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New ‘air of justice’ in Henrico County behind reduced felony charges

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) – Belle Isle in the middle of the James River provides recovering drug addict Jay Biggers a place to escape, to laugh, and to think about where he has been and what he has in store ahead. But, it is another island, one a little less natural, that truly rejuvenates him.

Biggers spends a lot of his time at the McShin Foundation, a recovery resource that uses Peer-to-Peer Recovery Support Services to help recovering addicts become sober. The 21-year-old Henrico native overdosed on heroin in 2012 after years of abuse.

Biggers’ parents said they were shocked when Henrico Police showed up and searched the home.

“I’m just on the phone trying to get help,” Jay’s mom Marcia Biggers said.

“They wanted to put him in jail,” Jay’s father added. “There was no mention of sickness or disease or recovery or anything.

Henrico Police later charged Biggers with felony possession of heroin. But in court, the prosecutor and judge agreed that jail was not the place for Biggers. The judge agreed to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor, if Biggers completed a drug recovery program at McShin.

“The only thing that could help, and it has, is going into a 12-step program,” Biggers said.

He said the program enabled him to kick his drug habit, something a previous stint locked up on a misdemeanor charge failed to do.

“If anything it fed it, talking to people about it while I was incarcerated,” he recalled. “It kinda glamorized getting high and drunk and partying and stuff.”

Biggers’ opportunity is an example of the way the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney, Shannon Taylor, urges her prosecutors to do business.

“I think it’s just about being smarter about crime,” Taylor said.

Taylor, a Democrat, became Henrico’s Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2012 after winning a surprise victory to take over an office long held by Republicans. When she won, Taylor said she wanted to review the handling of non-violent crimes and treatment of the mentally ill who are charged with crimes.

“There are other ways we can address the punishment aspect, than just having them incarcerated,” Taylor said in a 2012 interview.

Taylor replaced Republican Wade Kizer who was once described in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article as “determined, methodical, and effective.”

Taylor immediately talked about the need for making the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office more diverse, to better reflect the county’s growing minority population. She would later fire more than a half dozen members of Kizer’s staff.

“I do want the citizens to know that there will be a new ‘air of justice’ in that office,” Taylor told CBS 6 in 2011.

But, along with more diversity, Taylor said she brought a new philosophy to the office regarding the way they handle certain types of crimes. When it comes to pursuing some non-violent felony charges, sometimes, Taylor encourages her prosecutors to reduce the charge.

“I want to be smarter in evaluating what the appropriate consequence is for that individual.” she said. “Perhaps with the appropriate resources they can be that good contributing member of society that we want them to be.”

Is Taylor’s new strategy reflected in court numbers? Does it represent a new “soft on crime” attitude? We poured over data from the State Supreme Court to find out.


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