Commonwealth’s Attorney Candidates Clash over Incarceration, Protests

By Dogwood Staff

April 23, 2021

This week’s community forum answered some questions and raised others in the primary fight.

RICHMOND – Tom Barbour and Collette McEachin have completely different visions of what Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney should do. 

At a candidate forum hosted by the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a civic organization with its roots in fighting against segregation and voter suppression, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney McEachin and progressive challenger Barbour highlighted their differences. 

Throughout the forum, the candidates were asked to respond to questions from the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the public. McEachin repeatedly emphasized her long experience as a prosecutor with the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.

She leveraged that experience to criticize Barbour, who worked briefly in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office before becoming a criminal defense attorney, during a discussion of bail reform.

Barbour, who is white, had just finished addressing what he saw as a failure by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to reduce mass incarceration in the city, which disproportionately affects Black citizens.

“No one is at that jail tonight, except for people who have been argued to be there by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office,” Barbour said. “We can have a Commonwealth’s Attorney who connects people to services out in the community instead of holding them overnight in a cage.”

McEachin, who is Black, responded by accusing him of misunderstanding the court’s bail procedures.

“Once again, Tom’s inexperience is showing in that he should be aware that if someone is arrested by a police officer and brought to the magistrate, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is not aware of that case until arraignment,” McEachin added.

It is true that magistrates, not the Commonwealth’s Attorney, are the first to hear bail arguments during arraignments. However, the Virginia manual for magisterial bail procedures says state law “allows a magistrate, judge, or clerk to release a defendant qualifying for a secured bond on a simple recognizance or on an unsecured bond only with the concurrence of the attorney for the Commonwealth.”

That means although Commonwealth’s Attorneys are not required to be present at these hearings, policies promoted by Barbour such as bail reform could not be undertaken by the magistrate alone. They would require the intervention of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Mass Incarceration

McEachin acknowledged that mass incarceration was an issue, but said her office was doing everything it could to ensure equity.

“Richmond has the same problem with mass incarceration of Black and brown people as every other city and every other place in the country,” she said. “Our office policy is that unless you have committed a violent offense or shown that you are not going to appear in court, you will be released on your own recognizance.”

Johnny Walker, research chair for the Richmond Crusade for Voters and host of the forum, pressed both candidates to provide concrete answers on mass incarceration.

“In early April this year, over 90% of the inmates incarcerated in the Richmond jail were Black or brown. What should the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office do to address what may appear to be a significant racial injustice?”

Barbour reiterated his support for bail reform, elaborating that he’d like to see guidelines for prosecuting attorneys developed publicly.

“I would put in place a system of judgement that would be public and published and transparent, so that the community could weigh in,” Barbour said.

In response, McEachin again demurred, insisting that the office’s policy was already public.

“The office policy is in fact to not incarcerate if possible, and there’s nothing more public than the code of Virginia, which everyone can access and which we know guides all of our lives,” said McEachin.

A few moments later, Walker again pressed McEachin to directly address the issue of racial disparity.

“Do you think it’s equitable for 90% of the people in jail to be Black or brown?” he asked. “Does that sound reasonable to you?”

“Does it sound reasonable? No, it doesn’t sound reasonable. Does it sound reasonable that probably that same number of people are the victims of crime? No, that doesn’t sound reasonable either,” McEachin responded.

When asked to answer the same question, Barbour struck a more critical tone, saying “It’s not just unreasonable, it’s inhumane and it’s ineffective for long-term public safety. We have to take a look at trying new, innovative, social service-driven approaches.”


A theme also came up that echoed questions from a town hall earlier this year. The candidates were asked to address the arrests and prosecutions of over 200 protesters, which were contrasted with the mere handful of charges that were brought forward against police.

McEachin again insisted that her office had done everything in its power to treat protesters and police officers fairly, saying they charged as many officers as the evidence allowed.

“The police officers were indicted by a grand jury, and there were certainly more charges presented,” Mceachin said. “We presented those cases that we thought had enough probable cause to charge police officers.”

But Barbour argued the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office left options on the table.

“At the regular grand jury, which is where I understand these presentations went, it’s not actually the Commonwealth’s Attorney who presents evidence – it’s other police officers,” Barbour said. 

Barbour continued by saying that because the accused were police officers themselves, a special grand jury would have been more appropriate.

“The Commonwealth’s Attorney can, under Virginia law, call for a special grand jury… they can present and examine witnesses to ensure that accurate testimony is given. And that’s a tool that was not used against police officers and their misconduct last Summer,” Barbour said.

The Virginia Code allows the impaneling of a special grand jury. Also, they’ve been promoted in Virginia as an impartial method of police accountability.

The Democratic primary is June 8, with early voting starting April 23. With no Republican running, whoever wins the primary basically wins the office.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].

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