The Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative Goes Deeper

By Lisa Schaffner | October 15th, 2019

Longterm, empathetic solutions to crime

Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative VAHJI
VAHJI co-founders Tom Barbour and Jerald Hess | Photograph courtesy of Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative

It’s a labor of love. It’s tackling crime reduction and recidivism like never before. It is Richmond’s newest nonprofit that’s making a difference and Giving Back to our community through criminal justice reform for those charged with nonviolent criminal offenses in the city.

The Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, VAHJI, debuts this fall, and this is most likely the first you’ve heard of the organization. “The notion of holistic justice is to say we think the criminal justice system should be focused on long-term crime reduction by focusing not just on the bad decision a person made but where the decision comes about,” says Tom Barbour, one of VAHJI’s two co-founders. “When people are accused of crimes, they’ve made a bad decision about a real circumstance in their life.”

To bring this concept to life, Barbour shares a story about a client who participated in VAHJI’s pilot program over the summer. “A new, single mother had substance abuse issues. She ran out of family members to turn to and needed a place to live with her child. She stole $500 from a convenience store where she worked to pay for rent. She didn’t steal money for a vacation. She reacted to circumstances in her life,” shares VAHJI’s executive director.

Working with public defenders, VAHJI tackles the whole problem, not just the end result that landed a person in the criminal justice system. Its goal is working with those charged with a nonviolent crime in the City of Richmond. “Our idea is we can get less crime and less incarceration if we manage nonviolent criminals and get them connected to the services they need to help them make better decisions,” explains Barbour. Those services can include substance abuse and mental health counseling and assistance with housing instability.

The former Marine Corps officer who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan sums it up matter-of-factly: “We’re not interested in babying people. We’re interested in having them access resources for the future and treating the circumstances.” Doing so means less recidivism, less crime and a safer Virginia, believes the currently all-volunteer staff of six at the fledging organization, based in downtown Richmond.


VAHJI plans to use data to show that its approach is working. Using data to see trends and solve problems is nothing new in the technology or medical fields. But in the criminal justice system, “It’s a biblical approach,” exclaims Barbour. “But it’s time to use the technology to be analytical and reduce crime, reduce recidivism in a different way.”

VAHJI believes a different kind of data tracking is needed. For example, Barbour, a former Richmond prosecutor turned defense attorney, points to Virginia’s 22 percent recidivism rate, which is one of the lowest in the country. The rate indicates those who have previously been incarcerated who later become re-incarcerated. “That number has nothing to do with public safety,” reasons Barbour. “We want to measure the rate of re-offense. The rate of re-arrest. The point at which the bad decision was made and the point at which someone in the public could be and often is impacted by crime.” VAHJI says those numbers are much higher, ranging anywhere from 75 percent to 94 percent in Richmond, based on how many years out from the original crime. “We need to address why they’re committing crimes, prevent re-offense and hence reduce crime.”

Currently Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative is in a volunteer-generation and fundraising mode. For those wanting to support the months-old nonprofit, it’s simple. Go to the website and subscribe to the newsletter. “This allows us to reach out so we can build a better justice system together,” explains Barbour, who says many public defender colleagues are financially supporting the organization.

Here’s your chance to get involved in giving back and get in on the ground floor of something that could truly transform our community.

Lisa Schaffner, a former WRIC-TV anchor, is public relations and marketing director for UNOS, United Network for Organ Sharing.


Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative

HOW IT HELPS: Provides holistic justice services to those charged with nonviolent criminal offenses in Richmond.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Sign up for the newsletter or give financial support.


CONTACT: Visit the website, email or call 804-944-2425.

LOCATION: 11 S. 12th St., First Floor, Richmond, VA 23219

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