Join us for our Summer Social: Aug. 21 in Leesburg, VA


Join Justice Forward Virginia for its 2019 Summer Social with Special Guests Buta Biberaj (candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney), Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, and Delegate Wendy Gooditis.

Although it seems like every one of the past few years has been “The Year of Justice Reform,” 2019 has set a new standard in the Commonwealth. On our end, Justice Forward has been working hard for prosecutorial reform and to build momentum toward ending The Trial Penalty in the Virginia (more on that below). On August 21, 2019, at Dog Money Brewery in Leesburg, we’ll be discussing those initiatives and others — and particularly how they apply in Loudoun County. Special guest and candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj will be joining us to share her vision for how to bring Loudoun County into the modern era of smart, progressive, evidence-informed prosecution.

Here are the details:

What: Justice Forward Virginia’s Summer Social
When: August 21, 2019 from 6pm to 8pm
Where: Dog Money Restaurant & Brewery, 50 Catoctin Circle NE, Leesburg, Virginia 20176
Who: Special guests Buta Biberaj, Phyllis Randall and Wendy Gooditis, and JFV’s community of justice reform advocates
RSVP on our Facebook event page:
Summer Social Facebook Event Page

And what about Justice Forward’s 2019-20 agenda?

As we’ll discuss in greater detail on August 21, in 2019-20, we’re focusing on reforming Virginia’s system of cash bail and ending the Trial Penalty in Virginia. Regarding the latter, there was once broad consensus that the criminal justice system only achieved fair results when trials occurred in meaningful numbers. Trials, however, have become exceedingly rare, largely because of something called “The Trial Penalty”: the power of the government to make losing a trial such a frightening proposition that any reasonable person would accept a plea bargain.

How have trials become so risky that 95% of felony convictions are obtained via guilty plea—20% more than just a few decades ago? Incrementally but consistently, the legislature has given immense power to prosecutors in the form of new crimes, harsher penalties, mandatory minimums and the like. It’s not just new crimes and sentencing laws that are the culprit, however: much of the power to coerce guilty pleas has come in the form of draconian procedures unique to Virginia, rules that effectively eliminate individual rights, remove power from judges and the community, and reassign it to the government.

There’s no single bill that will end The Trial Penalty in Virginia — the process to end it will be as incremental as the process that created it. Justice Forward intends to start in 2019-20 by reforming some of the main causes of a trial penalty (or trial tax) in Virginia:

  • Mandatory minimums: eliminate as many as possible and redefine the others to return discretion to judges and juries to sentence defendants fairly.

  • Tell Jurors the Truth About Sentencing: Virginia is one of 6 states where juries not only determine guilt/innocence, but also determine the defendant’s sentence. It is the only one of the 6 that does not tell jurors what sentence they will have to impose if they convict. In other words, they’re kept in the dark until after they’ve convicted someone—even if there are lengthy minimums involved. This needs to change.

  • Create “Degrees” of Robbery: In Virginia, de minimis conduct can be and often is charged as robbery. For example, a bully who pushes a younger student and steals lunch money has committed robbery, the same as someone who brutally pistol whips someone with a loaded firearm and steals expensive jewelry. Despite covering a broad range of conduct, Virginia has only one punishment for robbery: 5 years to life in prison. Not only is that sentence very often disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense, it very frequently triggers a phenomenon known as a “jury minimum,” which is like a mandatory minimum, making the likelihood of a severe sentence far greater if a defendant chooses to exercise his right to trial by jury. Virginia needs to create different degrees, or levels of robbery so that not every robbery is a life offense.

  • Reform Virginia’s Arcane Criminal Discovery Rules: Virginia remains one of only nine states with so-called “closed discovery” rules, where a defendant has no right to witness statements, witness lists, or even the police reports from his own criminal case. Ours are arguably the second-most restrictive rules in the country, trailing only Alabama. It’s time to end trial by ambush and give defendants the tools they need to defend themselves at trial.

  • Stop Encouraging Prosecutors to “Run Up the Score”: In Virginia, state funding for individual Commonwealth’s Attorneys is determined in large part by the frequency with which each office charges felony offenses and obtains felony convictions. This creates an obvious financial incentive for prosecutors to overcharge cases, and a disincentive to offering leniency where warranted. The overcharging of cases as felonies is thought to be a primary cause of over-incarceration. The legislature should ban the current funding formula for and require prosecutor funding be determined by reference to objective crime or population data that is not affected by prosecutors’ charging practices.

Justice Forward Virginia is the only advocacy group in Virginia that devotes all of its energy to state and local criminal justice reform in Virginia. If we are to achieve our goals, we need to grow, and in order to grow, we need your support—both your time and your financial support. So that’s what we’re asking for: come out and show support for our work, for Buta Biberaj, and for justice reform in the Commonwealth.

Brad Haywood