On Monday, the entire nation will pause to honor the life and legacy of a civil rights hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time, in Virginia, Martin Luther King Day is also celebrated alongside Lee-Jackson Day, a tradition dating back more than 100 years to uplift Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
It’s an irony that a man who lost his life in the fight to free all people is honored side by side with the very people who fought to deny Black people their humanity and keep them in chains for generations. These two holidays reflect opposing forces that define the Commonwealth today, where vestiges of Jim Crow are embedded in every aspect of society and where Black people and communities of color still suffer from an unjust criminal legal system and voter suppression efforts that deny them a voice in our democracy.
“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see,” Dr. King once said.
Once exposed to the criminal legal system, people could lose their jobs, their homes, their families, and their right to vote. It’s a well-designed system that pushes people, the majority of whom are Black, out of the public life and into the shadows of systemic oppression.
What we’re seeing right now in Virginia is a troubling and concerning overreliance on incarceration, with the state prison population nearly quadrupling between 1980 and 2016 and people serving 24% longer sentences than they did 20 years ago. People of color are over-represented in our ever-crowding prisons and jails. Black people make up 57% of the prison and jail population, while only accounting for 20% of the state population. Once exposed to the criminal legal system, people could lose their jobs, their homes, their families, and their right to vote. It’s a well-designed system that pushes people, the majority of whom are Black, out of the public life and into the shadows of systemic oppression.
What we’re seeing right now in Virginia is the seamless operation between the criminal legal system and efforts to suppress the people’s vote, as Virginia is one of only three states which permanently bans people convicted of a felony from voting, unless the governor individually restores that right. This Jim Crow-era law disproportionately affects communities of color, where one out of every five Black Virginians cannot vote — that is 22% of the entire Black population in the Commonwealth. People of color and those who can’t afford the best attorneys get arrested and prosecuted more often and get the harshest sentences.
What’s more, Virginia’s criminal code makes it far too easy to lose your voting rights forever. Currently it is a felony-level crime to steal something worth just $500, one of the lowest larceny thresholds in the country. Every day in the Commonwealth, people’s right to vote is being taken away for low-level crimes, even though in principle, this fundamental right should not be taken away for any reason — just like the right to free speech or the right to worship.
So, what are we going to do about it? The ACLU of Virginia’s two main campaigns, Smart Justice and Right to Vote, are centered around creating a more equitable Commonwealth through criminal legal reforms and guaranteeing the right to vote for all Virginians.
We believe that Virginia must break from its overreliance on prisons and jails. To reduce the incarceration rate, we must reform how police interact with people of color, our discriminatory pretrial system, and conditions of confinement that create barriers to re-entry. We must also examine the racial disparity of those imprisoned and whether laws that criminalize homelessness, addiction, and mental illness should be enforced through arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment.
Alongside our Smart Justice campaign, the Right to Vote campaign will focus on passing a constitutional amendment that will allow all citizens over the age of 18 to vote and increase access to the ballot for hundreds of thousands of Virginians.
This would put an end to felony disenfranchisement in Virginia, restore voting rights for people convicted of a felony, and repair some of the damage from our unfair criminal legal system.
Through his example, Dr. King taught us the timeless values of courage, resilience, compassion, and service. We look to Dr. King as a beacon of hope as we continue his work and the work of those who came before us to free all people from the shadows of oppression, so that all of us can breathe free and have a voice in our America.