It’s comforting to think that the law is the law, an impartial arbiter of right and wrong. But applying and enforcing our laws involves endless individual decisions.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania made the decision to prosecute DeAndre Harris, a teacher’s aide who worked with special education students at Venable Elementary and was brutally beaten by six white supremacists on August 12. (Judge Robert Downer, who has praised the “creative discretion” shown to him by a prosecutor who declined to charge him with larceny when he stole a sign in a college prank, found Harris not guilty of assault.)
Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci made the decision not to prosecute any white supremacists for their torchlit rally through UVA Grounds on August 11 (see his reasons, along with law professor Anne Coughlin’s counter-argument, here).
And recently, Virginia State Police and the JADE drug task force made the decision to use more than a dozen officers, an armored vehicle, and two flash grenades to execute a simple search warrant.
The fundamentally imperfect nature of our justice system is worth keeping in mind when we talk about how we treat the formerly incarcerated, the subject of this week’s feature.
State laws tend to be unforgiving: Virginia denies Section 8 housing assistance to anyone convicted of a felony, and is one of only three states to ban them from voting for life. Here in Charlottesville, though, a range of organizations help inmates and ex-offenders get back on their feet, addressing common barriers like getting an ID, repaying court fees and fines, completing their education, and finding a job.
Reentry services like these make sense on a practical level—everyone benefits when former prisoners become productive members of society. But investing in them is also a decision to acknowledge that life is complicated, that justice isn’t always just, and that everyone deserves a second chance.