On Crime, Ed Gillespie Is Fundamentally Unserious

By now, we’ve all seen or heard about Ed Gillespie’s campaign ads trying to turn crime into the central issue of this campaign for governor. Gillespie wants you to know that he’ll keep you safe from those scary MS-13 gangs and returning citizens who have had their voting rights restored. From Gillespie’s viewpoint, Virginia is a dangerous place for our families and only he can be trusted to tackle this crime epidemic.

Ed Gillespie isn’t interested in tackling real problems. He’s aiming to win this election by making you afraid of your black and brown neighbors.

The problem? When it comes to criminal justice reform, Ed Gillespie is a fundamentally unserious candidate.

It turns out that, when you look at the numbers, Virginia’s crime rates are actually at historic lows. In fact, for 2015, the last year for which data are available, Virginia’s violent crime rate was the third lowest in the nation.

Virginia’s violent crime rate? The third lowest in the nation.

In contrast to those numbers, what is not low is the number of citizens Virginia incarcerates. Virginia has one of the highest incarceration rates of any state. In fact, if Virginia were a country, we would incarcerate a higher percentage of our citizens than any other nation. Our closest competitor? The brutally repressive regime of Turkmenistan. Great company we’re keeping there.

If the overall rates of incarceration weren’t bad enough, it’s worse when you look at the racial breakdown. While black Virginians make up 19% of the Commonwealth’s population, they’re a staggering 58% of the jail and prison population. The incarceration rate for black Virginians is more than five times higher than for white Virginians. That’s unacceptable and evidence of deep-rooted elements of structural racism built into our criminal justice system.

Virginia locks up an unreal number of our citizens. But if you visit Ed Gillespie’s website to learn more about his proposals for criminal justice reform, there’s not a peep about over-incarceration. He does pay lip service to racial disparities in the criminal justice system but proposes no changes to really tackle this element of structural racism.

If Gillespie was serious, here’s what he would be talking about:

Tackling over-criminalization in Virginia before it starts:

Virginia isn’t just sending too many adults to jail. The problem begins way before then, in grade school. A 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity found that Virginia sent more students to cops and courts than any other state in the nation. That school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts black and disabled students, halting their learning and future opportunities before they even begin. Here’s what it looks like in real life:

“Diagnosed as autistic, Kayleb was being scolded for misbehavior one day and kicked a trash can at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.”

Beyond the traumatic impact that incarceration causes in young black students, there’s evidence that incarcerating young black men has been linked to an increase in neighborhood crime. There are economic repercussions as well—research shows that families of incarcerated men have a 40 percent higher likelihood of living in poverty if the father is incarcerated.

Legislators from across the aisle worked together this past session to propose reforms to the school discipline system. One of the strongest proposals actually came from Republican Delegate Dickie Bell. And yet, his own party’s candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, has nothing to say on the issue.

Building community-police relations:

We’re all safer when there are strong bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities we’re policing. When incidents of police bias and violence break those bonds, it doesn’t just hurt those directly involved in an incident. Everyone is less safe when citizens don’t feel safe reporting crime to law enforcement.

Rebuilding that trust is a crucial step to ensuring every family is safe and healthy. The first step is collecting information and data on the disparate impact of police policies on different communities so we can come up with evidence-based solutions. Requiring police departments to report data on traffic and pedestrian stops and studying that data would be a great start. So would providing cultural sensitivity and mental health crisis training to law enforcement and first responders. This is another area in which Ed Gillespie remains 100 percent silent.

Actually, that’s not true. Ed Gillespie’s racist attacks on Latinx and immigrant communities speak volumes on this issue. Portraying an entire race as criminals drives immigrants and Latinx Virginians into the shadows, making them far less likely to report crimes to local police.

Returning citizens:

Some of the biggest barriers returning citizens face when it comes to reintegrating into society are healthcare and employment. Ed Gillespie’s (laughable) solution? State-financed drug tests for ex-offenders.

Individuals struggling with addiction don’t need drug tests. They need help and support. (Need a data point? The rates of reoffending are more than 50% for individuals suffering from mental illness compared to just 27% overall). Rather than providing access to rehabilitative substance abuse and mental health resources , Ed Gillespie proposes continuing to treat returning citizens as criminals, signaling they’ll never be accepted back into our communities.

That sentiment is echoed in Gillespie’s recent TV ad attacking Governor Terry McAuliffe’s historic actions to restore voting rights. According to The Advancement Project, prior to Governor McAuliffe’s actions, Virginia blocked 7% of the population from voting because of a previous conviction. And as with all other impacts from the criminal justice system, individuals deprived of their voting rights are disproportionately African-American. As we said when Gillespie launched his racist ad, “Our democracy is strongest when every voice is heard. Giving returning citizens who have paid their debt to society a voice in community decisions gives them a stake in our collective future.” (Read a recent story about a returning citizen’s path to civic engagement here.)

In truth, Virginia isn’t facing a crime epidemic. We’re facing an epidemic of mass incarceration driven, in part, by racial injustice. But Ed Gillespie isn’t interested in tackling the real problems. He’s aiming to win this election by making you afraid of your black and brown neighbors. And in a cruel twist, he’s blaming the exact same communities who are the biggest victims of a criminal justice system that harbors the sinister forces of systemic racism.