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December 26, 2018

A new poll released by the ACLU of Virginia indicates Virginians overwhelmingly are in favor of progressive criminal justice reforms.

The survey found 72 percent of registered voters think the criminal justice system works differently for different people. Economic inequality was the reason most cited for that opinion, followed by racial inequality.

When asked about specific ways the criminal justice system in Virginia could be reformed,

  • 91 percent of respondents said policymakers should work to change the system so “people are not treated differently based on how wealthy they are,”
  • 84 percent said the system should be changed so “people are not treated differently based on the color of their skin,” and
  • 62 percent said fewer people should be sent to jail and prison, “because the size of the prison population costs taxpayers too much money.”

“The message is clear: Virginians are tired of a criminal justice system that disparately hurts poor people and those of color,and they will support elected officials who are drivers of change,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

The poll also found 71 percent of Virginia voters support eliminating criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, with 63 percent saying it should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.

The ACLU of Virginia is releasing the poll results along with its criminal justice policy agenda for the 2019 General Assembly session which will begin on Jan. 9. Top priorities to begin movement toward systemic reform include:

  • Reforming the pretrial detention system which unfairly punishes women, racial minorities and people who are unable to pay;
  • Decriminalizing simple marijuana possession;
  • Requiring a criminal conviction before police can convert someone’s money or property to cash;
  • Establishing standards and a process for decertifying police officers for serious misconduct; and
  • Requiring the state Department of Corrections to collect and report data on its practice of solitary confinement.

“It is clear from passage of the federal First Step act that criminal justice reform is a bi-partisan issue. The reforms we are advocating are moderate and should have the support of legislators from across the political spectrum,” Gastañaga said.

In addition to its criminal justice reform agenda, the ACLU of Virginia will be working this legislative session to build support for an amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee the right to vote for anyone over 18.

The ACLU of Virginia commissioned the poll to gain insights into voters’ attitudes toward criminal justice issues and local prosecutors in advance of Commonwealth’s attorney races in more than 90 counties next year. The non-partisan organization is starting a new campaign seeking to influence candidates for local prosecutor to take reform stances.

While nearly three-fourths of respondents said they want criminal justice reform, 95 percent also said they know Commownealth’s attorneys hold some or a great deal of power within that system.

“The ACLU of Virginia will be working to give Virginians the change they want and deserve both through the state legislature and by helping candidates for local prosecutor understand people want prosecutors who seek justice and not solely convictions,” said Gastañaga.

Anderson Robbins Research of Massachusetts conducted the poll on behalf of the ACLU of Virginia from Aug. 28-Sept 9, interviewing 801 likely 2019 voters. The survey has a +/- three-point margin of error.

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