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good morning, let’s find out what this panel of prosecutors and public defenders has to say about criminal justice.

“i was gobsmacked to find out how many prisons we have,” says panel moderator cynthia neff.
noticeably not on the panel is current albemarle county commonwealth’s attorney robert tracci. instead, we have the man currently challenging him for that position this year, jim hingeley.
“there’s very little justice in the criminal justice system” for the black community, says diane mcneal from the NAACP. she instead calls it “the criminal punishment system.”
joe platania, the charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney, starts by emphasizing that the city and county CA’s office have “different mission statements.” some subtle shade at the not-present county CA 👀
“there were people who’d done horrible things but they weren’t necessarily horrible people,” says platania about his time defending people on death row.
learn something new every day — i didn’t know platania was a public defender under hingeley before he was a prosecutor.
jim hingeley is running for albemarle county commonwealth’s attorney. (you may know him as “mr civility,” a nickname he got after being booed heartily at cville city council meetings.)
i’ll still boo him when he tells us to be nicer to politicians, but he’s definitely a better candidate that robert tracci.
he’s been a public defender for 25 of his 43 years practicing law. he founded the public defenders office here.
then-governor george allen vetoed the formation of the office repeatedly before it was successful
(george allen’s political career was famously tanked by a viral video of him using an obscure racial slur)
public defender liz murtagh says she went to law school with dreams of being a prosecutor, which is surprising.
she calls the school to prison pipeline “a horrible problem.”
(i know defense attorneys have to vigorously defend their clients, but the only time i’ve ever seen murtagh argue a case she was defending a white cop who raped a black woman while on duty and it really colored my perception of her.)
i guess i have to say he was acquitted for the rape, but he was fired for having sexual contact with a witness while on duty.
“we don’t have one criminal justice system, we have 3211,” platania says - every prosecutor’s office in the country is run by different elected officials.
platania tells an anecdote about an intoxicated man who fired several shots into the air in a residential area. the man had a 20yr old breaking&entering felony (which in VA is considered a “violent crime”) - the man was charged with violent felon in possession of a firearm.
under the law, that’s a five year minimum sentence. murtagh at the public defenders office worked with the prosecutor to get the charges reduced because he wasn’t a violent criminal, wasn’t a risk to the community. prosecutors have A LOT of leeway.
“it’s problematic that someone else could’ve said, sorry, that’s a five year sentence and there’s nothing i can do about that,” platania said, acknowledging the “tremendous amount” of discretion a prosecutor has in charging defendants.
“i don’t think i could’ve gotten the same outcome in albemarle county,” murtagh says about the story. (lotta shade at tracci on this panel & i am extremely here for it)
“they’re not just criminals, they’re people,” “members of the community,” murtagh says about her clients.

“prosecutors are the most powerful people in the criminal punishment system.”
murtagh says one conviction is enough — “you don’t have to have three or four charges,” which is a direct jab at tracci, who is well known for stacking unnecessary additional charges against defendants.
hingeley says a prosecutor who works on a “charges basis,” that is, prosecutes things as charged the way they come across their desk, would’ve sent the client in this anecdote away for every day of five years.
hingeley says we have an “idealistic framework” - but even if every part of the system is working properly, a prosecutor who sticks to the charges as filed & exercises no discretion, it always contributes to unjust mass incarceration.
“it doesn’t take legislation - the prosecution can do it with a stroke of a pen,” hingeley says about downgrading charges. “the prosecutor can use discretion to reduce sentences”
they also have the power to use diversion, “taking someone off the track that leads to incarceration”
hingeley: prosecutorial discretion can provide ”less incarceration and more opportunity for people to be punished in a way that is beneficial to the community.” he says mass incarceration is degrading to community safety.
“the amount of money we spend to keep people in prison is astronomical,” hingeley adds. ending mass incarceration will “pay dividends for the community”

neff says the annual cost to incarcerate one inmate in VA is $31,240.
“when you look at where the prisons are, it all starts to look a little suspicious,” says the moderator - many of them are in poor, rural areas.
“once you get in that system, you’re in it and it will not let you go,” says mcneal. she asks what the black community can do to pressure prosecutors to use that discretion to keep black youth out of the prison system.
platania says if a middle or high school student gets into a fight, technically it’s assault and battery and the child can be prosecuted. they’re working with schools to handle these matters administratively, rather than criminally.
“when someone’s convicted and sentenced, it doesn’t end,” “once the hooks are in, it’s very hard to pull yourself out.” maybe a fight at school is just a fight at school. “just because we have a hammer doesn’t mean everything’s a nail,” platania says.
the moderator asks how prosecutors’ offices are measured - what metrics are used? he says he doesn’t really have an answer to that but that funding is allocated based on how many felonies they have... which probably explains tracci’s tactic of charging everything as a felony
city council candidate and attorney lloyd snook raises his hand in the audience to say the most important metric is voters. we tell the prosecutor how we think they’re doing by voting. spoken like a true old white politician.
monica robinson from the harrisonburg NAACP says they are collaborating more with local government. rebuilding trust has been slow.
(didn’t the harrisonburg naacp abandon the young queer black couple who were brutalized by a cop over a noise complaint a few months ago?)
oh wow she’s actually bringing up that incident. “it went real crazy real fast.” she says she talked to the police chief who talked to the prosecutor. “we all worked together to calm the flames,” she says.
that was not the perception i got from the victim.
robinson is now telling a story of her 18 year old nephew was shot and killed. she talks about the process of the trial, saying they worked with the prosecutors office. she learned a lot through that process about how the system works.
the moderator asks what the impact of the CA’s office is on local policing. diane mcneal from the albemarle county NAACP says the police, too, have a lot of discretionary power.
hingeley says a lot of the police conduct happens before the case lands in the prosecutor’s office. a prosecutor does rely on evidence collected by police & must determine if it was collected lawfully.
hingeley says a prosecutor can influence police conduct by refusing to stand for unconstitutional conduct - if they determine racial discrimination was a factor in a search, they can “draw a line through” the charges based on that evidence.
murtagh worked with juvenile defendants for many years. she said police “were taking pictures of my kids” - police would stop children of color & photograph them. they kept a box of photos of children they’d stopped.
platania says people are surprised to learn the police department does not work for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. if they think a stop was unconstitutional, they’ve started reporting that back to the PD so the officer can receive more training.
platania said he got a call recently from the UVA PD - a supervisor told him an officer had been fired for making untrue statements about a stop. the defendant was guilty of the crime, but the officer lied about the circumstances around the stop.
platania said they pulled every active case related to that officer & dropped the charges because the officer was no longer credible. they are now going back through past cases involving the officer and re-examining them.
bless this moderator - opening it up to questions, she said to stick to questions “and not pontifications.”
harold folley from LAJC asks the panel what they think of the police civilian review board. hingeley says he supports it (which is perhaps easy to say as he’s running for CA in the county where there is no CRB...)
platania says he also supports the CRB. “there is a thirst” in this community for transparency and candid conversations. “it’s really about increased transparency with the police department” and improving relationships.
shut up lloyd snook.
he’s probably going to win one of the three seats up for grabs on city council and i am dreading listening to this man speak
dr rick turner, former head of the county NAACP, says “you talked about making mistakes. we all make mistakes...” one mistake made is the prosecutor’s office having no black people on staff.
“having a staff with no black lawyers is not only a mistake, it’s criminal,” dr turner says. he asks how they can correct that. (both the city and county CA’s office have no black attorneys)
platania says the city CA’s office has five ACA’s, one of whom is indian. “indian? i’m not talking about indians!” dr turner interjects. joe says two other ACA’s identify as latina.
the city CA’s office has sent recruitment letters to HBCUs and has three finalists from Howard for an internship.
“i know you’re still not happy yet, but we’re trying to make it better.”
hingeley tells an anecdote about a black lawyer who used to work for him & says he believes in diversity.

“we need more people of color to go to law school,” murtagh says.
“we’re not talking about people of color,” turner says.
“that’s the same answer we’ve been given for 40 years, 50 years. it doesn’t work,” turner says to murtagh’s platitudes about encouraging children of color to go to law school. he says you have to go out and find african american attorneys and hire them.
a community member in the audience says they attended trials of community defenders charged related to the events of A12 - corey long, deandre harris, and donald blakney.
“we were upset that any of our community defenders were charged,” but noted that all three were black men. “the white supremacists were able to weaponize our court system against us by selectively complaining about black men.”
not super satisfied with platania’s answer about why he used his prosecutorial discretion to prosecute those three men. he really just outlined the charges against them and offered no moral argument.
diane mcneal says “we have to show up, we have to be vocal,” but that black people have been discouraged from participating. “we have got to understand where our power is and take that power.” she encourages black parents to go to school board & PTO meetings.
in closing, the hosts ask if anyone in the audience “is doing the hard work for running for elected office.” in addition to panelist hingeley who is running for county CA, there are candidates for city council, county sheriff, county BOS, and state delegate in the audience.
that event was just a real life subtweet @ robert tracci and i love that.
i don’t live in the country so i can’t vote in that election, but please for the love of god vote against tracci if you do.
also, i went to that panel out of personal interest with no explicit intention of livetweeting it on my saturday morning but i guess that’s the only way i know how to pay attention to something? what have i done to my brain. i can only process information via posting.
uh that’s county, not country 🤦‍♀️ but seriously i’d vote for a shopping cart with one broken wheel over robert tracci
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