Donald Caldwell on the failures of criminal justice reform, systemic racism, and his final run for Commonwealth's Attorney

This week, we sit down with Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell, who is running as an independent against Democratic nominee Melvin Hill.

In advance of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with local candidates, including for uncontested races, to give voters insights into who their elected officials will be. These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience.

This week, we sit down with Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell, who is running as an independent against Democratic nominee Melvin Hill. The Roanoke Times has written:

"For longer than the Roanoke City Courthouse has stood at Church Avenue and Third Street, longer than the tenure of its most senior judge, longer than the time spent in prison by many a criminal who passed through the building, one thing has remained constant: Donald Caldwell has run the prosecution."

That story was published in 1997. Caldwell, 70, became Commonwealth's Attorney in 1979 and has faced a challenger only once, in 2017, when Hill ran against him.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you seeking another term?

I'm seeking another term because I feel the integrity of this office, and the reputation of the city, is at stake. For whatever reason, Mr. [Melvin] Hill has offered himself as a candidate, but he has a background of financial troubles, of breaking the law, of not paying his federal taxes over many, many years, of using the bankruptcy system to eliminate his debts to people that he's received goods and services from. He's done that twice in his career, both Chapter 7 [bankruptcies], just eliminating all of these debts. Integrity of the office is one reason I'm running. The second one is the reputation of the City of Roanoke. It's my belief that a city, just like an individual, has a reputation. And if a city gets a reputation for electing leaders who can't manage their money, and are not holding themselves to high standards, then that will be the reputation that Roanoke gets. And of course Roanoke, like every other city, every locality, competes for business, and I don't think that's a good message to send. So part of this is, you know, Roanoke has been good to me, and I'm trying to return the favor.

Would you have run for reelection if Melvin Hill were not the Democratic nominee?

I would not have. The short answer is if a qualified candidate — and of course people could say, Well, what's your definition qualified? — but if a candidate had been put up that appeared to be qualified on their face and had a good reputation within the community, I would not run again. And actually, I wouldn't have run four years ago had not Mr. Hill jumped in. I mean, Mr Hill's strategy is pretty plain and simple. He feels like being the Democratic nominee in a city that votes primarily Democratic, that he can ride the coattails of others to office.

Do you think it'll benefit you that there's no party affiliation on the ballot? It'll just show up as Don Caldwell, Melvin Hill.

It's hard for me to predict, because I'm not that astute on politics. Obviously, my main strength is that I have name recognition. I've been here a long time. And I don't believe I've ever done anything to embarrass myself personally or the office personally, so I think I have a good track record. And I realized that no, not everybody agrees with everything I do, but that's just the nature of being in a job where you have to make decisions.

Where we are in Roanoke right now is there's very much frustration with the level of violent crime, very much, and I see that. I think it is a problem for the police, it is a problem for this office. But there is apparently — since this is a country-wide phenomenon that we're dealing with right now — nobody seems to have come up with a real good answer at this point in time. So I don't think the police should be blamed. I don't think this office should be blamed. We do the best with what we're given. Currently, I pretty much think that we're reaching a crossroads in this country. After eight years under the umbrella of criminal justice reform, it does not seem to have produced results. It seems like we have a situation where many, many people have no respect for the law, they don't have respect for authority. The focusing on the offender, as opposed to the offended, doesn't seem to be panning out. But it is going to take, I think, some of our elected leaders — and I'm not talking about the Commonwealth's Attorney — I'm talking about the police department, I'm talking about our council people, our delegates, our senators, our congressmen, our representatives across this country to stand up and say, 'We've had enough of it. And we're going to have to take a harder stance.' And, you know, we use this phrase, 'mass incarceration.' I'm not sure it ever was true. I don't accept it as being true, but it was presented and apparently accepted by a lot of people as true. But when you've got people who are incorrigible and will not follow the law, I think this society has to decide whether it's worth investing in the resources to remove them from society until they can conform their conduct to the law. And of course, necessarily that means that you're going to lock up some young people, because those are the crime-committing years, 18 to 28. You know, a lot of young men, if somehow you can carve out and just say, We’re going to shorten your life by 10 years, but we're going to get you from the maturity of 18 years old, immediately to the maturity of 28, a lot of this crime in the country would not happen. Testosterone, for lack of a better phrase, the stupidity of youth, if you didn't have to deal with that, we'd have a lot less crime.

What are some of the reforms that have taken place here locally that you think have not panned out or not worked?

When you say locally, I’d say you’ve got to go to the state level to address most of the problems. I would say that the elimination of petit larceny felony offense for people who habitually steal is one that I think is particularly short-sighted. There are people out there that like to steal; they don't steal because they're hungry. They steal, primarily, to convert the money into drugs. But I think the elimination of that tool in the arsenal, so to speak — I'm not talking about people have to go to jail for the life or anything like that — but you have some substantial punishment. I think the elimination of jury sentencing is a big thing. Of course, I have to laugh with the elimination of jury sentencing, because still the defendant can ask for jury sentencing if he wants it, but yet the Commonwealth can’t. So, to me, it's an odd juxtaposition of rights. One side can, and the other side can’t. Virginia had a very simple process, and on a lot of the major crimes, the ability of the jury to weigh in with the community’s thought on it resolved a lot of cases. And now we made the system that much more cumbersome because you're seeing, as was predicted, an increase in the request for the number of jury trials. And that's because of the elimination of jury sentencing. Most of those changes have taken place in the last two years once the [Virginia] House [of Delegates] and the [state] Senate went under Democratic control.

Another thing that I want to mention, because I feel like people are very much frustrated with the — I'm not going to call them homeless, this is what I'm wrestling with. A lot of people say, We have problems with the homeless. And that implies that there's no will on their part, and they're homeless because of bad circumstances, But we have a lot of people on the street who some circles would call homeless, but they're homeless by choice. That's how they want to live. They don't want to go to the [Roanoke] Rescue Mission because, guess what, the Rescue Mission has rules, and they don't want to follow the rules. So they'd rather be out in the street begging, they’d rather be out on the street using alcohol, things like that. So there's a lot of frustration with that. And one of the things that we've lost in the last four years is the interdiction statue, the habitual drunkard statute. That was ruled to be unlawful by the [federal] Fourth Circuit [Court of Appeals]. And what disappointed me was that there was a very, very strong dissent in that, and the dissenting judges encouraged an appeal by the Commonwealth of Virginia to have that heard. And our Attorney General did not appeal. And I felt like he didn't appeal because he felt like he was on the side of the person with the alcohol problem. So there was an opportunity to at least try to do something that could help the average citizen or businessperson who doesn't want somebody laying drunk in the doorway of their store. But that opportunity came and went, and the Attorney General did nothing. So, those will be some examples of things that just are very, very frustrating right now. I could throw in as one last thing: the legalization of marijuana without a legal source. I mean, I could care less about the policy decision, which is the General Assembly, that we're not going to treat marijuana as a crime. It looked to me like the first thing they should have been doing is saying this is how we're going to provide the stuff legally. Because right now, it's boom time for the drug dealer. And of course, as we all know, a lot of violence surrounds that secondary economy.

There's been talk about some reforms that haven't taken place, such as ending cash bail or ending mandatory minimum sentences. What’s your position on those ideas?

They're coming. In some instances, they've already taken effect. The no-cash bail, that’s an illusion. That is a publicity stunt packaging among progressive prosecutors. It sounds good, but I've looked at how they do it in Northern Virginia. Earlier this summer we had a presentation on no-cash bail. And it really should be no-cash bail unless one’s needed, which is what we've always done. Most people do not put up cash anyway. They have a bondsman come up so it's not really cash in that sense. Now, they do have to pay a bondsman some cash, because bondsmen don't take credit, just like drug dealers. I'm not a fan of the progressive, so-called cash bail move.

What about the argument that people with means are treated differently. Why wouldn't it be that—

Life is not fair.

Why wouldn't it be that somebody is just held in jail, versus being able to post a bond?

The point I'm trying to make is people who come into the court system the first time, unless it's a violent offense, are released on their recognizance. It’s only when you start developing a track record of continuing criminal activity or failure to appear for court or, then, the third category is you commit a violent crime, that's the people who come in and stay in jail or have to post a bond.

The argument about it going back to somebody who's got money, that's a fair statement. But, you know, that is true if you've got more money, you've got more ability to have better resources. You're either gonna have to eliminate the private defense attorney, and we're all gonna be state defense attorneys, or you’re going to have to say, Well, the state is going to pay its attorneys just like the private attorneys are paid, and that’s not going to fly either. But I go back to sort of my fundamental rule, which is, Number One, Life's not fair. Why do some people get cancer and other people don't? I mean, it's just because life is not necessarily, universally fair. You know, the current saying about, We want justice. Well, you know, I hear what you're saying, but by the same token, I've got a saying that's evolved over the years: 'Justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.' And that's why when a judge opposes a sentence in court, you don't usually have both sides standing up and clapping saying, 'Man, that is justice. That's right on.' One side or the other is probably not as pleased with the outcome. So if you asked one side, 'Was justice done?' 'Hell no, justice wasn’t done,' the other side would say, 'Oh yeah, justice was done.' True neutral justice, just like handing King Solomon the sword and saying ‘We both want this baby.’ Wack! So, I don’t know.

What about mandatory minimums?

I'm against the elimination of that. I hate to sound harsh, but there needs to be a hard line taken on some sentences. I'm a fan of mandatory sentencing for certain violent offenses.

I also hear a lot of concerns from people in the community about the uptick in shootings and gun violence recently. Is there anything your office is doing differently to address the crime?

I mean, my people don't shoot anybody, so I've held a line on that. So I don't feel like we're doing anything to contribute to the shooting. In 1994, there were only three homicides in the City of Roanoke. I was on NPR talking about the downtick. And they asked me at the end of the thing if I had anything else to say, and I said, 'I take neither the credit nor the blame.' These are forces that are outside my control. We're responsible for the prosecution of cases when they come into court. They have to go through the police to get here, the police have to get cooperation from the citizens. That is particularly frustrating right now.

The community is frustrated. But once again, I think it's not so much the police or this office, but leadership of this state, from the governor on down to the lowest ranking member of the City Council, or your Board of Supervisors, has got to say, 'Enough, we want it stopped,' and they're the ones I really do think that have got to stand up and say, 'I don't care how old the defendant is, I don't care what the race of the defendant is, I don't care how many bad things happened to him as a youth, but if they kill somebody or hurt somebody, we want him to go to jail.'

Are there any specific new policies or actions that your office is looking to put in place if you're reelected?

We need to develop an attorney position that is dedicated to elder crime. And that's a growing concern. It's been showcased some during COVID about the care in nursing homes and things like that — a particularly complex situation where the regulations and the law are not really conducive to holding anybody truly accountable to the things that happen.

In recent years, there's been an increase in awareness of, and attention to, systemic racism and structural racism, particularly as it manifests in the criminal justice system. How would you say your views have evolved when it comes to the existence of racial disparity in the system at large?

Once again, I find myself in the position of not necessarily agreeing with a lot of the information that is put out. I know that this office, and I don't think the police department, and I don't think that the courts, are treating defendants that classify themselves I guess as a minority, because I guess if you’re talking race, you got white, you got Black, you got red, you get yellow, I mean, whatever the umbrella of racism that you're talking about. But once again, when we go back and look at the crimes, violent crimes here in the city, look at the homicides for this year, the vast majority of the offenders have been Black. The vast majority of the victims have been Black. So, if you took a snapshot in time and we were able to successfully prosecute them all, you can get up and say, 'Well, gee, everybody's going to jail is Black.' I don't know how you get around that. I think we'd be a better society if we would quit focusing so much on statistics and go to just focusing on the person, whatever race, whatever creed. Addressing the person individually without so much concern about what race they are or are not. I personally don't see that as a big issue in Roanoke City. I'm sure others will disagree, but that's my position.

It’s trickier to get statistics from the court system. But state police data in Roanoke show that recently Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched when stopped than are white drivers. And some recent data specific to Roanoke City Jail show there's a greater proportion of Black people incarcerated than they make up in the general population. I'm curious if your office tracks—

No, we do not. We do not have a statistician or anything like that. But once again, to me, you shouldn't worry so much about the race of the person involved. It’s, is it a legitimate connection to a criminal situation? Now, if it's trumped up or, you know, it's an illusory thing, that would be my concern there. But, I mean, it bothers me when we start focusing on statistics and sort of lose the overall vision. What's the racial makeup of this country if we're just talking about Black people in this country?

I believe it's 13 percent.

You're exactly right. What is the racial makeup of the NBA [National Basketball Association]?

That I'm not sure.

It’s like 67 percent Black and the NFL [National Football League] is 70-something. You could look it up. All right, are those both racist institutions? Statistically, yes, wouldn’t you say?

Well, I think it's hard to—

It’s a brain tease, is what I'm saying. I brought that up at a meeting on the juvenile justice system about a year ago, because the presenter got in there and he says, 'Everybody's talking about race,' and then he went off on his spiel that there were too many Black kids in the juvenile justice system. And so I raised that question, I said, 'Okay, I'm not afraid to talk race.' I said, 'The Black population of the United States is about 12 percent but the NBA is like 67% Black. Why is that?' He said, 'I don't know,' and I said, 'Well I don't know either.' I mean, I really don't. But I would say it has something to do with their skill and ability, and I said,  'I would conclude that most of those Black players are there because they deserve to be. And I would also say that most of the kids in the juvenile justice system are there because they earned the right to be there, they're just like the NBA players.' And so, I don't know. It’s a complicated thing.

What about when it comes to criminal justice matters; you mentioned the majority of offenders and victims in shootings are Black in the city. Why do you think those disparities exist?

That's a good question, and that could be a whole separate subject. If you have a 20-year-old that shoots somebody without provocation, and just shoots for a few dollars out of a cash till, when did that kid start going, when did that start? Was it a genetic thing that started right, you know, when the sperm and the egg united? Was the die cast then, or is it something that just goes on down the road? But predictively, I would argue that, it's going to show that this young man now didn't really have much parental upbringing. Probably a single mom, if that, maybe grandparents. I would say that their opportunities to get involved in the educational system early — like pre-K or kindergarten or preschool something like that — probably didn't have that. Probably did not have somebody at home that was making him do his homework. Got siphoned off as a 10- 11- 12-year-old by the allure of the gangster life. By the time we sit him down here, the traditional institutions that sort of shape a person  — your parents being one institution, the school system being another institution, and then religion, church, being an institution — those three big societal institutions that have been around thousands of years. But now we see the breakdown of the parental unit. Our schools are not succeeding with this group. And the churches are almost totally out of the picture. And so, you know, how you interrupt that and how you change that, how you can change it? But that's where I think a lot of our problem is coming is showing itself now. But you the beginnings of that problem go back 20 years, 15 years, 14 years. If there was one thing I learned in that aborted race against [state Senator] John Edwards, we would be better off as a society investing in pre-K and getting all of our kids into some sort of structured teaching, exposure to teaching. We would really be better off to double down on our efforts to encourage young people not to have children until they're a little older, because so many of them just don't have the resources or the training to really care for children, to raise them. So, it's a huge problem. If I had a good answer for it, I'd give it to you. I recognize the problem. I don't have a solution.

You mentioned the aborted 2015 race. Do you regret that at all?

No. I just felt an itch that had to be scratched. I just wanted to try to make a difference. I didn't realize I’d get clobbered as badly as I did, but then, on the other hand, you know, that's just life. [In 2015, Caldwell ran as an independent against Edwards and lost with 6.4 percent of the vote.]

Does that itch, more for involvement in legislative politics as opposed to prosecution, does that still exist?

No. I'll be 71 in November, so I can tell you right now this will be my last run. And I don’t have any aspirations for anything else.

Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?

I’m big into cowboy-action shooting. That is probably my biggest hobby right now. It's just a competitive sport using Old-West type guns — revolvers, lever actions. And you shoot steel targets against the clock. But it’s sort of like the way our school system has become. We've got so many categories and everybody can be a winner, so you always feel good after a match, because if you put yourself in the right category, you can win the little badge.

What else do you think is important for voters to know either about yourself, the office or the election this November?

My summary thought is that I've always tried to do the best job I can. I realize it's not perfect, but I've always tried to do it honestly and with integrity. And I have not been an embarrassment to this city, and I can promise that that will continue for at least another four years.