October 22, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Tom Barbour, 34 

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative

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Ash Daniel

Why do people break the law?

Understanding why someone commits a crime isn’t about dividing people into groups of good vs. evil, says Tom Barbour, a Marine veteran and former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond.

Yes, people must be held accountable for their actions. But he says getting to the heart of their behavior can lead to fewer crimes and increased public safety.

“I credit my military service as opening my eyes to the real reasons people take actions in their lives,” Barbour says.

He recalls seeing insurgents who were as interested in feeding their families as they were in being ideologues.

Barbour, who grew up in Indiana, attended the University of Virginia in 2007, spent six years as a Marine Corps officer, and returned to Charlottesville to earn his law and business degrees. A summer internship with Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring led to a job working with the office in Richmond.

The real-world experience was eye-opening. “I thought actually that lawyers were kind of detached from the experiential realities of the people moving through the justice system,” he says.

But Herring encouraged him to “prosecute differently,” Barbour says, “and ask why someone was facing a criminal charge.”

People needed attention beyond the charges themselves, he says — figuring out and following a plan, navigating such service providers as the Real Life program and the Daily Planet, getting out of circumstances that led them down the wrong paths.

Barbour’s successful summer pilot program led him to found the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative. While he works as a private defense lawyer he’s in fundraising mode for the new organization. “If we reach out a hand to people,” he says, “they will take it.”

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