Lewis: We Desperately Need Criminal Justice Reform

By Dogwood Staff

January 19, 2021

Do we truly use the best option for criminal justice? Or is it time for another way?

WAYNESBORO-After police killed George Floyd, communities all over the world demanded criminal justice reform. People asked to create civil review boards and have asked elected leaders to push for real, meaningful legislation. I’m pleased to see good legislation coming out of Richmond to finally address so many problems, and it looks like we are working towards a more just Commonwealth. 

Sadly, we are now facing a new crisis: Covid-19. Early in the pandemic, I repeatedly saw local officers working in the community without masks and social media posts showing officers gathering without masks, even after the governor mandated the wearing of masks and social distancing. 

Waynesboro City Council considered spending $750,000 on new police cars in this year’s budget. The idea was that every officer would have their own car and wouldn’t to spend a few minutes wiping down a vehicle after using it. Luckily, this was shot down after outrage from the community. Last year ended with an outbreak at Middle River Jail, and 2021 started with the death of five inmates at the Correctional Center.

Current Criminal Justice Sets a Bad Example

Deaths mean that inmates are not getting the medical care they need and deserve. Deaths mean that inmates are suffering. The entire city of Waynesboro currently has 17 deaths during the entire pandemic. How and why are deaths and cases rising in the jail now? The only answer is irresponsible staff and a lack of leadership. 

I work in mental health, serving state hospitals, working with private homes, assisted living facilities and recovery programs. All of these are residential and have a similar population to the jail. None of these facilities that I serve have had the outbreaks and deaths that the jail and corrections has seen. Why is this? It all comes down to leadership.

If you are a strong leader, you are telling your staff that the lives of others is in their hands and mandating CDC guidelines. Strong leaders wear masks themselves. If you are a strong leader, you are expecting your staff to be safe outside of work too.

RELATED: Lewis: What The Pandemic Showed Us


Some People Don’t Understand

After having a rally at MRRJ and reading comments on social media, it’s clear people don’t understand how screwed up the criminal justice field is. So many people think “You do the crime, you do the time and if you get COVID, that’s on you.” Did you know that the majority of people waiting in jail haven’t even been to trial yet?

Did you know that even if you are found innocent, you still have to pay all our jail fines? And yes, you are charged a daily fee to sit in jail, guilty or not. I talked with my Commonwealth Attorney and he repeatedly commented that he would prefer to send folks he sees to a program than to jail. That could be a mental health or recovery program, maybe a housing and job program, but those programs just don’t exist. 

He said that so many people he sees need help, not punishment but again, those resources don’t exist.  So while we talk about budgets and funding, we must look at what we are spending money on: Are they working and are there better solutions? Think of someone arrested for a drug possession charge, instead of putting that person through court, jail, probation, paying fines, losing their job, housing, support system, we get them into a program where they get help with their drug issue, get them therapy, help them keep their job and housing or help them find new of both. 

Stop Throwing Money at a Problem

We have to stop throwing our money – and it’s a lot of money – at a problem when what we are doing is not working.  If I came to you with a suitcase of money and I said you have to spend it on putting people away in a jail or spending money to create a non-profit that helps people find housing, a job, mental health resources.

What you think is going to give you more bang for your buck? Which one is going to have a better return on investment? We’ve tried the jail thing, and it’s clearly not working. We are debating spending millions of dollars on expanding the negligently crowded jail but we are seeing our mental health psycho-social Clubhouse close, funding for children’s day treatment go away, local rehabs close their doors.

So again, what would you rather spend your money on? It costs several hundred dollars a day to keep someone in jail, when you consider the staff, the overhead, the cost of the building itself. So to keep it simple, think would you want to spend $700 in one day housing one person in jail or would you rather spend that $700 to pay rent for someone to live in for a month?

Jennifer Lewis is a grassroots activist and community organizer, avid volunteer and kitty rescuer. She currently serves as chair of Arc of Augusta, on the board of Valley Hope Counseling, as captain of Waynesboro SAW Mutual Aid group, and works full time as a mental health worker. She lives in Waynesboro. 

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