Those Impacted by Virginia's Criminal Justice System Deserve Justice and Compassion

By Angela Pupino and Ronnie Galvin

Lillie Branch-Kennedy tells the story of her family's experience with the criminal justice system in Virginia. Her son Donald was convicted as an accessory to robbery. As a first-time offender he was originally sentenced to 127 years in prison. The sentence was eventually reduced to 28 years, despite the prosecutor's recommendation that the sentence be reduced to 13 years.

Fueled by her family's own traumatic experience, Lillie set out to learn more about the criminal justice system in Virginia. "As a daughter of a probation officer I expected the system to be fair, but as I met with families of incarcerated individuals I realized that all across Virginia families are struggling with a fundamentally unjust system." Her experiences led her to start an organization called Resource, Information and Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD).

The organization educates and empowers Virginia families and communities on the negative impact of the racially disparate system of mass incarceration. Lillie says, "We knew that something wasn't right, and sure enough as we talked to other families and as we dug into the reality of our system we discovered that injustices were egregious and widespread."

Her exploration revealed that hundreds, perhaps thousands of individuals were convicted and received inflated sentences because the courts intentionally failed to inform juries that parole had been previously abolished in the state. She also discovered that 10,000 to 15,000 people in Virginia's system have been denied their right to appeal their sentences merely because judges neglected to complete the necessary paperwork that would allow those who were incarcerated to do so. Her instincts confirmed, she sprung into action to form the state's first Mobile Justice Tour. The tour is currently on its fifth iteration and has been instrumental in influencing Governor Terry McAuliffe's decision to make voting rights available for 200,000 formerly incarcerated citizens in Virginia.

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, one of America's best known pastors, scholars, and theologians points to something deeper, something that operates at the heart of these systems. "We as leaders of faith and moral courage must go to the public square and provide a strong moral voice ¬¬ advocating for the good of the whole, not for the destructive few ¬¬ and witness against the extremists' rhetoric and policies. We must challenge unjust systems, but we must be equally if not more fervently focused on challenging and confronting our most closely held beliefs about human value and the dignity of all people."

To address this perspective, Rev. Forbes is helping to lead "The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values," a national multi-state tour to redefine morality in American politics. The Revival entails an over 20 state tour with a mandate to call the nation to a higher moral ground and vision around key issues including economic justice, health care access for all, equality in education, equal protection under the law, and criminal justice reform. Rev. Dr. Forbes is joined in this work by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. In some states they are joined by the Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, acting executive minister of the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries, and Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the Nuns on the Bus and executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK.

On Monday, September 26th Rev. Dr. Forbes and his co-conspirators will convene in Richmond, Virginia to join forces with Lillie and hundreds of others at the next stop on the Moral Revival tour. The day will feature a "teach in" convened by the Moral Political Organizing Institute and Summit (MPOLIS), where community leaders, activists, and impacted groups will wrestle with the moral questions that challenge the current status of our systems of government, economy, and justice. The day's activities will culminate in a revival service that will prominently feature the testimonies of people who have been impacted by these oppressive systems and structures. The MPOLIS is scheduled between 9:00 am- 2:00 pm. The revival services are scheduled between 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm on the campus of Virginia Union University. To learn more about the tour visit www.moralrevival.org