Personality: Robert N. Barnette Jr.

Spotlight on board chairman of Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration

1/8/2016, 6:38 a.m.
Robert N. Barnette Jr. says he was inspired to accept the position as board chairman of the Richmond-based Virginia Alliance …

Robert N. Barnette Jr. says he was inspired to accept the position as board chairman of the Richmond-based Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration after reading “Billion Dollar Divide,” a report by the Justice Policy Institute in April 2014. “I wanted to lend my voice to a worthy cause,” he says.

He quotes former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who sponsored the National Criminal Justice Commission Act:

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities. Either we are home to the most evil people on Earth or we are doing something different — and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.”

The nonprofit Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration focuses on state laws, legislation and policies that lead to the lockup of so many African-American men, women and children.

Mr. Barnette says the organization’s main goal is to help reduce the mass incarceration of African-Americans, and is working to educate community leaders, pastors, politicians and others about the “bad” laws that lock people up and what’s needed to better the lives of African-Americans in Virginia.

A lot of that is being done by the organization’s board, which is comprised of pastors, NAACP leaders, academicians, community leaders and social activists from localities across Virginia.

Mr. Barnette also serves as president of the Hanover County Branch NAACP and says the two groups work together on the mass incarceration issue.

Currently, the alliance is gearing up to advocate for several legislative changes when the General Assembly session starts Wednesday, Jan. 13.

One law the alliance is working to change is raising the threshold for felony grand larceny in Virginia. Currently, a person accused of taking something valued at $200 can be charged with a felony. The alliance is working to increase that value to $1,500.

The threshold “was last increased in 1980 to $200,” Mr. Barnette explains. “Given the steady increase in consumer prices, based on the Consumer Price Index, $200 in 1980 is valued at about $600 today.”

Mr. Barnette says alliance members will meet with members of the House of Delegates and the state Senate, and send letters, faxes and emails to legislators seeking the change.

“I think chances are better than they have ever been to raise the threshold in the current Republican-controlled General Assembly,” he adds. “A wide array of community leaders, church leaders, statewide church leadership organizations encompassing many denominations, activists, taxpayers and consumers have come together in a historic way working to bring about change in Virginia’s outdated and punitive $200 felony grand larceny threshold.”

Here’s this week’s crusading Personality, Robert N. Barnette Jr.:

Occupation: Safety engineer, Chicago Bridge & Iron Co.

Place of birth: Chase City in Mecklenburg County, Va.

Education: Associate degree, Community College of the Air Force; bachelor’s degree, Virginia Commonwealth University; master’s degree, Central Michigan University.

Family: Wife, Janice H. Barnette; and two daughters, Alicia Mickleberry and Ashley Blizzard.

Other leadership roles in the community: chair, Hanover County Electoral Board; board chair, Hanover Department of Social Services; board member, Hanover County Sheriff’s Citizens Advisory Board; president, Virginia Army/Air National Guard Enlisted Association; Richmond regional board member, Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership; vice president, Richmond Chapter of the West End High School Alumni Association.

Number of board members for the Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration: 16.

When and where the Alliance meets: March and October at Thirty-first Street Baptist Church, 823 N. 31st St., in Church Hill. We also meet during January before the State of Black America address.

To help accomplish the goal of raising the felony grand larceny threshold to $1,500, the alliance has: Contacted groups such as the Virginia State Conference NAACP and members of 100 branches, the Baptist General Convention of Virginia with pastors and members in 1,200 congregations, the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond & Vicinity, the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the African American Family Initiative, the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Goochland & Vicinity, the African-American Lecture Series Committee, the Henrico Ministers’ Conference, the Virginia unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Men on the Mainline and many other concerned statewide groups, organizations and citizens. We are formally calling on all General Assembly members, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Virginia Retail Merchants Association to introduce, fully support and pass this legislation.

Other issues we will lobby for during the General Assembly session: Push for a living wage of $15 an hour in Virginia; increase participation of African-Americans in employment and procurement at state-supported colleges and universities in Virginia; support the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by expanding Medicaid coverage to all individuals at or below the poverty level ($14,404 a year for an individual and $29,327 for a family of four) who are under the age of 65, are not enrolled for Medicare benefits, and are not qualified for another mandatory Medicaid category; and support for legislation that requires background checks on all who purchase guns and to institute a statewide ban on military assault weapons and a limit on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines. 

What one person can do to help restore rights: Contact the local branch of the NAACP and speak with their restoration of rights person and start the process.

What community organizations can do: Help local NAACP branches sponsor restoration of rights workshops and information sessions in their local areas. Ask local general registrars to conduct training sessions on restoration of rights.

Alliance’s financial support comes from: Churches and other partners that see value in our efforts in the communities in which we advocate.

No. 1 challenge: Communication — getting the word out.

How I plan to address it: Ensure the information is disseminated to the general public through various communication vehicles.

What families of prisoners can do: Continue to visit incarcerated family members and be as supportive as possible.

We could do more if: We were able to focus media coverage on this issue. It is one of the most important means of policy change at our disposal.

What people think when they first meet me: That I’m quiet and reserved.

Branch of the military I served: U.S. Air Force.

How does your background in the military help you in your efforts to advocate for others: My military experience helps me stay focused on the mission, which requires critical insights balanced with personal moral certainties that only a broad exposure to great ideas, courageous thinkers and extraordinary leaders can encourage.

Perfect day: A day when I have experienced the peace and joy that life has offered.

Perfect evening: Dinner and a good movie.

Best late-night snack: Any type of fruit.

What I do to unwind: Read and watch TV mysteries.

If I could have one wish, it would be: To abolish the death penalty.

Person who influenced me the most: My grandmother, Ellen Barnette.

The book that influenced me the most: “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson.

What I’m reading now: “The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future” by Joseph E. Stiglitz; “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA” by George Tenet.

Best time of my life: When my two daughters were born and being selected as the 10th State Command Chief Master Sergeant of the Virginia Air National Guard.

My next goal: Retirement.