VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — They say time behind bars changes a man.
For former Virginia Beach city councilman and state delegate, Ron Villanueva, it was an eye-opening experience about the shortcomings of the system.
He spoke to 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox about second chances and criminal justice reform.
Villanueva was sent to prison in 2019 after pleading guilty to defrauding the U.S. government. He served less than a year due to COVID-19 and is now released from prison.
The former lawmaker says he learned a lot from his nine months in prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg; he learned the strategies in the General Assembly dealing with criminal justice were flawed.
“I, first of all, want to apologize to folks I let down. I let down my family, my community. I let myself down a little bit,”
Actually, he let himself down a lot, he said.
He faced the gauntlet of cameras and reporters outside the Norfolk federal courthouse where he pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government and misleading the Small Business Administration on contracts set aside for minority-owned and small businesses.
“For people who know me, Ron, I was always there to help them out. I needed to maintain better decorum. I had a responsibility not to be involved with what I was involved with,” he said.
In a short period of time, in the Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg, Villanueva learned a lot about humility,
“You got to know when you are stepping over the line. I stepped over the line and I pleaded guilty.”
At first, he was going to plead not guilty, but he realized his guilt and realized what needed to happen to get out of trouble as quickly as he could.
“When the federal government has the narrative built-in, a lot of folks who are involved in this whole network of things point fingers and not taking responsibility, like some of the other folks did. I was the only one to serve time.”
Incarceration was a classroom for the former member of the General Assembly.
“When I was in there, I saw limited resources for mental health. There are a lot of drug addicts in prison. A lot of them need treatment that they are not getting,” he said.
Villanueva realized Virginia’s legislative strategy on criminal justice is greatly flawed. In prison, he came to the full realization that the strategies in the General Assembly dealing with criminal justice were flawed.
“My eyes were wide open. After I got into prison, I said ‘Wait a second. We have been wrong, we have been wrong with the way we dealt with criminal justice,’” he said.
He says the Republican way — Villanueva has been seen as a moderate-conservative Republican — has been the wrong way in dealing with criminal justice.
“You got to figure out the other lever. How do these folks earn their way back into society, and how do they become part of society again?” he said.
The first thing Villanueva says legislators need to do, is put their own boots on the ground.
“They need to go to prison. Lawmakers need to visit the prison and not just pay lip service. That’s what a lot of folks in Richmond do,” is pay lip service to the problem, he said.
“And talking about mandatory minimums makes no sense to have those things when you have judges that you appoint that could use discretion and understand the individuality of the cases,” he said.
He says prosecutors need the ability to show compassion.
“On the prosecutor side we need crime and punishment reentry and redemption.”
The General Assembly where he served as a Republican also needs to realize non-violent criminals need to treated differently.
“There are mitigating factors, you have laws, and punitive sentencing… Getting people back to work, job training programs, and invest in folks who are getting ready to come out,” he said.
Villanueva says sub-par mental health services in prison are the root of problems.
“You talk about mental health services, there are a lot of folks who need mental health services and they aren’t getting it.”
He went on about politicians: “You see all kinds of politicians say get tough on crime and in retrospect what they did was wrong including our president, former Governor George Allen and Governor McDonnell.”
“In America we are the land of opportunity, but we are also a place of second chances and second opportunities.”