Recently, my office collaborated with an amazing local non-profit. Friends of Guest House is an Alexandria-based organization that helps women successfully reenter the community from incarceration.
Since its founding almost 50 years ago, Guest House has helped more than 4,000 women break the vicious cycle of incarceration, reunite with their families and reintegrate into their communities. Guest House offers a full suite of services, to include a residential program, an aftercare program and a mentor program.
Our collaboration involved bringing my prosecutors to a local church to meet with women participating in Guest House’s residential program. Guest House’s amazing director of marketing and communications, Marisa Tordella, introduced my staff to Donna, Crystal and Grayce.
These three women were kind enough to volunteer their time and brave enough to share their life stories – stories that stand as testament to the process of redemption and the ability of people to overcome extremely trying circumstances.
We heard of the extreme difficulties each of the women had overcome. All three shared their struggles with addiction. One of our speakers recounted how she suffered at the hands of a domestic abuser, while another explained how she was abused by her mother at a young age.
All three told us of a cycle of arrest, jail time, release and rearrest – all without any meaningful access to treatment or services. But what struck me most was not the terrible struggles and obstacles the women encountered in the past, but instead the incredible resilience and perseverance these wonderful people exhibited in confronting and overcoming adversity. I was also impacted by the grace and humility they exhibited when sharing their difficult truths.
This kind of human interaction with people who have been through the criminal system is extremely important for prosecutors to have. The rules applicable to lawyers absolutely forbid a prosecutor from reaching out and talking to a citizen who has been charged with a crime, both to honor the attorney-client privilege and to avoid placing the citizen in a situation where they might incriminate themselves.
While the ban on talking to charged persons is a necessary protection, it has the unfortunate effect of not allowing the prosecutor to see the humanity of the people they are tasked with prosecuting. This leads, in turn, to an unfortunate tendency to think of those charged with crimes as just names on a case file.
Face to face discussions significantly alter this calculus. During our meeting, my staff heard of the lack of treatment resources for people who desperately need them.
All three of the women we talked with told us that Guest House was the first time the “system” had ever provided a meaningful support program. All three agreed that it was not the prospect of jail time that forced them to finally confront addiction. Instead, it was an internal, deeply personal realization that “enough was enough,” and that they needed to make a change so they could live the lives they envisioned for themselves.
During the meeting, I watched as the women and my staff began to warm to each other. A meeting between district attorneys and people who are reentering the community can understandably begin with a bit of wariness from both sides. But the honesty and personality our speakers displayed soon won over the attorneys, who began sharing the insights and epiphanies they had gleaned from the meeting.
I strive to inculcate an office culture in which prosecutors get beyond the walls of our office and actively participate in the Alexandria community. Of course, the COVID-19 crisis has made that difficult, but as we hopefully return to a more “normal” situation this summer, I hope to hold similar events.
Prosecutors must always consider the community in crafting thoughtful, compassionate responses to crime, and the community they must consider includes citizens charged with offenses. Only by meeting with – and really listening to – people like Donna, Grayce and Crystal, can prosecutors understand the humanity of criminal defendants.
Please consider supporting Friends of Guest House with a donation if you are able. While I know there are any number of deserving charities in the city, Guest House provides unique and extremely important services. I urge you to visit friendsofguesthouse.org for more information and a link to donate.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.