Christopher Jones, a father of two from Harrisonburg, Virginia was 26 when he was shot by his younger brother. Christopher asserts that he was trying to stop his brother from being irresponsible with a gun by taking it from him and emptying the ammo. He handed the gun back to his brother but apparently, there was still a bullet left in the chamber because when Jones went to walk away from the confrontation, whether on purpose or not, his brother shot him in the back.
In 2017, Christopher’s friend was murdered while he was standing next to him. “…this guy shot my friend and me, right in front of the courthouse … I got hit twice, [once] in the leg and once in the shoulder. And my friend got hit dead center in the chest,” recalls Jones.
In the same year, Christopher violated a protective order after arguing on the phone with his children’s mother. As a result, an 11-month suspended sentence of 12 months jail was handed to Jones.
Even though his children’s mother revoked the protective order before his court date, the state proceeded with his prosecution. The fact that the strained relationship with the mother of his children had improved did not matter; Christopher was already in the criminal justice system.
That system does not care if Christopher has led his life in protecting what’s important to him like his children, which is the root cause of his differences with his children’s mother and led to the protective order against him. It doesn’t care that he suffered the trauma of other people’s violence against his friend.
Christopher met with his court appointed lawyer only minutes before his hearing, and within minutes was given the choice of a trial and risk going to jail or taking the conviction and being sentenced to probation. There was no discussion – and Christopher had no voice in the matter.
He was placed on supervised misdemeanor probation, requiring him to meet with a probation officer and pass urine screens for marijuana. Christopher has now tested positive for marijuana twice during his probation, and has served almost 60 days in jail from violations recommended by his probation officer.
According to Christopher, these recommendations don’t come from a place of caring about his well-being, as would be expected if the goal was reform. Instead he has been met with a cold unapproachable authority figure and continues to be victimized by a system in which he has no voice.
This scenario in isolation might make sense to some as unacceptable, but historically that’s just been the way the system operated. However, Virginia has been inching towards greater acceptance of cannabis even before the appearance of COVID19 and raised some racial injustice awareness. But, not enough to help people like Christopher who are in the probation system even before COVID 19.
COVID 19 has only added more disturbing realities for Christopher because the court appearance needed to terminate his probation in April 2020 has been postponed to July. His friend’s murder case also is ongoing and he reports a number of symptoms consistent with PTSD from all the stress. Smoking marijuana helps him with his stress and ironically, if he were a registered medical cannabis patient in Virginia, a doctor could recommend cannabis for his chronic stress. Even if Christopher had the financial ability to obtain a medical cannabis recommendation, he still would be prohibited from testing positive according to the terms of his probation.
To his credit, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has worked to address the state’s racial bias scandals for over a year, including his voluntary admission that at age 19 he wore blackface at a party. Herring penned a 2019 op-ed calling for Virginia to move towards legalization of marijuana, and has since said that Virginia needs to reckon with its painful history around race. “This punitive approach costs Virginia taxpayers an estimated $81 million every year, in addition to the staggering human and social costs,” he wrote in the June 16, 2019 piece in the Daily Press.
The murder of George Floyd is proving an inflection point for police brutality and systemic racism in this country, and Virginia like other colonial states is a hot spot for racial justice reform. Remember though that Virginia also is where our slave-owing founding fathers who mandated cannabis as an essential crop for our economy and foreign defense. Over 50 tons of cannabis fiber was needed for the rigging lines alone on big ships like the USS Constitution, commissioned by another George, our country’s first president, Washington.
Now there has been a call to holistically improve how law enforcement and the criminal justice system does business. Systemic implicit racial bias is being revealed that directs the behavior of how human beings are treated in the criminal justice system.
Amendments to Virginia’s cannabis law take effect July 1 of this year, mere days after this story is published. Assuming there are no further public health closures, Christopher expects he will face a judge in mid-July. He does not expect any leniency from the system — he doesn’t believe the state of Virginia cares about his circumstances, or the harm going to jail would do to him.
Like many Virginians laid off because of the pandemic, Christopher is struggling financially. Fearing he might be returned to prison in July, Christopher had been saving as much money as possible while working as a grill cook at O’Neill’s Grill in Harrisonburg. “I’m possibly going to jail in July … I have two little children, man. I have to pay $500 a month. My baby mother’s not working right now. If I go to jail, you know what I’m saying, she’s struggling. But they don’t care. They don’t care, they don’t ask you that – just go to jail. Go to jail.” says Jones.
Both new decriminalization laws and Virginia’s medical cannabis program are set on a trajectory to right the wrongs of past treatment to the cannabis plant. The national conversation on racial justice is taking a sharp turnaround towards healing the wounds of racial discrimination. But until Virginia recognizes the multitude of ways the system still traps people for cannabis, not to mention the wounds of racial disparity, the people of Virginia will not be healed.
Christopher has made remarkable progress in examining the choices and decisions that led him to being introduced into the Virginia criminal justice system, but the state still has a lot of work to do before it can claim it is doing its best to keep people in it only when they deserve to be there.
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