Don L. Scott And REFORM Alliance Aim For A More Representative Virginia
Scott's aims for positive benefits for Virginians who otherwise may have been victims of the state’s criminal justice system.
During the 2023 midterms, Virginia nominated Don L. Scott to become its speaker of the House. Scott will officially become the first Black speaker in the 400-year history of Virginia’s House on Jan. 1, 2024, when he is sworn in. Scott has rapidly ascended in the state’s Democratic Party since 2018 when he talked to a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot. The reporter, according to The Guardian, asked him if it was true that Scott had gone to prison. Scott told The Guardian that he hadn’t thought about sharing it previously, but that call made him think about sharing his story more widely.
Scott told The Guardian that the positive reaction once the reporter’s story ran convinced him to really think seriously about running for office.
“I got such positive feedback from my community and other folks that I knew that I said, ‘Heck, I’m free now. If I decide I want to run, I can run,’” he said.
During Scott’s campaign in 2020, he was working on a bill to amend Virginia’s probation system, and he reached out to the REFORM Alliance’s co-chair, Meek Mill.
According to REFORM Alliance’s CEO Robert Rooks, Scott’s desire led to positive benefits for Virginians who otherwise may have been victims of the state’s criminal justice system.
Rooks told BLACK ENTERPRISE, “Delegate Scott was resolved to dismantle this pipeline and recognized that fixing a broken probation system was essential to increasing public safety and economic growth. Since this legislation was enacted, the data suggests positive trends in Virginia’s justice system, including fewer people being put on lengthy probation terms and fewer people being locked up for technical violations.”
Scott’s trajectory to the speakership is unique partly because of how the state handles people like Scott, meaning people with felony convictions on their records. In Virginia, the restoration of the rights of formerly incarcerated people is left up to the governor.
Scott recognizes how ludicrous this arrangement seems on its face, as he told The Guardian, “I had a nonviolent drug offense that I was sentenced to 10 years [in prison] for. There are people who are just like me who are not voting and can’t vote and are smarter than I am. [They] can’t vote because they’re waiting on somebody like Governor [Glenn] Youngkin to restore their rights. I will be speaker with a felony, while other people who are just like me … will not be able to vote. That’s nuts.”
Rooks explained to BLACK ENTERPRISE that it was important to him that a second chance be extended to Scott, saying that it was unfortunate that Scott faced attacks based on his prior incarceration during his initial run for office.
“We are a society of second chances, and it was disheartening to see Delegate Scott not only doubted and underestimated but also attacked for being a formerly incarcerated person. We should not vilify people who want to serve their neighbors as elected representatives; we should encourage and celebrate them,” said Rooks.
Scott understands the significance of his position relative to his Blackness, but he also knows that his constituents are looking for him to deliver wins, much like he did with House Bill 2038. Scott reflected on a conversation he had with a former governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, telling The Guardian, “He (the former governor) said, ‘Now you have to go and be great. You have to be competent. You have to deliver.’ And that’s what our community is looking for. They’re not looking for symbolic wins anymore.”
Scott added, “I’m the first Black speaker, but I’m also a speaker who happens to be Black.”
Scott, for the moment, is excited about what the future holds and he recognizes what his position represents in terms of his personal journey, as he told The Guardian, “I’m excited,” he said. “It’s the dream of a lifetime. I feel embarrassed of how much I’ve been blessed. I went to jail in ’94; 2024 is 30 years and I’ll be standing taking my oath. That’s a powerful testament to the power of faith, and the power of resilience.”
Here is what else Rooks said in his interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What led the REFORM Alliance to collaborate with Delegate Scott on his prison reform platform?
REFORM Alliance CEO Robert Rooks: Back in 2020, Virginia’s probation system was deeply challenged, leading to vicious cycles of never-ending probation terms and over-incarceration. Probation violations had accounted for approximately half of all people sent to prison for most of the past decade, costing millions of dollars each year. Delegate Scott was resolved to dismantle this pipeline and recognized that fixing a broken probation system was essential to increasing public safety and economic growth. He was working with a coalition of organizations led by Justice Forward Virginia when they reached out to REFORM Alliance Co-Chair Meek Mill on Twitter. REFORM was proud to join the fight and help bring meaningful change to supervision in the Commonwealth through House Bill 2038. I was honored to join Meek and Delegate Scott at the bill signing ceremony alongside then-Governor Northam. Since this legislation was enacted, the data suggests positive trends in Virginia’s justice system including fewer people being put on lengthy probation terms and fewer people being locked up for technical violations.
Delegate Scott’s re-election and nomination as Speaker demonstrate that voters agreed with this common sense approach and believe it is working to make our communities safer, our people freer, and our economy stronger.
BE: As Scott’s campaign gained momentum, what were some of the challenges that presented themselves?
Rooks: Delegate Scott’s campaign for justice reform has been inspirational, pragmatic, and essential. The result has been more investment in communities and less burden on taxpayers. There are always challenges but putting public safety, fiscal health, and a robust workforce at the center of the state’s legislative approach is a winning strategy.
We are a society of second chances, and it was disheartening to see Delegate Scott not only doubted and underestimated but also attacked for being a formerly incarcerated person. We should not vilify people who want to serve their neighbors as elected representatives; we should encourage and celebrate them.
BE: How does the history of Virginia make Scott’s historic achievement more meaningful?
Rooks: Delegate Scott’s victory is both historic and life-affirming. It is a triumph for Black communities and all Americans. It illustrates the profound resilience of Virginians and Americans and our capacity for positive change.
BE: What, in your opinion, sets Scott apart from others who may have been considered for the nomination, specifically around the issue of criminal justice reform?
Rooks: I was honored to stand next to Delegate Scott as he signed landmark legislation to reform Virginia’s probation system. What distinguishes Delegate Scott is his unique understanding of what unites us and his vision for advancing our humanity through our economy and advancing our economy through our humanity.
BE: What are some other legislative efforts that REFORM is working on?
Rooks: REFORM has passed 17 pieces of bipartisan legislation in 11 states across the country, creating pathways for nearly 700,000 people to exit the system. We’re focused on building diverse coalitions across the United States, including in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Indiana, and in Congress, and continuing to advocate for legislative reforms that increase public safety and expand economic opportunity. We’re also focused on ensuring the legislation we already passed is effectively implemented and our progress maintained. For the past two sessions, we successfully defeated efforts in the Virginia legislature to roll back progress made under our 2021 legislation.
BE: What does Scott’s selection as Speaker say about the growing diversity in Virginia politics?
Rooks: People are hungry for effective leadership and policies. People want to see themselves and their experiences reflected in their leaders and be part of the solutions. Delegate Scott represents that change, and I know he’ll do everything in his power to realize those aspirations on behalf of his fellow Virginians.
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