New UVA Law Criminal Justice Project Seeks to Move the Needle on Reform

The wide-ranging study of Virginia’s criminal justice system will involve the efforts of three law professors, plus law students taking a spring seminar and two departments in the College of Arts & Sciences.

A new project spearheaded by faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law aspires to improve the commonwealth’s criminal justice system through the collection and analysis of data.

The Virginia Criminal Justice Policy Reform Project will research – and encourage the adoption of – policies aimed at improving the fairness of criminal adjudication, preventing wrongful convictions, reducing recidivism, reducing costs, diverting low-risk offenders from jail or prison and easing societal re-entry for the formerly incarcerated.

“The project will focus on rigorous analysis of data, and it will be objective and nonpartisan,” said professor Brandon Garrett, a wrongful convictions scholar who leads the project. “It is designed to promote fairer outcomes that are evidence-based, without sacrificing crime control.”

He gave an example: 41 percent of the low-risk, nonviolent offenders in Virginia who are eligible to be diverted from jail or prison to a community-based sanction are diverted. What explains why some of these low-risk offenders are diverted and others are not? The project will focus on that question in its first year.

Garrett, whose work has sought to improve forensic science, eyewitness identification procedures and interrogation policy, is joined on the project’s leadership team by UVA Law professors Richard Bonnie and John Monahan.

Bonnie, who directs UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, has led highly successful efforts to revamp mental illness policy in Virginia and nationally, including the diversion of offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and into community treatment. He recently chaired a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study that provides extensive recommendations for curbing opioid addiction in the U.S.

Monahan, a psychologist, has earned a reputation for his work on risk assessment in sentencing, which has informed efforts to identify and reduce the sentences of low-risk offenders in Virginia and around the world.

Broad research for the project will be conducted through a new spring seminar at UVA Law, in which students will research and write papers on such issues as improving interrogation policies, the use of mental health dockets in criminal adjudication, and bail and discovery reform. Garrett and Monahan will teach the course.

The Virginia Criminal Justice Policy Reform Project complements and expands ongoing empirical collaborations on criminal justice between the Law School and the statistics and psychology departments in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences. Work on eyewitness memory is being supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Teaching and research on forensic science policy is being funded through the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensics Evidence. The new project’s first year of work is supported by a $145,000 gift from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Garrett said he has high hopes for the interdisciplinary breadth of criminal justice research at UVA and the concrete recommendations for improvements in the quality of criminal justice in Virginia and nationally that such collaborations will yield.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

Associate Director of Communications and Senior Writer University of Virginia School of Law