Del. Jay Jones outlined his platform on a number of topics, explaining how he would deal with them as attorney general.

RICHMOND-Tuesday night was supposed to be this year’s first Democratic debate. However, only one candidate showed up. Incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring didn’t make it, so Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) took questions from CEC VA’s Jesse Frierson and Luisa Boyarski from Virginia Grassroots. 

Organizers from the Virginia People’s Debate said they offered four possible dates to Herring, but he declined, saying he was busy. The scheduled debate turned into a town hall meeting of sorts. Jones answered questions about everything from qualified immunity to marijuana legislation. 

Is There a Path to Expungement? 

Leading off, Frierson brought up the marijuana discussion. The bill recently passed by the General Assembly didn’t include anything about automatic expungement and also fell short of the promises lawmakers made in December. Where does the state go from here? And how can the attorney general play a role? 

“I want everyone to understand, the bill we passed a couple of days ago is not necessarily marijuana legalization,” Jones said. “It’s a framework. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” 

Jay Jones said he supports automatic expungement. That’s where the courts remove certain convictions from a person’s record. That’s been a key point in the marijuana debate. People argue courts should toss convictions for possession, along with other weed-related crimes, once legalization takes place. 

The numbers also point to unequal enforcement. The ACLU’s April 2020 report showed that Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though the usage numbers are about the same.  

“This is an opportunity for us to really do right by people,” Jones said. “It’s no secret to anybody on this chat that the Criminal Code in Virginia has vestiges of the Black Codes and Jim Crow woven all throughout it. As we seek to update our code, expungement and legalization are two top priorities.” 

To help move that forward as attorney general, Jones said he would use the office’s bully pulpit and also work with his current colleagues in the General Assembly to craft legislation. This is where his current status as a delegate helps, Jones said. He knows how to put a bill together that will get heard on the floor and how to find votes for it. 

How Do You Reduce Mass Incarceration? 

Virginia puts 779 out of every 100,000 people in prison. By comparison, there are actual countries that don’t imprison as many people as the Commonwealth does. Moderators asked Jones how he would address that issue as attorney general. 

“If you look back at the data over the last 8 years, the number of incarcerated folks of color for minor infractions has gone up,” Jones said. “For me, we have a whole host of options on the table.”

Jones pointed to things like ending mandatory minimum sentencing and eliminating qualified immunity as some examples of tools that can be used. The problem, he said, is that in the past, people ignored Black folks when they raised these issues. But after 2020, he feels that’s changed. 

“I think what you saw last year with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor really brought that stuff to the top,” Jones said. “For the first time in a long time, I feel like black folks are being listened to.” 

In addition, Jones pointed to the methods used in places like his city of Norfolk, where they focus more on rehabilitation than incarceration. 

“We know rehabilitation is far more successful,” Jones said. “One mistake should not define you for the rest of your life.” 

As attorney general, he promised to “be the loud voice” pushing for change. “We won’t shy away from the tough fights,” he added. 

Monopolies Don’t Help Regular People

Over the course of the hour, the topic turned to monopolies and how Jay Jones would deal with an operation like Dominion Energy. We’ve highlighted before the fact that Dominion is the largest campaign donor in Virginia politics. That much political influence, Jones said, isn’t good for residents. 

“Dominion Energy’s obligation is to its shareholders. They are there to make money,” Jones said. “We as legislators and public officials, our obligation is to ratepayers and consumers. I think we’ve lost our way in that over the last couple of decades. I’m trying to restore some order to that system. I can’t accept the fact that company seems to run the show in Richmond.” 

From 2020 to 2021, Dominion Energy provided $1.329 million to politicians across the state. At the same time, the State Corporation Commission found Dominion overcharged customers by $502 million from 2017 to 2019. In last fall’s special session, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed making Dominion repay that money. That would help residents struggling to pay bills during the pandemic. The General Assembly refused the idea. 

When asked if he would enforce anti-monopoly laws against Dominion or any other company, Jones said yes. 

“[It] doesn’t matter if it’s energy or healthcare or telecom, whatever industry you are, monopolies are not good for competition, are not good for the consumer,” Jones said. “As AG, you’re supposed to prioritize the people, you’re supposed to prioritize average Virginians. Not going after them would be a dereliction of your duty. I’ve lost weight, years off my life, got a lot of grey hairs going up against those folks, but we’re going to keep the big boys honest.”

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@couriernewsroom.com.