2020 PFIG Recipient Jordan Simpson
Journal Entry #1
This summer, I am interning with the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative in Richmond, Virginia, although my work has primarily been done remotely due to COVID-19. With the start-date of my internship swiftly following national outrage in response to George Floyd’s murder, on the heels of the first few weeks of global Black Lives Matter protests, I could not have imagined a more timely moment to be working with VAHJI. While I have been involved in some activism regarding prison and police abolition, I was most drawn to my internship with VAHJI because it allowed me the opportunity to understand approaches to, and the climate of criminal justice reform within the legal and professional spheres, as opposed to the activist space I tend to occupy.
The bulk of my work thus far has been devoted to building a database of local resources in the greater-Richmond area that are providing various services to criminal justice involved individuals (e.g. organizations addressing substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, etc.). I’ve had the opportunity to chat with and get to know some of the people working within these community-based rehabilitative organizations, and have familiarized myself with the substance of the work they do, and programs they offer. Our end-goal is to organize this information into an app that legal professionals can reference when seeking alternatives to incarceration for their clients. A roadblock that has become increasingly clear to me over the past few weeks I have been working with VAHJI is the information gap that exists between those in need of social services that may help them avoid encounters with law enforcement/incarceration, and those with the power to make these resources accessible and available. By equipping attorneys with easy access to a registry of local resources that they can use to recommend options for their clients, it is this very issue of accessibility and lack of information that our database project seeks to address.
Moreover, while interning with VAHJI I have had the chance to meet and speak with a variety of legal professionals, from public defenders to prosecutors. The most interesting encounter I have had thus far has been a Zoom conversation with Michael Herring, former Richmond Commonwealth Attorney. During our dialogue he expressed incredibly interesting sentiments on being a Black person working within the legal system at a time when criminal justice reform is so salient in Black sociopolitical conversations, the ways in which he has tried, and not always succeeded, to hold his non-Black coworkers accountable in their work, and how his opinions on the way he prosecuted drug crime within the city have changed over time. My conversation with Mr. Herring was thought provoking and illuminating, and it was a pleasure to hear from someone who looks like me in the profession.
Journal Entry #2
Over the course of the summer thus far, my internship with the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative has allowed me to engage with the criminal justice system in incredibly unique ways. Prior to working this summer, I largely understood the criminal legal apparatus to be a two-party oppositional arena; one where prosecutors perpetuate what is known to be a failing carceral system, and defense attorneys seek to remedy this system on a case-by-case basis, although their efforts are often dwarfed by the juggernaut that is mass incarceration. Tom Barbour, founder of VAHJI and my boss for the summer, has challenged me to view the criminal legal system through a new lens, as a complex system with many parts and many actors. Over the past few weeks, he has helped me to develop a working understanding of the notion that the criminal legal system’s potential for reform is plagued by both perceived opposition, and felt differences between those on different sides of the courtroom, and those outside of it altogether.
My favorite experience on the job thus far has been accompanying Tom to district court in Richmond to observe him defend his clients. Prior to this summer, I have never had the chance to observe a public or private defense attorney actively doing his or her work. This experience furthered my interest in pursuing law school for a variety of reasons. For one, sitting in the courtroom I realized that a legal career is not necessarily only for the most steely of people, but rather those that possess a vigor and passion for people. The majority of Tom’s cases that day were over within a span of 15 minutes, much shorter than I expected. In fact, the bulk of his time in court was spent speaking with his clients, preparing them for what was to come, both the best and worse-case scenarios. Being exposed to the interpersonal landscape between an attorney and his or her client, as well as the family members that accompany said client, and the prosecutor standing on the other side them, it became apparently clear that Tom is right. Attorneys are not in the business of picking sides, if they do, the system will continue to fall further apart. In an inherently oppositional arena like the courtroom, people still must work together – so I am left to wonder how to remedy a system that seems to value cooperation on a personal level, yet remains systemically harmful in a variety of ways.
The main task my internship has been dedicated to is building a database of greater-Richmond area organizations providing social support services to criminal justice involved clients. The conversations I have had with staff at these various entities have helped me to see more clearly the ways in which these organizations show up for their communities. Through my conversations with these folks, it has become increasingly apparent how much of an issue access to resources is in certain communities, particularly for the (formerly) incarcerated. As I continue working for VAHJI this summer, the legal criminal justice system will likely become more and more complex, and I am excited to see the ways in which it will further challenge me.
Journal Entry #3
This summer, I had the pleasure of working as a research intern for the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative. Our goal for the summer was to build a database, which will be served through a mobile app, of Richmond-area organizations providing a variety of social support services that may help criminal justice involved clients. The thought and purpose behind our work takes root in a “holistic approach” to criminal justice reform. This mode of thinking necessitates that we ask ourselves about the life circumstances that may lead individuals to engage in criminal behaviors, and also what circumstances lead certain individuals to be seen as “criminal.”
Through my conversations with staff at the various organizations I interviewed this summer, and as I watched demands being made on the criminal justice system by the Black Lives Matter Movement the past few months, a common indictment made on the criminal-justice apparatus is its allocation of resources—or rather its misallocation. This discussion of resources and who has access to them is also what made working on VAHJI’s database feel so timely, and important. Within the few short minutes it takes to download a mobile app, attorneys, judges, prosecutors, and Richmonder’s themselves will now have access to resources that may be able to provide vital support an individual needs, and it may also reduce their likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
The current state of Richmond’s criminal justice system cannot be understood if it is divorced from its historical context. As the former capital of the Confederacy, later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the city was ravaged by the war on drugs. Richmond’s past is much more extensive than my simple reduction of its history, however, these two events alone help to reveal the origins of issues such as poverty, substance abuse, residential segregation, and homelessness—all of which can be cited as root causes of engagement in criminal behavior. Our database acknowledges this history, and the issue of resource-allocation, and aims to foster a direct link between the resources providing support services and those who need them.
Now at the end of my internship for this summer, I am left with a sense of hopefulness that the urgency of criminal-justice reform has dawned in new and powerful ways. While it remains clearly imperative to me that procedural and legal changes must be made in order to make a more equitable system, this project has helped me to understand the magnitude of simple action, such as creating access to information about rehabilitative resources and other social support services. I was introduced to a wealth of people working within the criminal justice sphere in various capacities that believe in its need for broad change, and are working towards it in their own ways. The newfound challenge and obligation for individuals like myself, who have a desire to change the ways in which we imagine and go about criminal justice, is to find the avenue where in which we can be most productive for people, and for justice. I am left feeling excited to continue to engage with attorneys and public defenders and explore the criminal legal career, but I will remain open to all of the other ways that criminal justice reform is practiced outside of the courtroom.