July 10, 2019

How to Make the Criminal Justice System Work Better

The stacks of handwritten letters sitting on a table in Larry Terry’s office tell stories of remorse.

One by one, Terry thumbs through them, his facial expression changing as he recalls the details of each correspondence.

Some of the letter-writers have committed unspeakable acts, things that Terry said “you can’t un-hear.”Other correspondents have done something regrettable when they were young, not understanding the consequences of their actions.

Then there are the people who fall in the middle; Terry can’t quite figure out the circumstances of their downfalls.

All of the people are convicted felons currently incarcerated in Virginia’s correctional system. They have written to Terry, the executive director of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, simply because they saw his name and “parole” somewhere in the same sentence.

“Many of them are simply reaching out because they want to feel like there is hope,” said Terry, who is still trying to figure out which letters to respond to. “What kind of hope do they have? Whether it’s their time in prison or after they get out, are things going to better for them? 

“Some of the letters are really tough to read. You can feel the desperation.”

In January, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Terry to serve on a team whose mission is to identify the best practices and strategies for criminal justice reform, and specifically, how to ensure that people who have finished their sentences return to society as productive citizens.

Terry is part of a six-member team, chaired by Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Morgan. The others are Virginia Parole Board Chair Adrianne L. Bennett; parole board member Linda L. Bryant; Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections Harold Clarke; and Fairfax County Del. Mark Sickles.

Terry, who holds an appointment in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy, is familiar with the inner workings of the criminal justice system.

During his time at the University of North Texas he was involved in a number of initiatives, including the Second Chance Community Improvement Program, one of the first felony community courts in the United States; and Miles of Freedom, a nonprofit focused on reentry programming.

Terry, a California native who came to UVA in 2018, recently sat down with UVA Today to talk about his latest pursuit.

This article originally appeared in UVA Today. You can read more here. Larry Terry is an affiliated Batten faculty member and the executive director of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.