Guest Blog: Virginia Community Action Network Creates Incarceration Diversion Working Group

By: Matt Fitzgerald, Community Service Program Manager VA Dept of Social Services

For the Virginia Community Action Network 2020 began as a time of advancement. The network had been moving forward on investments in client management systems and use of data, continued enhancement of qualitative data collection and analysis for needs assessments, and the start of a new Whole Family Pilot Project. When the pandemic fully hit in early March, the network transitioned and adapted, pulling together for weekly conversations between the State Office, agency directors, and the State Association. There was strong and growing spirit of connection.

The network was scheduled to meet for our weekly call on May 27th, with the agenda to include Head Start, continuing to pay staff that could not work, and the recently released CSBG Supplemental funds. Two days prior, on May 25th in Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered, sparking global protests and a national conversation about race. The May 27th web meeting, and all subsequent ones, were changed. The network immediately decided to form a Racial Equity Committee and begin the work of making long-term, long-needed change amidst the visceral reaction of that moment.

By June 5th, 2020, the committee had developed and issued a Statement of Reflection on Current Events. The Statement laid out very clear thoughts on the systemic injustices and inequities, and strongly stated: “We emphatically believe the practices of racism and exclusion have contributed to the economic demise of communities of color”. The Statement set forward priorities for the network to accomplish externally and internally. It set the framework for a beginning conversation about initiatives that should be pursued at the local and state level. Specifically, the first action item on the list was tozealously advocate for change in policies and systems that create racial and social disparities in the communities we serve”. The Racial Equity Committee became a standing committee of the Virginia Community Action Partnership (VACAP) and works in pursuit of the goals laid out in the statement. In that immediate spirit of changing policies and systems, specific ideas for initiatives were discussed for passage through the Virginia General Assembly. From this came the creation of the Interagency Working Group on Diversion Programs.

Virginia has clear data on the racial disparities of incarceration. Despite making up 20% of state residents, 43% of people in jail and 53% of people in prison in the state are black. And in the last Census, the incarceration rates for people of color were all higher than for white citizens.

The local community action agencies (CAAs) of the Virginia Community Action Network have a long history of addressing the impacts of the criminal justice system. Virginia Community Action Re-Entry System (Virginia CARES) is a statewide network of CAAs that addresses the reentry and deinstitutionalization of returning citizens in Virginia, with agencies providing pre-release services and post-release programs in prisons, city/county jails and regional jails. As thoughts turned to changing the ways our network addresses issues of systemic inequity, we began to consider how the agency advancements in Whole Family strategies and community/collective impact could be used to pursue action before community members entered the criminal justice system. With many CAA’s well-situated in communities to work with human and mental health services providers, substance abuse coalitions, business and community leaders, police officers, prosecutors, and public defenders, there was strong desire to look for solutions before incarceration. Several agencies already had developed strong relationships with their local police/law enforcement agencies, Commonwealth’s Attorneys, and court systems. Following discussion and research, the network decided to pursue an initiative with the overall concept of the Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program as a reference point.

The LEAD Program has six primary goals:

  • Reorient the government’s response to safety, disorder and health-related problems.
  • Improve public safety and public health through research-based, health-oriented, and harm reduction interventions.
  • Reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system for low-level offenses related to drug use, mental health, sex work and extreme poverty.
  • Undo racial disparities at the front end of the criminal justice system.
  • Sustain funding for alternative interventions by capturing and reinvesting justice system savings.
  • Strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

The network, led by VACAP, put together a proposal to the General Assembly to pursue possible pilot projects in local communities and CAAs around similar goals to LEAD. The proposal did not end in pilot projects this year, but it did receive the support of the General Assembly for the advancement of this idea. The result was the creation of the Interagency Working Group on Diversion Programs (IWDGP).

One of the key components of the IWGDP is that it is being developed by the home of the CSBG State Office, the Virginia Department of Social Services, with the following directive:

“To develop recommendations for implementation of local criminal justice diversion programs…working with community action agencies, local governments including local law enforcement, representatives of the judicial system, civil rights organizations, as well as other stakeholders to develop locally-based solutions… Programs should provide alternatives to arrest, conviction or incarceration for lower-level offenses. Each diversion program should offer standards for providing persons charged with lower-level offenses alternatives to arrest, conviction or incarceration for lower-level offenses. The scope of these programs should not include behavioral health issues as those priorities are being addressed elsewhere. The recommendations shall provide for two-generation whole family strategies that deal with meeting the needs of the potential offender and his or her entire family by addressing issues related to poverty including homelessness.”

The workgroup is tasked with delivering these recommendations to the General Assembly by September 30, 2021. The legislation required workgroup representation from criminal justice, human service and housing agencies, as well as the Virginia Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Representatives have been assigned, and the first meeting of the workgroup was on be May 19th, 2021. At this meeting, an overview of diversion programs from across the state was given by the Department of Criminal Justice. Discussions covered how pre-arrest diversion reduce costs, what opportunities exist for decriminalizing low-level offences, and how best to listen to vulnerable voices like unhoused people or English Second Language (ESL) speakers. At the second meeting scheduled for June 2nd, three CAA’s will present their current progress on local initiatives in three very different localities and represent the perspectives of Community Action’s possible role in diversion. The final meeting for the workgroup will be on July 7th, with preparation of recommendations to begin immediately following.

The Virginia CSBG State Office is very excited to be working with our Commissioner Duke Storen to lead this important and meaningful step with the rest of the Virginia Community Action Network, as we look to this and many more initiatives that will address systemic and structural racism, injustice, and inequity through the collaborative work of community action and all its local partners. We will be happy to update the National community action network as we move forward!