, people have no idea what meaningful reform really looks like. Not only is the term “criminal justice reform” nebulous, America’s criminal courts aren’t something most individuals have to deal with or even think about on a daily basis. To those whose exposure is limited to Facebook, Twitter or cable news, justice reform might mean marijuana legalization, ending mass incarceration, or limiting the powers of the police to arrest and use force—all important issues, for sure, but broad in scope, and prominent in public discourse at least in part due to ratings and clickbait potential. 

Real reform rarely drives ratings. There is no single bill capable of changing the situation we find ourselves in. Real reform work tends to be more granular, and its significance difficult to summarize in Tweet. Not to mention, reform uniformly conveys benefit to the criminally accused—not exactly the most popular segment of society. And in a state like Virginia, with its hostile legislative climate, reform advocacy often isn’t even about “progress.” Virginia’s reformers have to fend off an annual fusillade of bills aimed at making the Commonwealth’s laws more punitive, creating new mandatory minimums, chipping away at the rights of defendants, and broadening the power of the police and prosecutors. The constant threat of moving backward means we rarely have the luxury of moving forward.

virginia senate faces.jpg

But these two perceptions of justice reform aren’t actually at odds with one another. Far from it; they occupy the exact same universe, just at different stages of evolution. After all, where do you think mass incarceration, prosecutorial overreach or an aggrandized police force came from? Just as no single bill has the power to repair our broken system, no single bill is responsible for creating it to begin with. To the contrary, our current circumstances resulted from years of apathy concerning the granular, unpopular, “defensive” work of justice reform. Years of standing silent as bill after bill was passed, chipping away at individual liberty, criminalizing more conduct, providing additional grounds for arrests and searches, and increasing the leverage of prosecutors to coerce criminal defendants. What we’re outraged by on social media is simply the worst manifestation of decades of incremental negligence.

So, now that you understand the nature of the problem, what is there to do about it? And more importantly, is there any hope? The good news is that momentum toward actual progress is beginning to build, particularly with respect to Virginia’s criminal discovery rules—perhaps the most pressing and fundamental of the numerous reforms necessary in the Commonwealth. As it stands, Virginia is one of 10 so-called “closed discovery” states, where a defendant has no right to see the police report from his own criminal case, learn the names of his accusers, or know who will testify against him at trial. And of those 10, Virginia is arguably the worst.

It’s true that the basic notice requirements of due process, such as are at issue here, aren’t exactly headline news material. False convictions sure are, though, and that’s what discovery rules are intended to safeguard against. Fair discovery rules are what guarantee that the right people go to jail, and the right people stay out of it. The lack of fair discovery rules is undoubtedly one of the key contributors to mass incarceration and prosectorial abuses in Virginia—if you’ve clicked “like” or retweeted online outrage fodder related to these topics, discovery reform is the front-lines issue you should care about.

In 2017-18, Justice Forward Virginia is partnering with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a number of other organizations committed to criminal justice reform to finally modernize Virginia’s discovery rules. How do we intend to do this?


First, we are helping organize a Lobby Day in Richmond. A day when everyone who understands the dire need for discovery reform can come to the General Assembly, have their voices heard, and show the legislature, by our numbers, dedication and passion, that discovery reform cannot wait. The Lobby Day is tentatively scheduled for January 12, 2018.

Second, we are organizing a corps of volunteer lobbyists to represent the interests of the defense and the reform community, in Richmond, on each day of the next assembly session. It may be hard to believe, but as it stands, advocates of reform lack such a consistent presence. The same cannot be said of reform opponents, who are not only there in the legislature, but are often looked upon as representing the objective interests of justice, despite obvious bias and conflicts. That there is no voice speaking for the defense should tell you just how great the need is to have our side heard. We will be training you to be volunteer lobbyists (at a lobbying bootcamp), then dispatching you to speak truth to power.

If you want to learn more about the Lobby Day, in-session lobbying efforts, and everything else that we're doing as an organization, consider attending our Fairfax Justice Reform Happy Hour on Tuesday, September 19, 2017, from 5-7pm (and share our Facebook event page with others).

For the first time in a long while, there is hope in Virginia for real, meaningful criminal justice reform, on an issue that underlies every broken piece of our justice system. If you’ve read this far, you are one of few who are compassionate enough to care about disadvantaged defendants and an often-unpopular cause. You are the ones on whom hope relies. No one is going to do this job for you. Now is the time to stand up for justice, and help move Virginia’s criminal courts forward.

Brad Haywood