An Open Letter About the Importance of Well-being for Prosecutors
Contributing Author: Stacey T. Davenport, Commonwealth’s Attorney,
Chesterfield County (VA)
The first week of this month was designated Well-Being Week in Law, a week established by the Institute for Well-Being in Law that is focused on a genuine attempt to make practical recommendations for positive change in the legal profession — a profession widely known for the pervasiveness of its substance abuse disorders and mental health crises and its lack of work-life balance. While the aforementioned problems run rampant throughout the entire legal field, criminal law practitioners — especially those in public service positions, such as prosecutors — are plagued by them at an increasingly concerning rate.
This is the second year that the Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office participated in Well-Being Week in Law to intentionally promote individual and office-wide health and work-life balance. Unfortunately, the small steps that can be taken during a week created to highlight these problems cannot correct them. You cannot correct a problem simply by suggesting ways to better cope with the problem; that is merely providing a Band-Aid that may allow prosecutors to avoid a total breakdown for a little while longer. The only way to truly overcome the problem is to change the circumstances under which the problem was created.
For far too long, prosecutors have worked far too many hours for far too little pay with little or no thanks for the work that they do in their community. Statewide, the offices are underfunded and understaffed for the caseload they carry — many of the offices being forced to choose which cases they will even prosecute. Most prosecutors consistently work six or seven days a week for 8 to 10 hours a day, frequently foregoing vacations, medical appointments, and time with their families simply because they do not want to pass any additional burden on to their coworkers. Prosecution work is replete with violent, disturbing, and often obscene evidence that these public servants are exposed to repeatedly on a daily basis. I personally have had to watch videos and review photographs of physical and sexual assaults on children. I have watched body worn camera footage of homicide victims dying. I have spent hours preparing children to testify in court about the violence they have witnessed in their homes. I have worked with domestic violence victims to prepare them to confront their abusers in court. There is no way to un-see or un-hear what prosecutors see and hear daily in the course of their jobs. Prosecutors are literally traumatized in the workplace on a daily basis, and due to the insufficient staffing, there is not even time to adequately process this information prior to moving on to more of the same. Many of us simply internalize it and wait for the true reaction to present itself at some later date, and that date does come.
The general public and local and state-level government institutions must acknowledge the trauma and stressors that prosecutors are exposed to on a daily basis, and they must begin to provide these public servants with the tools necessary to perform the job without risking their personal well-being. Every prosecutor’s office needs additional attorneys, and every office needs additional support staff because the problem only trickles down to those who work with the attorneys. There simply must be more people available to share the workload in order to allow each person the ability to continue to do it well. An individual cannot consistently perform at his or her highest skill level, experience job satisfaction, and lead a life with a healthy work-life balance when working in conditions where the work is never complete, the stakes are so high, and trauma is expected and constant.
We live in a country where we teach our children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with the phrase “. . . with liberty and justice for all.” Prosecutors are among the frontline public servants that seek to provide that justice. We, along with our counterparts in the Indigent Defense system, actively seek out truth and justice to protect the safety of our citizens while never compromising the rights afforded each American under the Constitution. But truth and justice do not come easily, and they do not come cheaply. For far too long, the government has relied on the passion and dedication of those within the system to ensure its success, and prosecutors have done their absolute best to meet that challenge, oftentimes to their own personal detriment.
We cannot continue to expect the individuals that perform these incredibly important jobs to do so under the untenable conditions that have existed for so many years and are only worsening every day. The criminal justice system will not be successful if it is not properly funded, and the personal well-being of public servants cannot be the cost. There should not be a need for Well-being Week in Law. We should be able to consistently provide excellent service to our community and consistently adequately care for ourselves, but it impossible to adequately care for others when you must forego self-care to simply get a job done.
On behalf of all those who do this invaluable work,
Stacey T. Davenport
Chesterfield County, Virginia