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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: The Plus of a Progressive Prosecutor
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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: The Plus of a Progressive Prosecutor

I wish to address concerns raised by a previous letter to the editor concerning inadequacies of Progressive Prosecutors due to their lack of experiencing previous decades where crime was higher.

I am the current City Council appointed Chair of Alexandria Community Services Board, the public behavioral health department. I am also someone who has had the fortune to see the buddings of new policies which will help people with behavior challenges starting here in Alexandria, and someone who has required the services of a progressive prosecutor when I was in a mental health crisis and the only path for me to receive treatment was by being forced into it with the involvement of Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter.

I will use myself as one model and Alexandria serial murderer Charles Severance as another, when it comes to the progressive policies of a progressive Commonwealth’s Attorney.

I will not give an entire history of the public mental health system here in the USA. I will just say that those with biases from the 1960s and 1970s would not be as quick to utilize their services as a functional tool for breaking the cycle of recidivism as our "young" Commonwealth’s Attorney.

I was arrested for a non-violent crime, but a crime nonetheless, while in a serious mental health crisis. My condition was treatable with medication. However, as anyone with close personal experiences with someone who experiences a serious mental health condition will tell you, insight is almost universally absent during a serious mental health crisis.

What is to be done with a person who breaks the law while in a mental health crisis? I was given, then mandated, treatment while hospitalized to determine competency to stand trial. But would this softest-of-sticks approach followed by the carrot of my sentence of a year of mental health probation do for the safety for the citizens of Alexandria? Was Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter unaware of the dangers of letting a madman loose on the public?

While on probation, I took my medicine every day. Then about 6 months into my probation, I started to realize how much my medicine was my control against my illness, rather than Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter's control over my mind and freedom. While on probation, I finished my Master's Degree in Biology at GMU, started my first voluntary term on the CSB board, during which I rose to vice chair and then chair, all the while contacting Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter as a grateful and now productive member of society with my policy ideas and opinions about the best strategies for breaking the cycle of crime for any and all of Alexandria's residents that misbehaved while experiencing mental health crises. I still have feelings about my time being prosecuted by Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter. But his interests are one of reducing crime while never forgetting the humanity of those people he prosecutes. Now I will contrast my situation with that of infamous Alexandria serial murderer Charles Severance. As a person who feels I have experienced persecution because of a mental health diagnosis, I was concerned when the last of Severance's murders was announced in the paper that the prosecution could be based around a mental health diagnosis, which would serve to bias, rather than properly identify the killer.

In "The Parable of the Knocker" by Bryan Porter, Porter speculates about the mental health of Charles Severance. Any likely mental health condition the killer had, which motivated the killings, was not treatable currently by any medication, and went so far as to differentiate a mental illness from a personality disorder. While this is still a stigmatizing term, it drew the attention to motive rather than any perceived deficiencies by the public of mental illness. Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter uses a much more human approach to prosecution than any seen in the 1960s and 1970s. A progressive prosecutor is one whose approach is able to separate someone who is a danger to society and is required to be jailed for life, and someone who with the proper support, can become a highly successful, highly educated, advocate for the vulnerable. That is the progressive approach.

I will continue to work with Commonwealth’s Attorney Porter to advocate for future improvements to the criminal justice process, to find all those who can become functioning and contributing members of society, and see they are given the support and help to bring about that change.

It does not escape me that with a Commonwealth’s Attorney with the mentality held so commonly by those from the 1960s and 1070s, I could still to this day be a burden on the community, or worse an expense because of an inappropriate, unnecessary and costly incarceration. The only difference is the virtue of the progressive prosecutor that I had, and still have the fortune to serve my home town.

Henry Johnson

Alexandria