A New Approach to Prosecution Must Include the Voices of Those Behind Bars
By Stephanie Morales, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Portsmouth, Virginia.
Today, millions of men and women will wake up in cells only large enough to take a few steps, with a door that only opens when someone else determines it should. The conditions in many of these prisons and jails are deeply concerning. Yet too often the prosecutors who advocated for these consequences have not set foot inside these facilities.
Five years ago, that was me. And when I became Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2015, I committed to change that starting point. After working on reentry, rights restoration and recidivism reduction in the community for over a year, I took my first visit to St. Brides Correctional Center, a state prison in Chesapeake, Virginia. I felt our work on these issues would be more effective and reentry would be more successful if we connected with individuals to engage and share resources before they returned to their communities — as more than 95% of people in prison will ultimately do. Since then, however, the many hours my staff and I have spent inside prison walls have become so much more. We have learned from those individuals who are incarcerated as much as they have learned from us. That is why I’ve joined over three dozen elected prosecutors from around the nation to make clear our commitment to personally visit these correctional facilities and make those visits an integral part of the job expectations of every prosecutor in our offices. As the Fair and Just Prosecution pledge we have all signed makes clear, “it is vital for prosecutors to understand the impact of their decisions and see firsthand the jails, prisons and juvenile facilities in their jurisdiction.”
When I ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney of Portsmouth, Virginia, I did so with a recognition that tough on crime approaches to criminal justice have not made our communities healthier or safer. In fact, it has done just the opposite, rendering the United States the world’s leader in incarceration. I committed to doing things differently — to approach prosecution with innovation, evidence, and most importantly, with compassion and empathy.
Prison visits are an important starting point and my own experience demonstrates how life-changing such interactions can be. My initial visit to St. Brides opened up an honest and often heartbreaking dialogue that makes clear what people who are incarcerated already know: once you are incarcerated, many would rather forget you exist than actually see you as a human being who can change and is deserving of a second chance.
But when face to face with someone, having a conversation over a shared meal, it is difficult to look past the humanity of that person. Prosecutors experiencing that proximity see the person and the life story beyond the case file; they realize that these individuals are more than the mistakes they have made.
These eye-opening conversations have provided critical context and understanding for me and so many on my staff who participate in these visits. We have increasingly understood that our job — and our ability to promote safer and healthier communities — begins long before a case ever hits our desks and extends far beyond final disposition.
I’m grateful that my visits have helped to show those who are incarcerated at St. Brides that there are people, even in positions you wouldn’t expect, who truly care about them and their wellbeing. But, I’m even more grateful for the insights they provided to us as we think about reforming the criminal justice system.
These visits have forced us to confront not just the immediate impact of our office’s decisions to charge and prosecute someone, but the long-term consequences as well. Now, charging decisions are prefaced with a series of critical questions such as: Am I willing to place this person far away from their family and loved ones? Am I advocating for reforms that ensure any facility I cause someone to be placed in is humane and treats them with dignity and respect? Are the human and societal costs of incarceration justified in this case and for this person?
I’m in good company with other prosecutors like Eric Gonzalez, Jeff Rosen and Dan Satterberg who have made visiting their local correctional facilities a common practice, but we are still in the minority — and that must change. Fortunately, with FJP’s pledge, 40 other elected prosecutors, and in turn their offices, will be acknowledging the importance of these practices and engaging with people who are incarcerated. And these commitments are part of the larger national conversation generated by FAMM’s #VisitAPrison challenge.
As actors in the system with the most power to determine who ends up behind bars, prosecutors have a greater responsibility than anyone else to see and understand the facilities and conditions we are sending people into. I hope every elected prosecutor will join me in making this an expected practice in their office for themselves and their staff. They might be surprised at what they learn.