Reimagining Virginia’s Criminal Legal System
Governing For Impact
Spitfire, with support from Open Society Foundations and Governing for Impact, partnered with seven criminal legal reform advocacy organizations in the Commonwealth of Virginia to build their communications muscles, craft and align messaging, and enhance their media capacity during the 2021 legislative session and beyond.
2021 was a critical year for Virginia, as advocates pushed the Commonwealth to reckon with its racist history and pass legislation to make the criminal legal system more just and fairer for all Virginians. Advocates successfully secured legislation that abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana, and reformed Virginia’s parole system, among other important wins. Spitfire provided strategic communication support to advocates at key moments during the legislative session — identifying key journalists and outlets, drafting media pitches, and crafting messages to tip the scales toward justice. We also facilitated monthly meetings with advocates to promote collaboration and shared learning across organizations.
Following the session, pro-carceral politicians began pushing false and harmful narratives about crime and public safety to hinder progress. Citing one-sided and decontextualized police data, media articles centering an imagined “surge” in crime-dominated coverage across the country. To gauge voters' viewpoints on the criminal legal system, Spitfire collaborated with local advocacy organizations to develop polling conducted by Data for Progress. The polling quickly found that pro-carceral talking points failed to move voters, leading anti-reformers to pivot and focus their campaigns on culture war narratives to fearmonger voters. Spitfire reviewed the polling results and news coverage pushing this narrative in Virginia, as well as available crime data and analyses, to better understand the landscape and to make smart recommendations on how local advocates could counter this harmful narrative to both protect and promote progressive reforms that address the underlying causes of crime and keep communities safe.
Using this research, Spitfire developed narrative guidance and messaging for partners to counter false narratives and encourage legislators to continue to push for progressive criminal legal reforms. We partnered with local groups Justice Forward Virginia and Nolef Turns, alongside Harvard Law School’s Institute to End Mass Incarceration, to host a press briefing to contextualize these types of harmful narratives and the impact they have in communities. This briefing resulted in statewide press coverage in Virginia Public Media, Virginia Public Radio, WVTF, as well as an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Arlington public defender and Justice Forward Executive Director, Brad Haywood.
After Virginia’s closely watched statewide elections, our work expanded to support a coalition of advocates working to transform Virginia’s juvenile justice system. To best support them in their efforts, we led a Smart Chart 4.0 training to prepare them for the 2022 legislative session.
Spitfire is excited to continue working with these advocacy organizations heading into Virginia’s 2022 legislative session — furthering community-led solutions to criminal legal system reform and bolstering their advocacy through rapid response support and media outreach and resources.