Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Prosecutors should temper zeal with kindness

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In the 2012 case of “Tuma v. Commonwealth,” the Virginia Court of Appeals made an important observation about the ethical responsibilities of prosecutors. In its opinion, the Court wrote:

“The asymmetry of the criminal justice system certainly places onerous demands on prosecutors. Defense attorneys may pursue acquittals notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary. … (T)he higher obligation to fairness and justice required of prosecutors is as integral to the effective operation of our system of justice as the duty of zealous representation of the defendant is for their courtroom opponents. Prosecutors must never forget that they are public servants whose oath requires them to serve their clients though a commitment to the fair, impartial, and objective administration of justice.”

I strongly agree with the Court’s position. Criminal defense attorneys have a sworn duty to ob- tain the best possible outcome for their client, regardless of personal beliefs about their client’s guilt. If a lawyer is defending a client against a criminal charge, the lawyer’s obligation is to fight the matter tooth and nail in an effort to secure an acquittal – no matter how strong the evidence or how heinous the crimes.

Not so for prosecutors. If elected prosecutors are doing their jobs correctly, they temper zeal with human kindness. They understand that their job is to obtain justice, not convictions, and that in some circumstances dismissing a case is the just result. They therefore consider conviction rates anathema. Instead, they weigh the felicity of the citizenry, taking aim at the underlying causes of criminality. They understand that their constituency includes even those citizens accused of crimes.

During the past 18 months, my office has implemented three new policies or programs that impartially administer justice. In each, we seek to extend the helping hand of treatment and services as opposed to the heavy hand of incarceration.

The three examples are:

1) the city’s new Drug Treatment Court, scheduled to begin this spring,

2) our Mental Health Initiative, in which we seek mental health services for offending citizens to address their underlying issues, and

3) our new policy on cash bail in low-level, non-violent offenses.

In upcoming editions of this column, I will explore these policies and programs in more detail. I am happy to report that our Mental Health Initiative has just completed its first year and statistics on its efficacy should be available soon.

Each of these policies or programs requires the work of a significant number of city partners, including our city council and city manager. With the Drug Treatment Court, we partner with the Department of Community and Human Services, the Office of Adult Probation, the sheriff and the police department. None of the programs I have cited would be successful without the help of our partners. They deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

In initiating these changes, public safety must be foremost in my decision-making. In my experience, there is a small group of committed, violent criminals who cannot comport their behavior with the norms of society. Violent criminals – for example, the notorious serial killer Charles Severance – must be held to account. I will never shy away from my obligation to protect the public from rapists and murderers.

Thankfully, though, the number of depraved people who commit extreme violence is small. The vast majority of citizens who are accused of crimes are not hard- ened criminals and deserve assistance and a second chance. Efforts aimed at addressing the issues that caused the criminality in the first place are better for the offender, who is put on the path of recovery, better for the community, which avoids the high price of recidivism and better for my office, which can focus its limited resources on violent criminal offenses.

The writer is the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.

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