The Collegian
Sunday, June 20, 2021

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Tom Barbour: CA McEachin "missing the moment" on Richmond criminal justice reform

The Democratic primary for Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney pits incumbent Colette McEachin against Tom Barbour, a former prosecutor, defense attorney and law enforcement officer. 

The victor will be tasked with restoring confidence in a criminal justice system that has undergone much scrutiny after a year of protests against police brutality in Richmond and the nation.

The June 8 primary will likely determine the winner of the election, as there is no Republican challenger in the race.

Barbour, who now works as a social worker, said his background prepared him to lead Richmond's criminal justice system with a uniquely comprehensive understanding of all parts of the justice system.

He currently leads the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, a nonprofit providing social services to inmates as a way to prevent recidivism. Barbour considers himself a progressive, which means emphasizing humane treatment and sentencing that seeks to address the systemic problems behind crimes, he said. 

"[McEachin] is administering a systemically racist criminal justice system," Barbour said. 

A large criminal justice advocacy group in Richmond also expressed dissatisfaction with McEachin, pointing to her refusal to join the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice -- an organization that lobbies for state laws that reflect a progressive vision of justice. 

McEachin's campaign did not respond to The Collegian's request for an interview.

Richmond City Councilman Andreas Addison said McEachin had been a great partner to the city council.

"[McEachin] was very informative and provided some guidance," Addison said during the council's formation of the Richmond Police Department Civilian Review Board last year. McEachin had otherwise struggled to work with council initiatives on traffic safety issues, he said.

McEachin has changed her message since she was first elected as Commonwealth's Attorney in 2019. On a 2019 episode of the Race Capitol podcast, McEachin said that her duty would be, first and foremost, to be a voice for victims. McEachin served as a prosecutor for 25 years, but she had never prosecuted a police officer for shooting someone, she said. 

This year, McEachin highlighted a list of progressive reforms, from higher scrutiny on first felony charges to a new docket to decriminalize the handling of mental health issues, according to her campaign website. 

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Barbour called these types of policy changes a Band-Aid approach, saying "This office is stuck in the 1990s" at a Richmond City Democratic Committee debate. 

McEachin doubled down on her philosophy, saying that, "It's not feasible to think that crime can be cured by social work," and added that she supported devoting resources toward communities to prevent crime ahead of time. 

Barbour disagreed, saying, "I'm for accountability that works... accountability looks like requiring that people go seek these [social] services." 

Barbour said he wanted to organize the office in terms of people -- not cases -- to give prosecutors an incentive to help offenders rehabilitate. 

He said he also wanted to expand prison diversion programs to encompass most offenders rather than a few select types. This is an alternative to relying on a prison system that does not prevent repeat offenses, Barbour said. 

Barbour also intends to be more strict with police misconduct, he said, and argued that Commonwealth's Attorneys bear a unique responsibility to hold police accountable when they abuse their power. This policy comes after the fatal shooting of Marcus David Peters during a mental health crisis by a police officer was deemed justified by the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, despite an upswell of community outrage, Barbour said. 

Barbour believes he is not far behind, though he has struggled to identify criticism of McEachin within political circles, he said. The local political culture has dissuaded people who work with McEachin from making public statements on the race, said two members of the Richmond City Council who spoke to The Collegian on the condition of anonymity. 

An April report by The Richmond Times-Dispatch finds McEachin in the frontrunner position.  

Contact City & State writer Danny Anderson at danny.anderson@richmond.edu.

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