2020 PFIG Recipient Natalie Little
Journal Entry #1
This summer, I am working on a team of interns for the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative (VAHJI). Together, we are interviewing organizations in Richmond and compiling information of local prison alternatives—whether that be mental health facilities, shelters, support groups etc.—to make them more accessible for non-violent criminals and legal professionals. I found this internship particularly interesting as I am studying politics and hoping to attend law school in the future. In my studies particularly of constitutional law I have learned a lot about the broken criminal justice system, and I have become very passionate about reform. Little did I know, I chose the right time for this internship. In this summer of heated protests over the criminal justice system and widespread calls for change, I am hoping our project can make a real difference.
Because of COVID restrictions, my internship is almost entirely remote. I have been working from home with daily Zoom meetings, a little bit of phone-tag, and a lot of emails. Although I am thankful to be safe at home and kept busy with work, remote communication brings its own challenges. I think my boss envisioned us walking into these organizations, meeting with the right people, and explaining our project to them to get them to open up about their work. By contrast, we are caught navigating poorly-made websites and clogged phone systems to reach the right contact to learn about their programs. Although sometimes frustrating, I think it has been important for us to experience what our potential clients face when they want to connect to these organizations and learn more. Even with resources like mental health hospitals, anger management classes and job-prep programs already existent, incarcerated or arrested individuals and their lawyers have a hard time convincing a judge not to send them to jail. The problems we face as interns are the same problems we seek to fix with our app, and I am starting to appreciate that.
Additionally, my boss has been kind enough to set up really great opportunities for the interns already. This past Thursday, we had a zoom call with former Richmond Commonwealth Attorney, Mike Herring. We got to hear about Mr. Herring’s experience and struggles at the prosecutor’s office, and ask him about his perspective on current events. Additionally, my boss is having a few of us shadow him in court on Monday. As interested as I am in the legal field, I have never been in a court room and I am beyond excited to hear him defend VAHJI’s first client. I am looking forward to Monday, and looking forward to what the rest of the summer has in store.
Journal Entry #2
For the last couple months, I have been interning for the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative (VAHJI), and the longer I am there, the more I grow to appreciate it. When I first signed on to work for this nonprofit, I had a very vague idea of their mission. I knew the goal was to end the incarceration of nonviolent individuals, but after speaking with so many resources daily and then watching my research play a role in the court room, I have found myself passionate and proud of the work that we do.
In Richmond City, which is the primary location of our research, there are many free or affordable resources available to individuals struggling to stay out of the criminal justice system. Whether they need substance abuse treatment, affordable housing, job training courses etc. these resources for the most part exist. However, many of these struggling individuals do not know that they exist, and unfortunately, their overworked public defenders do not have the time to learn all the necessary details to get them connected. When these individuals appear in court, their case is rather weak—it is entirely focused around the crime that they committed rather than the underlying circumstances that led them to commit it or the work that they can do to prevent it from happening again. Whether they are put on probation or sent to jail, their underlying circumstances are not addressed and they are therefore left not only in a worse position than before, but also with a higher risk of recidivism (meaning risk of committing a crime again). My fellow interns and I at VAHJI are tasked with talking to these resources, gathering the extremely detailed information on their programs necessary for the court room, and compiling it into an app for the clients, their lawyers, and judges. With our app, the defense attorney is able to stand up and say, “Yes, my client committed a petty crime, but since then, he/she has gotten mental health assistance, affordable housing and a reliable food source.” When the judge hears this, they have a window into the context of the individual and they are more likely to keep them out of jail, and instead on this track towards improvement. I have been lucky enough with my internship to not only gather this information to be used in court, but see it playout in front of my eyes. I have learned that the judges in Richmond (at least that I have watched) are not out to get the people who come through their courthouse. If given the right resources, the judges can and will help these people to improve their lives instead of ruining them with jail time.
Although my day to day includes a lot of virtual meetings and spreadsheet work (thanks to the pandemic), the days that I get to see my work in action and hear from the people inside the system, it really makes it all worth it. I have always known I wanted to go to law school, but my internship has made me see the important work of criminal defense attorneys and judges, and I am starting to think those positions are the ones that can really make a big change. Working for people who want to help their clients and have a really powerful plan to make it happen has been inspiring for me, and I am really fortunate to have and been a part of their work.
Journal Entry #3
As the summer comes to a close, I am very proud of the work that I’ve done in this internship and confident in the connections that I have made for the future. In my time at the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, I have gotten a first-hand look at the criminal justice system, spoken with some incredible people, and helped build something that has potential to really make a difference.
Our summer project at VHJI was to gather information on local resources—such as food sources, rehab centers, anger management classes etc.—to then be presented in an app. Once on the market, the app will help local attorneys to easily connect their clients with needed resources as well as allow judges to utilize sentencing alternatives, thus in turn lowering incarceration rates in Virginia. As an intern, I got to interview some really wonderful people from various resources including mental health clinics, substance abuse rehabilitation centers and affordable housing developments. Through my conversations, I discovered that there really is a network of care available in Richmond, and yet there is a disconnect between the existence of these resources and the ability of struggling individuals to connect with them. I hope that the work that we did will help to bridge that gap.
Additionally, I was able to shadow my boss, a criminal defense attorney, in the courtroom a few times this summer. Unfortunately, the courthouse closed down a few weeks ago after a COVID outbreak, causing me to miss a few cases I was excited about, but hopefully the opportunity will arise again in the coming school year. I feel like I really connected with my boss, and I am excited about the opportunities he will have for me in the future. I am so thankful I got to experience the legal justice system for the first time this summer, and beyond excited to one day be a part of it.