Drug prosecutions and felony charges were the focal points of a Thursday candidate forum featuring the Democratic candidates for Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney.
Co-hosted by the Peoples’ Coalition, Virginia Organizing, Public Housing Association of Residents and Legal Aid Justice Center, the virtual forum served as the first major public opportunity for sitting Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania and challenger Ray Szwabowski to present their views to an audience.
The forum was designed to focus broadly on mass incarceration and its effect on the lives of people in Charlottesville, along with other criminal justice issues, according to the organizers. Each candidate alternated answering questions and occasionally responded to comments made by the other.
Platania, who was first elected in November 2017 in the wake of the deadly Unite the Right rally, spotlighted his more than two decades of experience. Though he started his career as a public defender and assisted in opening the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defenders Office, Platania said he was struck by the amount of power prosecutors held.
“I was an assistant public defender there for five years and I loved the work, but I saw the outsized role prosecutors seem to play in the system and how they had an inordinate amount of influence and [were] affecting my clients,” Platania said. “I liked a lot of the work that was going on in [then-Commonwealth’s Attorney] Dave Chapman’s office in the city and there was an opening and I applied there in 2003 and have been working to better the system since.”
Szwabowski, whose background is also partially based in the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defenders Office, wasted little time differentiating himself from Platania, arguing that he and his staff prosecute drug charges and felony charges too often.
“It’s within the discretion of the prosecutor to reduce charges to misdemeanors and it would be appropriate to do so in whole categories of cases,” Szwabowski said. “I have campaigned specifically on drug possession, but there’s other places as well that we’re felonizing too many young people.”
Certain cases, such as murder, rape and robbery, are big time crimes that deserve the stigma that comes with a felony conviction, Szwabowski said, but many felony charges could be avoided by utilizing prosecutorial discretion more broadly.
In response, Platania pointed to work his office had done to reduce first-time, nonviolent felony charges to misdemeanors and to divert drug cases to treatment for ultimate dismissal.
Platania also pointed to data provided by Neal Goodloe, the city’s criminal justice planner, which showed there were 19 felony drug charges in the last two years. Those cases only represented a sole charge of felony drug possession and not possession charges connected to another crime, such as driving under the influence, he said.
“So less than 10 people per year have been charged with simple possession of heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine,” Platania said. “Those people that are charged with that felony offense are diverted to treatment and many of them had their charges dismissed when they graduated from drug court or successfully participated in the pre conviction probation program.”
Later in the forum, while answering a question about the effects of systemic racism on the local criminal justice system, Szwabowski took issue with any felony drug prosecutions, regardless of context.
“I disagree with [Platania] about the total number of felony drug possession cases, though I guess he’s doing standalone drug possession versus with some companion charge,” he said. “But whether it’s five, six, seven or 10, I’m not OK with 10 extra, unnecessary, racist felonies every year and I won’t be if I’m elected prosecutor.”
Both candidates said they support a strong Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board with investigation powers, which the fledgling board is currently seeking to do following a law change taking effect in July. The CRB’s potential to have a wider amount of power has been a point of contention between the board and the city police department and some members of the City Council in recent months.
Following a brief break, the candidates were presented with some questions submitted by the audience. Platania was asked whether he would commit to keeping the population of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail at its current lowest-ever rate and whether he would commit to not prosecuting felony drug possession charges.
Platania committed to keeping the jail population low, citing comments made by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley that COVID-19 responses, such as increased use of home electronic incarceration, had taught prosecutors a lot.
When answering the second half of the question, Platania pointed to legislative avenues and said he may support bills to address felony drug possession charges introduced in the state General Assembly.
“I once heard someone smarter than me say, ‘I don’t want to support ideas, I want to support actual bills and legislation’ and so I need to see what it looks like,” he said. “I’d be very interested in seeing what the Courts of Justice [Committee] returns as far as legislation and taking a look at whether I could get behind that and support it.”
Both candidates expressed support for aggressively prosecuting violent, non-victimless felonies, with Platania pointing in part to his office’s work in securing the murder conviction of Unite the Right car attacker James Alex Fields Jr.
Szwabowski’s response also touched on issues of treatment and rehabilitation in jails and prisons, which he said are crucial to a successful criminal justice system.
“Sending someone down the road to prison for five years might temporarily solve the problem for five years, but folks come home from prison,” he said. “If we send them off to a traumatizing place where they can easily become addicted to drugs, then we’re not really doing work for public safety.”
Platania and Szwabowksi will face off in the Democratic primary June 8.