‘Common Law’: Prosecutors Take New Path on Fighting Crime

Former Prosecutor Joyce White Vance ’85 Explains New Strategies in Reform
Joyce White Vance

Joyce White Vance ’85 is a former federal prosecutor, University of Alabama law professor and MSNBC contributor. Photo by Liesa Cole/Studio Goodlight

February 18, 2020

Prosecutors across the country are rethinking their roles in how to make communities safer, former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance ’85 explains on the latest “Common Law,” a podcast of the University of Virginia School of Law.

Vance, now a Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law at the University of Alabama and a legal analyst for MSNBC, served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009 to 2017, and as an assistant U.S. attorney for 18 years before that.

Soon after becoming U.S. attorney, Vance joined the U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, and served as co-chair of its Criminal Practice Subcommittee. The committee, convened by Attorney General Eric Holder, focused on policy regarding prosecutions, and its work and recommendations influenced not only U.S. attorney’s offices, but prosecutors nationwide, Vance says.

This season of “Common Law,” hosted by Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, is focusing on times when law changed the world.

“We looked at criminal justice not just as a matter of putting people in prison, but as a matter of making communities safer by preventing crime, and by helping people who had been incarcerated return to their communities as productive citizens,” White says.

The work of the subcommittee made her and other prosecutors realize how important it was to focus on the right metrics for making communities safer.

“There’s this need to protect the community by getting dangerous people off the streets,” she says. “The risks can be that folks focus on prosecutions, and on prosecuting every case that they can, and being concerned about numbers of prosecutions without being concerned about significance of prosecutions.”

Her office, like others, began to focus on cases that had impact over quantity, and it made a difference, she says.

Faced with the overdose death of her daughter’s friend, Vance says she realized the need for building support within the community to tackle the heroin and opioid epidemic. She soon helped build the kind of partnerships that are happening across the country — among prosecutors, police, probation offices, courts and community service agencies.

“[We] ultimately were able to put together a really strong community partnership that worked on preventing crime among young, vulnerable people who were prone to join gangs but who, with support and with some good counsel and guidance, could take a completely different path in their lives,” she says.

Vance also discusses how her office deployed other strategies to make the community safer and build the public’s trust in law enforcement. She talks about the time her office prosecuted an entire police department in Boaz, Alabama, and explains why the nation is overdue for bipartisan leadership on new recommendations for criminal justice reform.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places to listen to podcasts, including devices like Amazon Alexa. This episode was recorded at the Virginia Quarterly Review and Virginia Humanities, and produced by Sydney Halleman and Tony Field.

You can follow the show on the website commonlawpodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

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