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A Prosecutor Makes the Case for Transforming the System

Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales discusses systemic racism and shrinking the criminal justice system.

Published: October 9, 2020

Follow­ing George Floy­d’s killing at the hands of law enforce­ment, millions have taken to the streets to demand a reck­on­ing with our coun­try’s deeply embed­ded racism. Under partic­u­lar scru­tiny are actors within the crim­inal justice system — namely the police and prosec­utors. For the first time, the major­ity of white adults can see what count­less Black people have known for decades: the crim­inal justice system treats Black people less fairly than white people.

In light of this real­ity and the many videos that have captured police viol­ence against Black and brown people, Amer­ic­ans are call­ing for the “defund­ing” of law enforce­ment agen­cies and the reima­gin­ing of public safety, result­ing in historic changes.

One outspoken critic of the crim­inal justice system has an insider’s view: Common­wealth’s Attor­ney Stephanie Morales of Ports­mouth, Virginia. Morales recently parti­cip­ated in a discus­sion, moder­ated by Brendan Cox, director of poli­cing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau, regard­ing calls for “defund­ing the police,” what community-driven poli­cing looks like, and how the real­loc­a­tion of govern­ment funds can improve community-led public safety strategies. The discus­sion was hosted by Law Enforce­ment Lead­ers to Reduce Crime & Incar­cer­a­tion (a project of the Bren­nan Center), a coali­tion group of which Morales is a member.

As far as Morales is concerned, she hopes to put herself out of work. She seeks to shrink the need for police, prosec­utors, and the entire crim­inal justice system. Her remarks, edited for length and clar­ity, are presen­ted here in an inter­view format.

Please tell us a bit about your­self.

Before I am a prosec­utor, I am a Black woman. I am a mother of four Black chil­dren and a wife to a Black husband. As an indi­vidual, I have my own perspect­ive on the harms that the crim­inal justice system perpetu­ates on communit­ies — Black communit­ies and communit­ies of color. I cannot have any discus­sion on the issues plaguing our crim­inal-legal systems without first acknow­ledging that we are oper­at­ing in a system of systemic racism — period.

You mention systemic racism — what is your view of the prosec­utorial profes­sion and its role in perpetu­at­ing racism?

My profes­sion has caused harm. When we talk about systemic racism, we cannot remove the system actors from that equa­tion. We have to acknow­ledge that, for years, prosec­utors have perpetu­ated harms on Black communit­ies and communit­ies of color, poor and impov­er­ished people, and LGBTQ+ communit­ies. Police, prosec­utors, judges, and other actors in the crim­inal legal system are part of perpetu­at­ing racism. We cannot talk about the over­arch­ing effects of the system without talk­ing about the people who are a part of the system.

As a common­wealth’s attor­ney in Virginia, you are a system actor. What are you doing in your role to coun­ter­act systemic racism?

I try to take the restor­at­ive justice approach on a daily basis. I am constantly remind­ing myself and my peers that we are making decisions that impact people’s lives. We are hand­ling matters similar to those in which George Floyd lost his life. Every single day, there is a foot­print of the crim­inal legal system on people’s lives in ways that many of us cannot imagine. Our communit­ies feel surveilled and oppressed at schools and in our neigh­bor­hoods — in neigh­bor­hoods where, quite frankly, indi­vidu­als have no access to food, hous­ing, and are at a total disad­vant­age.

On top of that, a group of 12 of us in Virginia formed an organ­iz­a­tion called the Virginia Progress­ive Prosec­utors for Justice. We commit­ted to advoc­at­ing for laws in this special legis­lat­ive session that we thought would protect the members of our community in the areas of police miscon­duct, mandat­ory minimum sentences, and more. We repres­ent 42 percent of the popu­la­tion of the common­wealth of Virginia.

What does the “defund the police” move­ment mean to you?

Person­ally, I am an advoc­ate of the defund move­ment, but we have to acknow­ledge what this is actu­ally about. As a soci­ety, we must real­ize that we do not have unlim­ited resources. Too many of these resources are being taken up by mass incar­cer­a­tion and punit­ive poli­cing. We do not have enough resources to provide mental health services, hous­ing, and food secur­ity — to address the ills of soci­ety that are creat­ing condi­tions in which members of my community, members of your community, are now enga­ging with this crim­inal legal system at a dispro­por­tion­ate rate. We have chil­dren in our communit­ies that, if school is not in, they are not eating. We have extremely long waitl­ists for public hous­ing. We have communit­ies in public hous­ing being heav­ily patrolled by law enforce­ment officers, produ­cing a feel­ing among our young people that you are living in a police state.

The senti­ment of want­ing to defund the police is really about rein­vest­ing in community, and in some cases, invest­ing in poor Black and brown communit­ies for the first time.

How would the defund the police move­ment impact your office and your work?

If the community wants to defund the police, that means that the entire crim­inal legal system will hope­fully shrink. That means that my office will lose resources, and I am perfectly fine with that. If you are truly a person with a public servant’s heart, and you want to get this right, we should want to shrink this system. We should not want the foot­print of this system on people’s lives. This is not the way it should be.

Do you believe it is chal­len­ging to discuss the defund the police move­ment?

I frequently wonder why we are having such a hard time talk­ing about real­loc­a­tion of funds and divest­ing to rein­vest in some­thing that will keep people out of the crim­inal legal system and decrease its foot­print. It is not about taking away some­thing from the police. It is about rein­vest­ing and invest­ing in communit­ies to really create that oppor­tun­ity for people, not just to live, but for communit­ies to actu­ally begin to thrive.

I welcome people to get comfort­able with being uncom­fort­able, and to lean into this conver­sa­tion. But, let us oper­ate out of a place of respect for each other. We are finally having conver­sa­tions that we have not had for too long. We need to figure this out together.

What are some of your greatest concerns with poli­cing and law enforce­ment more broadly?

The way we determ­ine who the system actors are going to be. Who are we entrust­ing with the role of becom­ing a public servant? When people are sign­ing up for the police depart­ment, are police agen­cies seri­ously analyz­ing who is enter­ing this role? Are we uncom­fort­able having a conver­sa­tion about whether or not a poten­tial officer is afraid of or does­n’t like Black people? Or afraid or disdain­ful of members of the LGBTQ+ community?

As the law enforce­ment profes­sion, we cannot be uncom­fort­able having this conver­sa­tion about how we select members who are going to serve our community. This is why communit­ies don’t trust the police or prosec­utors — because we do not engage in that discus­sion. We are fail­ing to protect our community at the outset. We have not earned their trust.

What do you expect from fellow public offi­cials in this moment?

If there is any elec­ted offi­cial, public offi­cial, or anybody else who is in a public service posi­tion who at this point cannot feel — truly feel — and then profess that Black Lives Matter, I feel you are unfit to serve. When you are deal­ing with some­body who, quite frankly, does not value the lives of a subset of his or her constitu­ency, I do not know what you can do to relate to that person other than to get them out. And that is really unfor­tu­nate.

Many elec­ted offi­cials are not activ­ists and are not organ­izers. But I think the time has come now where we cannot afford to only be one thing. I cannot just be a prosec­utor. I have to fully commit to being a public servant, which means I become an organ­izer, an activ­ist, advoc­at­ing for food secur­ity, against home­less­ness, and for policies to remove harm from the system.

Do you believe that the current system can be changed?

We have to trans­form. We have to dismantle and rebuild in a way that is going to enable us to serve our communit­ies the way we are supposed to serve them. We have a respons­ib­il­ity now, as the ones who have a seat of power, to push for that trans­form­at­ive, non-incre­mental change at every turn. It is going to take every­body, from all differ­ent profes­sions, to commit to doing this work and getting it right for us to see a change. We cannot just rely on things that we have tried before, like sens­it­iv­ity, anti-bias, and de-escal­a­tion train­ing. That does not remove the people who are racist. You cannot train the racism out of some­body who is a system actor.

The system is oper­at­ing as it was designed to oper­ate. So, we may not have a perfect solu­tion, but we know that what is happen­ing now is harm­ful. The current system is very disrupt­ive in the lives of people on a daily basis. I am an advoc­ate for defund­ing. It is not about taking away some­thing from indi­vidu­als. We need to invest in communit­ies to really create the oppor­tun­ity, not only for people to live, but for communit­ies to actu­ally begin to thrive and func­tion in soci­ety. That is what the Amer­ican dream is supposed to be — which some exper­i­ence and others do not.