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KEEPING VIRGINIA BEACH SAFE

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Myths  and  Facts

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Myth:

Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys are resisting criminal justice reform.

Fact:

Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys have always been leaders in the evolution of the criminal justice system with the goal of protecting the rights of victims and defendants.  Virginia’s prosecutors have been pioneers in using diversion programs and alternative sentencing measures to seek justice and provide opportunities for rehabilitation, while saving finite prison resources for individuals who may pose a serious threat to our citizens. Virtually every jurisdiction in Virginia has at least one alternative court or diversion initiative. 

 

I am committed to making the Virginia Beach justice system modern and resource efficient. For several years now, Virginia Beach has had a Drug Treatment Court. I have been working closely with the Virginia Beach Circuit Court to create a Veterans’ Court, as well.  My office works to ensure citizens are protected and individual offenders receive effective programs and services to reduce and eradicate repeat criminal behavior.

Myth:

Virginia’s prosecutors are to blame for the “mass incarceration” we are experiencing right now.

Fact:

It’s important to understand that Commonwealth’s Attorneys do not, alone, have the power to incarcerate a single person. Our justice system is intentionally designed to avoid concentration of power in any one entity. The Virginia legislature establishes the criminal laws and appropriate sentences for individuals who engage in criminal behavior.  Virginia Beach prosecutors don’t sentence people. That role resides with judges and juries.  I am committed to creating and offering innovative programs to help keep citizens safe and also reduce the harm that criminal convictions can have on defendants and their families.

Myth:

Commonwealth’s Attorneys are the most powerful actors in Virginia’s criminal justice system.

Fact:

Not by a long shot. Actually, no single actor in the criminal justice system is “all powerful.” 
Our American justice system is specifically designed to prevent a concentration of power – especially when it comes to prosecutors.

 

  • Prosecutors don’t make the laws. The power to make laws rests with the legislature. Simply put, pretty much all crimes and their punishments are decided by your Commonwealth’s Delegates and Senators.

  • Prosecutors don’t arrest people. Prosecutors get involved once an arrest has been made and charges have been filed. We then evaluate the charges and prosecute if, and only if, those arrests are lawful and appropriate. Virginia has a magistrate system, meaning that magistrates, not prosecutors, determine which warrants are issued. 

  • Prosecutors don’t convict people. Only a judge or a jury can convict someone of a crime.

  • Prosecutors don’t sentence people. Only judges can sentence people, and only within the range of punishment set forth by the legislature. Commonwealth’s Attorneys can, and usually do, make recommendations for an appropriate sentence based on the nature of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history. However, the judge is free to disregard the prosecutor’s recommendation and that happens regularly. In the event that the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the defense counsel agree on a suitable sentence, that agreement – known as a “plea agreement” – still must be approved by the judge.

Myth:

Virginia’s prisons are filled with non-violent, first-time offenders because prosecutors always try to get the maximum sentence.

Fact:

For most non-violent offenders, I am committed to seeking justice in ways that do not involve prison, such as diversion, drug courts, mental health treatment and other alternative programs. I prioritize seeking incarceration when the safety of the public is at risk or when a repeat offender refuses to abide by Virginia law.

Myth:

Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys are not accountable to anyone.

Fact:

Citizens are paying closer attention to their criminal justice systems than ever before, and that’s a good thing. Commonwealth’s Attorneys are more accountable than any other actor in Virginia’s criminal justice system. And,

 

Commonwealth’s Attorneys are:

  • Elected by Virginians every four years.

  • Scrutinized by defense attorneys, the courts, the media, victims, the public, the police and watch-dog organizations.

  • Monitored by local judges, the Virginia Supreme Court, the Virginia Bar, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Required to abide by state and local laws, the Virginia Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, the Virginia Open Records Laws, discovery rules, Brady discovery rules and the Virginia Bar Rules of Professional Responsibility.

Myth:

Virginia’s prosecutors work in secret. No one can see what they are doing, and they like it that way.

Fact:

Have you ever read a newspaper? Or watched the television news? Then you know that this myth is not true. Literally everything that Virginia prosecutors do is subject to scrutiny. Virginia’s prosecutors practice responsible transparency. What is that? This means transparency except in those limited times when a prosecutor cannot speak publicly about a case in order to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation, to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial or when Virginia law prohibits the public release of information regarding a criminal case. 

 

Here are ways that Virginia’s prosecutors practice responsible transparency every day:

  • The media cover our work extensively.

  • Every trial is open to the public.

  • Every court file is open to the public, unless sealed by a judge; however, there is a strong presumption against sealing documents and files.

 

Through our adversarial justice system, specifically defense attorneys scrutinize every action that prosecutors take in discharging their duties. In fact, it is the defense attorneys’ job to hold prosecutors accountable by bringing any concerns forward to the judge assigned to the case.

Myth:

Prosecutors only care about getting convictions and putting people in jail.

Fact:

The role of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not convictions or prison time. Prosecutors are focused on one thing and one thing only: justice. In fact, in Virginia, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are considered Ministers of Justice. Justice can mean a lot of different things to different people. Justice can mean convicting someone of murder or child molestation, which results in a prison sentence in order to protect the community from a violent person. Justice can also mean, and does in the vast majority of cases handled by Commonwealth’s Attorneys, probation, drug treatment, mental health treatment or some other alternative solution other than time in prison.

Myth:

Defense attorneys and prosecutors are equally interested in seeking the truth and protecting our communities.

Fact:

Under the American legal system, prosecutors and defense attorneys have important, yet very different roles and obligations. By law, prosecutors are charged with pursuing justice by seeking the truth in every case and by protecting the rights of everyone – victims, defendants and the community at large.

 

In contrast, defense attorneys have only one focus: they are charged with zealously representing their client regardless of guilt. The primary focus of a defense attorneys is to protect the rights of their client. Prosecutors focus on pursuing justice, protecting the rights of victims, protecting the rights of the accused and protecting the safety of the entire community.