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10.2 Meeting

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Valley Justice Coalition Public Meeting

October 2, 2023

Special Guest, Aaron Cook, a local defense attorney and a member of the Commonwealth's Indigent Defense Commission, sharing what changes in our justice system he would like to see as improving outcomes.


Present – Aaron Cook, Kathleen Temple, Jim Hogan, Kevin Drexel, Lareta Finger, Harvey Yoder, S Taylor, Karen Shamble, Anne Nielsen, Debra Turner, Ruth Stoltzfus, LaDawn Knicely

Announcements

  • October 7th – Debra is carpooling to the Richmond Convention Center for Tribunal for Virginia’s Prisons, Jails and Detention Centers. It is open to the public showing support for judicial reform. It is from 10-4PM Saturday October 7, 2023. Please call Debra at 540-421-5092 if interested in carpooling. Traveling with her is Andrea Collins and Andrea Jackson.


  • Charlottesville area now has a Justice Coalition. Harvey stays in touch with Sam Heath who is on VJC mailing list. Debra would like to attend meetings. Kathleen shared that he hosts monthly webinars that she attends. It is called Equal Justice USA.

  • Harvey introduced Kevin Drexel who joined us today and who is devoted to helping with housing issues that people face such as those incarcerated.

  • Anne Nielsen was recognized by Harvey and given so much thanks for being VJC secretary for so many years. LaDawn will be taking her place.


Meeting - Harvey introduced Aaron Cook, member of the Commonwealth Indigent Defense Commission and who is VP of VA Assoc of Defense. He is also on a State Task Force about the future of practice law in VA. The Indigent Defense oversees public defender office in the Commonwealth. The appointment is July 1st /3 yr. Term.

Recent changes in last few years-

  1. As of 2021 juries no longer sentence a defendant. Now it is a defendant’s choice. Aaron believes judges should make the decision, and sees this as a wonderful change.

Harvey questioned the number of cases that don’t go to jury based on plea deal. Aaron said that more than 90% of cases enter plea bargains. Most charged are guilty.

2. Probation Violations – reform in area of not showing up in area. 1st offense gets you 3 days, 2nd offense gets you 14 days. Our judges have found ways around that for programs for evaluation for 30 days. CCAP evaluation allows to hold a month to see if available for that, which is unfortunate.

Needs to Reform at State Level-

  • Minimum sentence removed. If had violent prior must serve 5 years in prison. For example, child pornography charge minimum sentences. It takes power out of judge and into prosecutor. If uploaded 10 child images to drop box that’s distribution according to the law. There is a 1st offense and another subsequent. 1st offense 0-10 years to sentence. 2nd offense 5-20 years to sentence and keep staking them for each image. Example: give 10 years if plead guilty instead of 45 years. Problem with prosecutor, is it gives power to weaponized charges with mandatory minimum sentences. *Get rid of mandatory minimum sentences minimizes this and it needs to happen legislatively.

Kathleen question: It seems prosecutors have a perverse incentive to come down with harsh sentences? Aaron replied: There are certain prosecutors who appear to have a crusade mentality. It reminds him with the 80’s and drugs and the push to punish everyone harshly. I think we have learned it doesn’t work.

Debra question: Realistically, would you recommend reversing all mandatory minimums or selectively removing them? Aaron: it is a political question – it sends a message that judges aren’t trusted. It prohibits a judge to say 45 years for all images. Reality is to force guilty pleas.

Ruth question about probation violation with CCAP probation sentencing is important to remove? Is there a way to challenge CCAP evaluation under circumstances? Aaron: Statue permits 14 days unless guilty evaluated for a certain program.

Case Question for Aaron –

LaDawn had permission to share information about a specific incarcerated individual she is seeing at HRRJ, stated that most of this client’s charges were from 2004 when she was a juvenile. Judge dismissed her, did now allow her to talk and stated that she was a danger to society and that he would not grant her the hoped for drug court alternative. The most recent charge was violation of her parole and now she is looking at 13 years over her head. LaDawn asked, “What am I missing that she would be treated this way.”

Aaron’s reply – He is not surprised that judge is using juvenile record. Drug court is run by a group of people run by the prosecutor’s office, CSB, etc. There is no institution fighting for defendants. He emphasized the need for a Public Defenders Office to be on that board to represent defendants. It would change the dynamics of the judicial system because right now no institution is pushing back.

Ruth question: Are prosecutors overcharging and challenged and not asking for work release? Why would drug court be looking at juvenile charges?

Harvey said the bottom line is what is the direction for a citizen group to do to effectively move the needle of justice system?

Bottom Line Needs: 1) A Public Defenders Office, 2) State Reform, 3) Increase Pay for public defenders, 4) Tony Wilt has to submit legislation to support a Public Defenders’ Tony hasn’t decided to support bill because of funding.

Harvey will try to get Aaron a Drug Court Handbook with drug court rules.

Jim Hogan question – For people who take a plea bargain, what is mechanism of a court appointed attorney, and is it worthwhile? It is not, and they have every incentive to push cases through court. In 2000, the defender rate was raised by $20. This is the last time the rate has been increased and it is not enough.

Local Inmate Numbers -

During Covid the numbers got better, but now it is worse. Middle River 212 with 17 misdemeanor sentences. HRRJ has 208 in jail now with 13 misdemeanor cases, and 261 of 308 waiting for trial and/or probation violation hearings and who don’t have bond.

LaDawn Knicely, secretary


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