Richmonders won’t have to wait until November to decide who will be the city’s top prosecutor for the next four years because the presumptive winner will be determined by the Democratic primary on June 8.
Both Democratic candidates running for Richmond commonwealth’s attorney call themselves “progressive reformers.”
Colette Wallace McEachin, 65, is the incumbent with nearly two years in the role and more than 25 years of experience as a prosecutor. She was first tapped in June 2019 to lead the office when Michael Herring stepped down, and then won a firehouse primary and special election later that year.
The challenger is 36-year-old defense attorney Tom Barbour, a former captain in the Marine Corps who worked as a policy adviser during Herring’s tenure as commonwealth’s attorney while getting his law degree and MBA from the University of Virginia.
After graduating, Barbour worked in the Richmond prosecutor’s office for less than a year before starting his own defense practice and founding the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, an organization advocating for the end of mass incarceration and connecting nonviolent defendants to services.
Both candidates spoke at a virtual forum Tuesday hosted by the University of Richmond School of Law.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” McEachin said of being a prosecutor. “We have a duty to take care of those people who have been harmed, and we have an equal duty not to harm those who have been accused of a crime.”
McEachin has announced a slew of new initiatives in her office on the heels of announcing her re-election bid.
“Last year was interrupted by COVID, so a lot of the public events and ideas that I had planned just couldn’t happen,” McEachin said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I’m hoping the citizens, the voters of Richmond, will give me the opportunity to put those plans into effect in the next four years.”
One program that was delayed, she said, was a partnership with Richmond Public Schools where she would visit middle and high schools for a “Law 101” class teaching students their rights and how the criminal justice system works.
Last month, she announced that she created a new Community Justice Reform Unit that will focus on what she called the “three Rs: reform, restore and rehabilitate.”
McEachin wants to revive a restorative justice program — a type of mediation between victim and offender where both are involved in coming to a peaceful resolution outside of the courtroom — in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, and expand it to other courts.
McEachin also emphasized the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which allows a prosecutor to drop or amend charges based on the evidence and circumstances of each individual case, or to consider alternatives other than jail.
“That discretion has to be used thoughtfully and humbly, and with an eye towards justice and equity for the victim and the defendant,” McEachin said during the interview. “It is not something to be used lightly. It is not something to be used out of any sense of power. It is to be used very discretely and delicately.”
That flexible decision-making was applied to charges brought against more than 300 people during last summer’s civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, McEachin said. There was a demonstration outside her home in June — 15 people were arrested and charged that night — calling for all charges against protesters to be dropped, among other demands.
“When everyone was like all the charges should be dismissed just outright, I said, well we’re going do what we do with every charge that’s filed, which is look at the individual facts behind that case, that charge, that person,” McEachin said. “Then we will arrive at a result that is just and fair and appropriate.”
Most protesters — those facing non-felony charges or with no prior record — were offered the opportunity to complete community service in exchange for dismissal of their charges.
Barbour criticized McEachin’s handling of those charges brought during this summer’s protests, as well as the lack of transparency for holding officers accused of misconduct accountable. Only two officers were charged following the city’s unrest; there should have been more, Barbour said.
“There was no policy that was public and transparent,” he said during the forum. “The office is a black box of decision-making.”
Detailed on his website, Barbour has dozens of initiatives and actions that he will take during his first 100 days in office, if elected. They range from selecting a diversity and recruiting officer to publishing charging criteria for use-of-force incidents involving police and public assemblies.
Despite his age and inexperience as a trial attorney, Barbour said his time in the Marine Corps prepared him to be an effective and fair-minded leader. He is advocating for fundamental changes in how crime is prosecuted and punished, emphasizing “social services, not sentences.”
“We cannot put program Band-Aids on a broken system. We need to think bigger and make fundamental changes,” Barbour said. “I bring a unique perspective — a modern perspective.”
He has proposed creating a “Do Not Call List” for police officers and other witnesses who have shown a history of “exhibiting bias, motives to fabricate, or any character, reputational, or other specific instances of untruthfulness that create due process concerns in pursuit of fundamentally fair proceedings.”
Barbour admits his approach is likely to put him at odds with the officers who bring most of the commonwealth’s attorney’s cases, but he believes the transparent policies he’s proposed will be appreciated in the long run.
“This past summer changed a lot of things for our country,” he said during a recent interview. “What we saw was an outpouring of interest and political will for progressive policy reform. I think Ms. McEachin is missing this moment.”
He hopes his election will begin “what we expect to be a lifetime of work,” Barbour said. He and his wife, Julia Snyder, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, live in Church Hill. To find out more about Barbour’s policies, visit tomrvaca2.com.
McEachin and her husband, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, live in Richmond and have three adult children. To read more about her platform, visit colette4rva.com.