Multifaith group probes Va. Gov. Northam, AG Herring on cash bail reform

Gov. Northam answers questions at a VOICE event in front of audience of about 1,200 at Fairfax High School on Sunday. (WTOP/Liz Anderson)

FAIRFAX, Va. — They’re not on the ballot for the 2018 midterm election, but two of Virginia’s top leaders fielded questions from a multifaith, nonpartisan group at Fairfax High School Sunday.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, also known as VOICE, wanted commitments to tackle some of their top concerns.

About 1,200 people from 50 Northern Virginia congregations and other organizations wanted to know what Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring plan to do to about the current cash bail system, funding for school mental health workers to reduce the student/counselor ratio and to make sure most of those counselors are actually doing mental health work during most of that time.

“There are many inequities in our social justice system,” Northam said. “The justice system is not fair, and the cash bail system is one reason why it’s not fair.”

“Virginia’s current system of cash bail too often determines who has money rather than who is dangerous,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said during his time answering questions from a VOICE representative.

Herring also made a promise.

“What I committed to was to reform Virginia’s cash bail system, and do everything I can to bring about real, meaningful change,” he told WTOP after the two-hour program.

In a letter to Virginia’s State Crime Commission, which is examining the cash bail system throughout the Commonwealth, Herring writes that the pretrial detention of poor and low-risk defendants is a concern, and could be running afoul of both the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I of the Virginia Constitution, both which prohibit “‘excessive bail’ beyond what is necessary to ensure a defendant appears in court.”

While taking questions, Northam also highlighted efforts to stop suspension of driver’s licenses for folks with unpaid court debt, to make sure returning citizens have job skills and a place to stay when they are released from serving time behind bars.

Schools and keeping families together

Another of VOICE’s key concerns is making sure there’s adequate funding for school mental health workers, needed to put the counselor-student ratio back to 1 for every 250 students, and to make sure most of the teacher’s work time is spent doing mental health work.

“If we’re going to make sure that all of our children have access to a world-class education, the first thing we need to do is start paying our teachers,” Northam said, regarding teacher pay increases needed to recruit and keep talented instructors across the state.

A local pastor said the governor’s response was fine with him.

“There’s a lot of priorities that we talked about tonight,” said Ralph Duke from Beacon Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Herndon, Virginia.

“Keeping families together, that’s what we came out here for, and all the other things were concerns, too,” said Ignacio Gamez, who was seated in the first few rows of the auditorium.

During the program, a VOICE representative said they’re holding hundreds of listening sessions throughout Northern Virginia’s Muslim community to track the local effects of the president’s travel ban from several mostly Muslim countries.

When asked, Herring promised to work to keep Virginia families together, and to meet with VOICE within six months to learn results of those listening sessions and talk about possible responses.


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