Top prosecutor stepping down

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/7/2019, 6 a.m.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring has quietly left his mark on the criminal justice system in Richmond.

Mr. Herring did not respond to questions about his move to private practice, but friends indicated that he wanted to ensure he could support his children, who are headed to expensive Ivy League colleges.

Neither Mr. Herring nor McGuireWoods indicated whether he would be an equity partner, which means he would invest in the firm along with gaining the title.

According to the 2019 listing of equity partners’ pay at large law firms, the 184 equity partners at McGuireWoods averaged about $1 million a year.

As commonwealth’s attorney, Mr. Herring earned about $195,000 a year from state and city contributions. He has managed an office that currently has about 75 staff, including about 34 attorneys, and a $7.6 million annual budget. He has led one of the largest and busiest commonwealth’s attorney’s offices in the state.

First elected in 2005, Mr. Herring won attention early in his term with the successful prosecution of two killers who murdered two separate families — in a New Year’s crime spree.

Mr. Herring was more involved in management of the office than in actual trials during his tenure, which is how he began looking into the issue of cash bond and its impact on low-income defendants. He began experimenting with increasing release without bond and at diverting drug offenders in 2010 and began expanding the effort in 2014 after the city’s new jail, the Richmond Justice Center, was completed.

Then Mayor Dwight C. Jones had rejected a recommendation for a 2,000-bed jail, opting instead for a smaller, less expensive jail with about 1,132 total beds.

A task force the mayor set up earlier began looking for ways to divert inmates from the new jail. Programs to divert mental health prisoners, people awaiting trial and low-level offenders were created and have proven relatively successful in keeping the daily population at around 1,100 or fewer, far below the 1,600 to 1,700 prisoners who were daily sandwiched into the old jail that had half the space

Accompanying that effort, Mr. Herring began a new policy of recommending increased release of accused people who would have been hit with a bond of $10,000 or less and worked with the city Department of Justice Services to begin assessing people for release based on risk.

Four years later, without any evidence that the policy of increasing release without a bond created problems for the courts or police, he stopped recommending bond for anyone whom the pretrial assessment found was not a risk to the community.

Mr. Herring also sought to open public conversations and gain more consideration of the root causes of crime and the role that public policy could play in helping to reduce crime through programs to address poverty, improve education and increase outlets for recreation.