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Jones: Virginia's attorney general's office needs a civil rights division

Jones: Virginia's attorney general's office needs a civil rights division

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Jay Jones

Jay Jones

As we close out a year of awakening of racial disparities that persist in our society, we must turn awareness into action.

In February 2019, I spoke on the floor of the House of Delegates about the Black experience in Virginia. I identified what I call the “Two Virginias”—a Black Virginia and a White Virginia. I called for us to address the gulf between the two saying, “we as Virginians, have a choice: to give these deep-seated issues the attention of a news cycle and suppress our differences yet again, or to address the longstanding issues head on and make real progress toward healing and reconciliation.”

More than a year later, the inequities and failures of our systems have been laid bare for all to see. Whether it is the horrifying behavior of a Virginia State Police trooper during the traffic stop of Derrick Thompson in Fairfax County or the absurd targeting of my colleague, Senator Louise Lucas, by a police system with a well-known history of racism, we cannot rely solely on local systems to conduct investigations. Discrimination and its ugly progeny occur every single day and it isn’t always caught on camera or by social media—injustice isn’t new in our Commonwealth.

Virginia’s Attorney General’s office used the law under Attorney General Lindsay Almond to deny the civil rights of scores of Virginians. They used the law and their power to close down public schools in my hometown of Norfolk instead of integrating them. My grandfather was among the lawyers that fought to integrate our schools. Now it’s time to use the office to move us in the right direction.

The Attorney General isn’t our top prosecutor by statute, but this office must be empowered as the “top cop” when it comes to protecting the civil rights of every Virginian, no matter who they are or where they live. That’s why I’m proposing the creation and elevation of a dedicated Civil Rights Division within the Office of the Attorney General that would be authorized and directed to conduct investigations, level civil penalties, and refer criminal conduct to the Commonwealth’s Attorney in instances of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and any other protected class.

The current mission and resources of the Office of the Attorney General lend itself to be the neutral, dispassionate party whose sole purpose is to find the truth and offer a full, thorough review of any incident. That won’t cut it anymore.

Protecting the civil rights of every Virginian is an urgent priority and we cannot waste another second. We cannot let process be the enemy of civil justice—stories like Esther Thorne, who rotted in jail and was severely beaten while incarcerated based on false testimony, should be supported in their quest for civil rights instead of facing opposition from the Attorney General because of a technicality. We cannot hide behind the shield of cowardice when prioritizing the civil rights of our citizens.

A focused and empowered Civil Rights Division would weed out institutional racism from our financial institutions, our government, and even from within the Office of Attorney General itself. We must lean into the urgency of the moment with actions that reflect our commitment to true racial justice, not just words.

Simply put—we must take bold action as we move into this new Virginia decade standing shoulder to shoulder to reorient our justice system and unequivocally signal to our citizens that we value, highlight, and prioritize them above all else by seeking fairness, justice, and equity—the ideals that we strive to live by each and every day.

Change is possible, but only if we act. Since the dawn of our American democracy, Virginia has led. It is time for us to lead again. No longer should we have an Attorney General that is reactionary or one that waits to see how the political winds blow. Virginia deserves an AG that is proactively protecting every citizen and meeting our challenges directly with courage and strength. Now is the time for a Civil Rights Division in our Attorney General’s office.

Jones is a member of the House of Delegates from Norfolk and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

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