On the Fourth of July, America celebrates freedom.
Fireworks burst into the sky, parades trail down Main Street, patriots don American flag apparel en masse and grills flare up in neighborhoods.
For more than 2 million Americans, the Fourth of July and its freedom are not so free — no cookouts, fireworks displays, parades or American flag T-shirts.
In Virginia, local groups are out in force to get to the bottom of how people end up — and stay — in the United States correctional system, the largest in the world.
“The U.S. is really becoming a country of incarceration,” said Jessica Sapalio, co-chair of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists church social justice group.
Peninsula Indivisible, a social and political justice group covering the Virginia Peninsula section of Hampton Roads, has partnered with the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists church to send volunteers to local courtrooms to gather data about pretrial hearings. The project is part of a “court watch” initiative already taking place elsewhere in the state.
The goal: find out whether being represented by an attorney during pretrial can impact bail determinations, or if low-income defendants are given bail in comparable amounts to other defendants, said Josie Soltys, member of Peninsula Indivisible.
The court watch project originated a couple years ago in central Virginia, and has provided data to aid civil justice groups lobbying for legislation in the 2019 General Assembly session.
“A judge sets a monetary amount and people can’t pay that … then they stay in jail,” said Kim Rolla, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program. “We wanted to say, ‘What does that look like in Virginia?’”
Rolla has been involved with court watch programs in Virginia and focuses on the relationship between the criminal legal system and poverty, such as court debt, funding of defense and bail and pretrial justice.
“Some people are too poor to buy their freedom,” Rolla said.
The local project
The court watch project is just starting on the Peninsula.
Soltys said Indivisible and the Unitarian Universalists have had one meeting with volunteers, and hope to have them start appearing in courtrooms for bond hearings and arraignments next month.
While in the courtroom, the volunteers will have a stack of forms to fill out about each defendant and their case.
The process of courtroom data-gathering will go on for two or three months, Soltys said.
“Ideally, we’d like to compile enough information to present for some sort of legislation for the 2020 General Assembly session,” Soltys said.
Sapalio, of the Unitarian Universalists social justice group, hopes gathering data on the local level will not only contribute to state data and legislation, but also help identify specific issues on the Peninsula.
Sapalio added a particularly concerning part of the criminal justice system in Virginia surrounds how bail practices more often penalize low-income communities.
“We’re interested in looking at the decisions judicial officials make that result in pretrial detention for low-income people,” she said.
The church’s social justice group also has other civic initiatives, including anger management and literacy courses at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.
The project is still working to gather volunteers to record data in court — volunteers don’t have to be members of the congregation.
The Peninsula court watch volunteers will soon travel to Chesterfield to shadow court-watchers who have been observing criminal proceedings there since January.
The results elsewhere
Court watches in Virginia have already illuminated some issues in the state criminal justice system, some of which was not expected, Rolla said.
“We found an incredibly high number of people — a shockingly, jaw-dropping, number of people — are held without bail,” Rolla said.
The number of people held without bail in Virginia far exceeds many states in the rest of the country, according to court watch data.
Further, more than 28,000 Virginians are held in jails on any given night, and 46 percent of those inmates are being held before their trial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.
The data collected by court watches will help fill a void in state data that is difficult to get because of the way state tracking systems work, Rolla said.
“We can’t actually identify problems, craft solutions and actually see if they’re working if we don’t have the information,” Rolla said.
The plan for presenting more legislation to elected officials in 2020 is still in the works — and could be supplemented by Virginia Peninsula court watch data.
“We need more robust data,” Rolla said. “We are the eyes and the ears. We are the accountability.”