“The scariest thing about them is that they weren’t monsters. They were just people.”

That was the enduring lesson Tom Barbour took from his time fighting Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and one that would guide his passion for criminal justice reform.

Barbour, who left the military in 2013 and became a lawyer, is the co-founder and executive director of the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing crime and incarceration by building support structures around nonviolent offenders. 

Two law students at the T.C. Williams School of Law, William DeBord and Ellie Pittman, spent this past summer working at VAHJI during its pilot phase.

VAHJI’s work is an example of “holistic justice,” an approach to criminal justice that focuses on addressing the root causes of criminal behavior, thereby reducing re-offense, Barbour said. 

The seeds for what would become VAHJI were planted during his time in law school and informed by his experiences overseas, Barbour said. 

“I thought that the way the law and the professors and my classmates talked about people who broke the law, was largely wrong,” Barbour said. “They set them out as monsters, as people who were intrinsically wicked or bad. 

“And I had met folks who frankly were trying to do harmful things to my Marines and my soldiers, and they weren’t that way. They were just living their lives, in their own circumstances.”

Which raises the question: If that is true about terrorists overseas, what does that mean for criminals here at home?  

“We have a theory that crime isn’t altogether that complicated,” Barbour said. “People are living their lives and they react to avoid certain circumstances in their lives, and some of those reactions are criminal.”

Barbour, who went on to become a prosecutor, founded VAHJI alongside Jerald Hess, a senior public defender in Richmond who shared Barbour’s mindset and approach to criminal justice.

“We even have a system in Virginia called the sentencing guidelines that tries to make consistent the amount of incarceration that is handed out to individuals, without ever asking really if incarceration is, in the first place, a good idea,” Barbour said.

VAHJI aims to help combat this problem by identifying client needs and then matching the clients up with the appropriate support services, such as organizations like Daily Planet Health Services, REAL LIFE and OAR of Richmond, Barbour said.

“What we are really doing is quarterbacking,” Barbour explained. “We don’t provide services ourselves, we come up with the game plan for our clients to access other service partners, and then we quarterback their access to that.”

DeBord and Pittman, the UR law students, helped create the blueprint for what an intake interview and holistic client plan look like while managing around 15 clients.

DeBord said he remembered a client who had initially been difficult eventually tell him and Pittman: “You guys care about me. Nobody else in my life really cares about me. I don’t trust people easily. Thank you for not giving up on me.”

Another client, Gabriella Tolliver, 20, spoke about the lengths VAHJI staff members were willing to go to help her, even providing her rides around town to get to job interviews and pick up applications. Without VAHJI, she probably wouldn’t have been able to find a job, Tolliver said. 

In total, it was an experience Pittman found moving. 

“I look at everything that I experienced growing up and it doesn’t hold a candle to what some of these people have seen,” Pittman said.The fact that they extended their trust to us was surprising and pretty humbling on my end.”

Looking to the future, Barbour hopes to raise enough money to hire full-time case managers to work at VAHJI and expand capacity. VAHJI will then be able to gather enough data to track the rate of re-offense of clients and compare it with comparably situated offenders who are not using VAHJI services in order to see whether holistic justice is effective, Barbour said. 

“How can you have a justice system that makes us safer, if you don’t track the metrics that tend to tell us whether we’re safer or not?” Barbour said. “We need to demand a public safety return on the human cost of incarceration.”

Contact contributor Aquila Maliyekkal at aquila.maliyekkal@richmond.edu.