Dozens of people, many from the legal community, braved the chill January 23 to stand in front of Albemarle Circuit Court, where Jim Hingeley, founder of the Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender Office, announced his campaign for Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney.
“It’s time for criminal justice reform in Albemarle County,” said Hingeley, 71. He said he wants to take a more “progressive, humane approach” to prosecution, because lengthy prison sentences come at a cost to society.
Hingeley will seek the Democratic nomination, and he took aim at the Republican incumbent. Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, said Hingeley, was putting nonviolent offenders in jail and had increased by 29 percent the number of cases tried last year in circuit court, where felonies are heard.
“Many times Mr. Tracci has asked for jail time for driving with suspended licenses,” says Hingeley. “I won’t do that.”
The state’s policy of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fines is murky since a judge ruled December 21 the practice is likely unconstitutional.
Tracci, who plans to run for reelection, says he has stopped prosecuting those cases since the injunction. He also says the county has seen an increase in felony offenses in recent years.
Hingeley stressed his 43 years of experience as an attorney handling thousands of cases. “We’ve seen examples of how inexperience can affect justice,” he said. And he drew applause when he said he would not pursue the death penalty.
So far, Hingeley has raised over $10,000, most of that from a committee for Andrew Sneathern, who ran for the 5th District congressional seat last year and who was encouraged by some to run for commonwealth’s attorney. Sneathern introduced Hingeley
He lauded Hingeley’s “recognition of the dignity of every member of the community,” while excoriating the war on drugs and Virginia’s punitive misdemeanor marijuana possession laws, which “take driver’s licenses away for something that has nothing to do with driving.”
Hingeley, currently a city resident, says the law allows him to run in the county, and notes that former commonwealth’s attorneys Denise Lunsford and Jim Camblos lived in the city when they were elected and subsequently moved to the county. He says he’s planning to move to the county before the election “because I’m very committed to this.”
Among those gathered at Hingeley’s announcement were Albemarle Clerk of Court John Zug, Charlottesville Clerk Llezelle Dugger, who used to work for Hingeley in the public defender’s office, Albemarle sheriff candidate Chan Bryant, and City Councilor Wes Bellamy.
“I’m entering this race because we need to turn Albemarle County’s criminal justice system in a different direction,” he said. “I’m entering this race because our community can and should end the politics of mass incarceration.”