The United States currently imprisons over 2.3 million people, the result of which is that this country is currently home to about 25% of the world’s incarcerated people while comprising less than 5% of its population.

Relatedly, in the U.S. prosecutors have an enormous amount of leeway in determining how harshly, fairly, or lightly those who break the law are treated. They can often decide which charges to bring against a person and which sentences to pursue. ‘Tough on crime’ politics have given many an incentive to try to lock up as many people as possible.

However, since the 1990’s, there has been a growing movement of progressive prosecutors who are interested in pursuing holistic justice by making their top policy priorities evidence-based to ensure public safety. As a former prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, and having founded the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, I count myself among them.

Let’s get into it: AMA about what’s in the post title (or anything else that’s on your mind)!

If you like what you read here today and want to help out, or just want to keep tabs on the campaign, here are some actions you can take:

  1. I hate to have to ask this first, but I am running against a well-connected incumbent and this is a genuinely grassroots campaign. If you have the means and want to make this vision a reality, please consider donating to this campaign. I really do appreciate however much you are able to give.

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I'll start answering questions at 8:30 Eastern Time. Proof I'm me.

Edit: I'm logged on and starting in on questions now!

Edit 2: Thanks to all who submitted questions - unfortunately, I have to go at this point.

Edit 3: There have been some great questions over the course of the day and I'd like to continue responding for as long as you all find this interesting -- so, I'm back on and here we go!

Edit 4: It's been real, Reddit -- thanks for having me and I hope ya'll have a great week -- come see me at my campaign website if you get a chance:

Comments: 996 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

cjblahblah402 karma

Did you purposely word the title expecting some people to read it like a Law and Order opening?

tomrvaca145 karma

No, but now I'm really hoping that our Deputy Field Director who set this up did -- and this is his title -- DUN DUN!

pku31381 karma

How do you intend to avoid a crime surge like what San Francisco had after getting an agressively reformist DA? What would you do differently from chesa boudin?

tomrvaca195 karma

In creating public safety, I think we have to address really two categories of people who find their way into the justice system -- people who pose significant risks of committing crimes against persons and those who do not.

In employing prosecutorial discretion, prosecutors have to make judgements about which category accused persons fall into -- currently, that is often done by feel rather than by any systemic, evidence-driven approach to decision-making.

To address this, I will establish one public standard for prosecutorial discretion in the advocacy for incarceration: an assessment of the recency, frequency, and severity of an individual’s history of corroborated allegations of crimes against persons. In both bail and sentencing hearings, prosecutors will only advocate to incarcerate individuals assessed as being high risk for crimes against persons based on their individual, corroborated, historical conduct.

For persons posing these risks, my office will focus on prosecuting significant violent crimes, such as:



-Armed Robberies & Carjackings

-Sexual Assaults

-Residential Burglaries


These are significant crimes against persons and key personal spaces that tend to do the most damage to individual and community senses of personal and public safety. Prioritizing their investigation and prosecution will ensure that policing and prosecutorial resources are applied to achieve the greatest public safety benefit.

But the overwhelming, vast majority of accused persons do not present these risks. For these people, prosecutors will advocate for community-based outcomes to create alternative pathways for personal accountability and harm reduction.

Prosecutors will follow internal office guidance for advocating for such alternatives to ensure that the following criteria are incorporated:

-Holistic, individual assessments of root causes and referrals to local services that address them

-Broadening the scope of referrals from City or court-managed programming to new partnerships with local resources, nonprofits, and other government and private service providers to achieve a truly systemic, social-services approach to criminal justice

In this way, those who pose risks of significant danger will be prioritized for prosecution ending in incarceration -- those who do not, will be prioritized for prosecution ending in referrals for services to reduce their likelihood of recidivism.

Through this dual, person-centered, risk-based approached, short-term violent risks will be mitigated -- while longterm public safety is created over time.

People go through real trouble in their lives deserving of real attention. And I believe that the evidence-driven creation of longterm public safety demands a fundamentally different, community-driven, social services approach to criminal justice that keeps us safe by respecting the humanity of everyone involved.

pku3153 karma

Thanks for the answer!

One follow up - while I like and support your approach overall (I agree that overc-incarceration is a huge problem), the one category of crime that's occasionally under-prosecuted in America is vehicular manslaughter and related crimes - drivers that cause fatal accidents are often let off with barely a warning, despite car crashes being the leading cause of violent deaths in America. Obviously imprisoning anyone who gets a dui would be an overreaction, but this does fall into the category of crimes that directly impact personal safety - is this something you'd want to deal with?

tomrvaca18 karma

This is an interesting category -- thank you for bringing it up.

Yes, I think if people are consistently demonstrating reckless driving and DUI behavior resulting in collisions that have the potential to endanger life and limb, then, yes -- they are indicating a high risk of crimes against persons for which advocacy for incarceration would be appropriate.

For more information on my my goal to establish one public standard for prosecutorial discretion in the advocacy for incarceration, please consider my website's First 100 Days agenda, especially the section on Ending Mass Incarceration.

3031983156 karma

How can we change the fact that so many defendants are “scared” into accepting a plea deal? Last I heard federal and state level plea deals are over 90%.

tomrvaca136 karma

I run my own criminal defense practice in Richmond and I know that my clients are intimidated into accepting plea deals especially when prosecutors over-charge and employ mandatory minimum sentencing.

I would ensure that charging is commensurate with the available evidence, only, and I would decline to employ mandatory minimum charging postures.

I will also employ an internal appeals process for prosecutorial discretion accessible by defense attorneys who have concerns for the actual innocence of their clients to ensure real-time integrity of convictions.

If you'd like to learn more about my stance on how prosecutors should negotiate in good faith, please consider my First 100 Days agenda on my website, specifically, the sections,"Charging Postures & Plea Negotiations," "Real-time integrity of convictions & prosecutorial discretion," and "Ending mandatory minimum sentences"

Kai_Daigoji97 karma

Are you willing to prosecute police officers who commit perjury on the stand?

tomrvaca96 karma

Yes -- prosecutors are guardians of, and advocates for, a fundamentally fair process that upholds the rule of law and creates public safety -- we are not partisans or advocates for any one side.

Perjury in Virginia is a felony -- in the situation you've described, the officer would be prosecuted and the presumption would be that a jury trial would be had -- especially with regard to this type of criminal conduct by police officers that undermines the trial process, the community must be empowered through litigation to decide how to hold them accountable.

If you'd like to learn more about my stance on prosecuting police misconduct, please consider my First 100 Days agenda on my website, specifically, the sections, "Prosecute police misconduct," "Do Not Call List," and "Civilian review board & criminal misconduct by law enforcement"

You can also get deeper insight into my thought processes on police accountability by considering this interview in Virginia Scope

Res_ipsa_l0quitur55 karma

How do you plan to maintain a working relationship with your officers while also prosecuting them? Saying you’ll prosecute and doing it are two different things. How will you avoid the pressure from the police who you work with day in and day out? What will you do differently from all the other prosecutors who have promised to hold police accountable only to fold at the first sign of discomfort?

tomrvaca96 karma

I think you should understand that my answer to your question comes from what I expect would be a unique set of experiences among the prosecutors who give rise to your concern:

I'm not just a former prosecutor or a current defense attorney, a founder of a nonprofit dedicated to ending mass incarceration through social work, and a public safety innovator -- I am a former security professional:

I spent (6) years as an Officer in the United States Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a foreign military advisor. This means I took small teams of Marines and embedded with Iraqi Army and with Afghan Police and operated with them in their villages and towns, trained them, advised them, and held them to a high standard of performance in their communities.

When other prosecutors look at a police officer, or a tactical situation in the street in which a police officer has exceeded authority for use-of-force or otherwise acted in ways unbecoming an officer, I'm confident they see a member of their local law enforcement team.

But what I see is a security professional who must be held to account to ensure the public has faith that its policing system will ensure the rule of law prevails.

You talk about me avoiding pressure from police -- I think you ignore who the police work for: the people. And as the CA in Richmond, so would I.

My experience in leadership is that setting a new, high standard of performance is not easy -- but it is worthwhile over time because it shifts culture and expectations to a better place.

Frankly, I would welcome the pressure -- and a public conversation on these issues -- I think it needs to be had.

Kreetle67 karma

What would you say your job description and role is as a DA?

You say you want to end mass incarceration, but if a mass amount of people are being incarcerated for committing a crime that has mandatory minimum jail sentencing, is it really the role of a DA to determine who goes to jail? Are you going to selectively prosecute crimes YOU think are worthy of jail time and not prosecute crimes that you don’t? And finally, wouldn’t the laws themselves need reform by legislatures and not activist prosecutors?

tomrvaca26 karma

In Virginia, prosecutors have constitutionally and statutorily enshrined authority to make charging decisions, including whether to pursue or dismiss a case.

With this power, a prosecutor should aim to uphold the rule of law and create public safety by way of their advocacy and decision-making -- this means employing their prosecutorial discretion with an eye toward ensuring a fundamentally fair trial process and outcomes that tend to mitigate violent risk while reducing crime over time.

The judgement calls and decision-making aspects of the DA's role that you're raising as concerning are actually the very purpose of this executive office holder -- it is literally and legally the DA's role to make these calls.

AdequatelySupervised42 karma

What about the responsibility judges and prosecutors have to ensure the safety of their communities? Why are so many DAs, and judges, signing off on plea deals which are allowing violent criminals to be released back into their communities to continue to terrorize innocent civilians?

It seems every year there are numerous examples of this, the most recent obviously being the homeless man in NYC who was on parole for killing his own mother, and then attacked an Asian American. These types of offenders shouldn't even be released, yet this is routinely happening, but the focus remains on police abuses. What about the abuses of prosecutors and judges who are ultimately responsible for these people being on the streets?

tomrvaca52 karma

I agree that public safety must be the goal of the criminal justice system -- and prosecutors who advocate to create it must take an evidence-based, risk-focused approach to doing so.

To this end, I will establish one public standard for prosecutorial discretion in the advocacy for incarceration: an assessment of the recency, frequency, and severity of an individual’s history of corroborated allegations of crimes against persons.

When you describe people who are violent, this is who I mean: people who have demonstrated recent, frequent, or severe crimes against persons.

In both bail and sentencing hearings, my prosecutors will advocate to incarcerate individuals assessed as being high risk for crimes against persons based on their individual, corroborated, historical conduct.

But the overwhelming, vast majority of accused persons do not present these risks. For these people, prosecutors will advocate for community-based outcomes to create alternative pathways for personal accountability and harm reduction.

For the creation of a single, person-centered standard, we will employ a presumption that prosecutors will not argue subsequently in sentencing to incarcerate individuals who have already been admitted to bail. To do so would interrupt their progress out of the system and undermine the systemic goal of creating long-term public safety.

Furthermore, these concepts will be reviewed annually through a public comment period – with the goal of creating a participatory prosecutorial discretion process in my office reflective of community-driven standards and the leading edge of legislative reforms.

mbedek30 karma

According to your website,

The only legitimate purposes for police use-of-force are self-defense or defense of others

In contrast, police use force routinely not only in defense of self or others, but also to overcome resistance and effect a lawful arrest or emergency custody order. Do you foresee any challenges this discrepancy may pose? What will your office do when presented with cases involving violations of 18.2-57(C) or 18.2-460(B) and (E) ?

tomrvaca87 karma

This is a smart question, thank you for asking it:

18.2-57(C) is typically charged as assault on law enforcement -- 18.2-460(B) & (E) are obstructing justice / resisting arrest code sections that also anticipate physical resistance to lawful actions by a police officer.

I would assess law enforcement actions within the scope of these code sections to constitute self-defense in response to hostile acts -- you're calling it resistance -- but functionally, we're on the same page.

However, if the officer's use-of-force violated conditions like what follows, here, that conduct would be reviewed for potential criminal charges:

-Force may only be deployed in response to a hostile act, not hostile intent

-De-escalation, including verbal de-escalation, must be attempted before force is deployed

-The first deployment of force in response to a hostile act must be proportional, meaning: in-kind to the nature, duration, and scope of the force employed by the hostile act

-Continuing deployment of force in response to a hostile act must be proportional and escalate through all available least restrictive means to resolve the situation

-Continuing deployment of force in response to a hostile act must be proportional and not exceed the least restrictive means necessary to resolve the situation

Here's an example I've seen: an officer makes a traffic stop and the driver is verbally resistant -- the officer, without saying anything else, pulls her out of her vehicle and physically subdues her in the middle of the street. That's not overcoming resistance -- that's simple assault.

The-CVE-Guy14 karma

Who do you believe is the primary “client” of the prosecutor’s services?

The state, the victim, the suspect, law enforcement?

tomrvaca11 karma

Hey The-CVE-Guy, sorry for the delay -- this is a great question:

Staying within the construct of your question, if prosecutors are to adopt a "client," then I believe the correct clients are: public safety and the rule of law.

Prosecutors in Virginia are ethically compelled to be "ministers of justice" -- this means they should be guardians of a procedurally just process.

And this means that as the "Commonwealth's Attorney," a prosecutor in Virginia represents the Commonwealth -- which necessarily includes the state, the victim, the suspect, and law enforcement, in the sense that, in representing the best interests of the Commonwealth, the prosecutor is charged with advocating for outcomes that tend to serve these various and often competing interests well by upholding public safety and the rule of law.

NoTrickWick11 karma

You speak of incentives and evidence and I believe, unfortunately, that incentives are more influential than evidence. What is your position on the for-profit prison system we use?

tomrvaca12 karma

I do not believe the for-profit prison system should exist.

Public safety is a societal need, not a business -- the for-profit prison system puts investor returns ahead of community interests in ensuring the creation of a humane and effective criminal justice system.

It also, as you've implied, creates incentives and obstacles to ending mass incarceration by effectively setting out community-based alternatives as a competitive interest, rather than a societally beneficial approach.

Toughbiscuit2 karma

Do you think that prison reform based on rehabilitation opposed to punishment could decrease repeat offenders? Specifically by ensuring all inmates have access to job programs that would lead to work immediately when they leave prison?

tomrvaca4 karma

Reentry work like you're describing is crucial to decreasing recidivism -- I think we should be fielding these same types of approaches in a community-based, rather than in an incarceration-based, setting.

danny0wnz2 karma

On a serious note, how will your reform Hold people in general accountable for their actions? Not limiting to just criminals or police, but society as a whole.

It often takes many instances before incarceration is even a factor. For instance

1st criminal interaction let’s say I steal an “abandoned” bike at 15 probably a warning, return the bike, a ride home and parents notified.

2nd interaction, I steal candy from the store the following year. I have to make the store owner while again, and go about my day. Typically no serious criminal ramifications at this stage.

3rd, same year I’m 17 and steal a watch. Larceny in the lowest degree, watch is valued at $49. Recommended for juvenile rehabilitation.

4th, I’m 18 and steal a video game. $70. Again larceny in the lowest degree. “First offense”. 2 days of community service and charges are nolled. Out of trouble for 13 months.

5th, I’m 20. I steal a car. It was left running. No big deal. My records clean, I get a PTA. I use my AR (accelerated rehabilitation). A year passes, I’m 21 with 5 larcenies now probably considered a PLO, and a clean record.

6th. I steal a car again. This is it. My first real offense. I’ve inconvenienced 6 people; possibly ruined the lives of 2, with the trauma of having their car stolen, maybe cost them a day off work or worst their job. Their peace of mind. I finally get probation.

7th, I’m on probation. Breaking and entering. I break into someone’s home, burglarize the property, and violate my probation. Now it’s POSSIBLY time for incarceration. Is it though, because more often than not, you’ll see a continued on probation in many states.

Upwards of 7/8 instances of getting caught committing a “non-violent” “serious” offense - property crimes before incarceration is even on the table. And these are the “reported” “enforcement action taken” offenses. Not to mention the offenses where it’s just a “return to owner and don’t come back”. Upwards of 7,8,9,10 larcenies before incarceration is even on the table. Can we also discuss holding people in general accountable for their actions?

tomrvaca3 karma

At each of these points you've described, I believe prosecutors presented with these allegations have a responsibility to advocate for accountability that addresses WHY these things are happening in a real and concrete way. Most crime is an expression of a need for services -- advocacy for outcomes for nonviolent offenders should focus on ordering people to connect with those services with the goal of reducing their likelihood of recidivism.

The nonprofit I formed to address mass incarceration through social work, the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative provides exactly this kind of accountability -- here's an example:

We had a homeless client with a mental health issue and co-occurring substance use -- he would go around pulling car door handles in the neighborhood and stealing things to get high.

The current CA's office shuffled him back and forth to the jail without addressing these two underlying issues.

My organization got him into an assisted living facility with a case manager to monitor his mental health and substance use issues -- he's been off the streets for months without any new charges.

The person is treated like a human being -- the city is safer -- this is what creating longterm public safety looks like -- this is what it means to hold someone truly accountable for their actions.

danny0wnz2 karma

In a sense, I absolutely agree. Does that change though, if you remove the issue of substance abuse? I live in a small fairly average town of approximately 20sq miles and a population of approximately 50k. Home values FWIW in the 200k-300k range. As a town, we average about 3-5 stolen cars a week. And something tells me it’s not the homeless drug addicted guy going around checking doors...

I would be very interested in a conversation if you ever had the time. I’ve spent my entire professional career working in a multitude of different areas within our criminal justice system, from rehabilitation, to correction, to enforcement, and human services. I’ve seen the field from many different angles and I think my mind is fairly open to many of the views on our criminal justice system. Granted that’s only been about 10 years or so.

Edit: I guess what I’m getting at, is that there’s no blanket reform. In theory, your idea sounds wonderful. In practice, with how overloaded case workers, probation officers, and similar careers are currently, it may prove much more difficult. Current case flow in local courts it backlogged almost 20,000 cases. I believe the current figure hovers around 18,600 and growing.

tomrvaca3 karma

Yes! I'm actually on Zoom every day at 6pm EST accessible through my website, please stop by, I enjoy discussing these issues and hearing a variety of perspectives on them:

Cbpowned1 karma

Why do you think making crimes such a prostitution and drug possession with improve communities instead of furthering the problems of the impoverished communities that these activities typically take place in? Do you believe that other more serious crimes that typically occur in conjunction with the above will also not increase as well? What about the businesses that these activities negatively impact?

In addition, do you believe you believe that police are too abundant in areas that have the highest rates of crime? What do you think should be done to lower crime rates in these areas, as an increase in police presence has been shown to have a dramatic effect in the rates of crimes committed in their patrol areas.

wundernine21 karma

Police have very little time to actually patrol in these zones. We spend a significant amount of our shift going from call to call, largely due to staffing. Reduced number of officers equals reduced patrol and investigative capacity, which ultimately yields an increase in both person and property crimes. Even being able to drive around is a functional deterrent but we don’t have that luxury any longer.

It’s not as bad as what you see in Flint Town - yet - but the continual reductions in staffing are making it a more likely reality. The whole community interaction approach to policing is an admirable goal, but it’s untenable in most larger agencies because we simply don’t have the time. When it comes down to it, I’m going code to assaults and robberies, not doing coffee-with-a-cop. Unfortunately I don’t see that changing any time soon, and my area hasn’t been hard hit with the defund-the-police malarkey.

Edit: regarding the notion of saturation in high-crime areas - it’s a matter of zone priority. Believe it or not, police are incredibly data-driven when it comes to preservation of life. We allocate resources where they can have the most impact. If you’re in Chicago, it doesn’t make much sense to run an anti-violent crime task force in Hyde Park when the homicides are largely concentrated in Austin and Englewood. I’d recommend for a good visual of how well Chicago is doing. Good thing they have strict gun control laws.

tomrvaca13 karma

Wundernine is making an interesting point for people who haven't actually been involved with making public safety a reality: it is a human-driven, operational effort -- and the effectiveness of that effort is tied directly to the availability, capability, and fit of the resources being mapped to the problems.

The myopic, conventional view of law enforcement is that the key resources for public safety are policing and prosecution -- but they're only part of what's required, and here's why:

People offend for real reasons -- for the most part, people steal, break and enter, engage in prostitution, and commit commercial theft to get money to get high. When these people end up being charged for theft or prostitution, what that charge really is, is an identification of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed: drug addiction. If that underlying issue is not treated, we can only expect the person to commit additional theft in the future -- we can only expect that crime will continue.

Policing and prosecution can do much to target and manage violent risk in communities in the short term -- we can build cases against dangerous individuals and take them off the streets. But for longterm public safety -- for the issues of prostitution and drug possession and theft cited by the original poster -- the best fitting resource for those problems are actually social services.

Successful public safety operations are about zooming out and taking a "yes, and" approach to patrolling and social services -- not an "either, or" mentality.

Karanah-7 karma

Tom, I’m a defense attorney in RVA. I won’t make it a secret that I’m going to support your campaign because I believe Richmond desperately needs this change. Hell, I might even apply for the office if there were a CA I believed in. Here’s my question:

I’ve appeared in a huge number of counties (over 40) in my career. Discretion is disappearing. In many prosecutors aren’t even allowed to offer plea deals anymore because the office wants to be tough on crime, I’ve had DWI body cam footage of police saying they “smelled the odor of alcohol” from three car lengths away through a mask, and two weeks ago I had a prosecutor who wasn’t allowed to nolle prosse a literal quid pro quo assault and battery where the police ticketed the wife, and three weeks later, she swore out a cross warrant against my client (husband) for the express purpose of gaining an upper hand in their divorce, which she -and her attorney for some reason- put in writing, and I hand delivered to the prosecutor.

How much discretion are you going to give your deputies and ACAs? What will they be authorized to actually -do- without getting management permission first?

tomrvaca0 karma

I actually think that prosecutors in my office are going to have more discretion than they have now -- because the discretion they have is going to exist within a publicly transparent system of decision-making rather than in the heads of their individual supervisors.

Take a look at the First 100 Days Agenda on my website

What you'll find there is the core components for a publicly transparent, community-driven, system of prosecutorial discretion -- the major decisions to be made, of course, are:

-Are we going forward in a case or not?

-On what charges?

-How are we going to negotiate?

-To what end -- incarceration or alternative -- why or why not?

-If incarceration, for how long and why?

-If an alternative, what does that look like and why?

What happens in the office now is that prosecutors aren't empowered to make these decisions toward a productive end -- toward creating public safety while managing risk -- toward upholding the rule of law by eliminating police violations of constitutional rights.

I would empower my prosecutors to make these decisions through the system we create together -- the foundation of which is in my First 100 Days Agenda.

And ultimately we'll reorganize the office to take a vertical, person-centered, team-based approach -- you'll see an office with team leaders who have senior attorneys who serve as subject matter experts attached to them -- but it will be a flatter organizational structure designed to create a cultural of continuing improvement in public safety.

I actually can't envision a prosecutor having to go to a supervisor for a decision -- that's not my leadership experience or style that I bring in from the Marine Corps: we will create a system of discretion, together, we will get to a common view of our mission, together, and then we will operate within these conceptions, together.

If my people are in that office, they will be there because I trust them to make sound judgements within that system. If they have to ask, then, frankly they probably have to go.