Long before becoming an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Viola Abbitt aspired to address failures in our criminal justice system by working within it.
Abbitt—who is now a minister at the Coastal Virginia UUs in Virginia Beach—graduated from Fordham University School of Law in New York. She was motivated to study law in part by an experience she had as a teenager witnessing New York City police wrongly arrest a protester at a rally to end apartheid in South Africa.
Upon finishing law school, Abbitt weighed job offers providing defense counsel for low-income people through the Legal Aid Society and a prosecuting position with the Bronx District Attorney’s (DA) office. She ultimately was swayed to accept the job with the Bronx DA by a colleague with experience serving as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, who told her “as a prosecutor, you have the ability to do more justice.”
Racial and economic justice are two key areas needing improvement, says Abbitt. “We know that similarly situated people are not treated similarly because of the color of their skin, where they come from, their economic status, and other factors [that should be irrelevant].”
Abbitt explains that when a prosecutor encounters a case without merit, or which should not be pursued for other reasons, they often have the discretion to dismiss it. They also may choose the level of charge and whether to offer a plea deal that minimizes or avoids jail time. If the accused is young enough and satisfies certain other conditions, a plea offer (with approval of the DA) might even yield a non-criminal disposition.
Where Abbitt worked, associate DAs routinely evaluated cases post-arrest and pre-arraignment, and after speaking with witnesses and police they could decline to initiate a case in the court system. Moving up in a DA’s office yields far greater power, such as the ability to decide:
- Which laws will be enforced, where they’ll be enforced, and against whom;
- How prosecutors will monitor police referrals for racial bias, and how they will respond when evidence of bias arises;
- If restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration will be pursued.
For example, will police respond to complaints about wage theft by employers as aggressively as they respond to shoplifting complaints at a Walmart? Of course, the perpetrators of “white-collar” crimes are more likely to be white, wealthy, and politically engaged—one reason such crime is often a lower enforcement priority. As much as many people may embrace the ideal of “impartial justice,” there are dozens of points where the choices and biases of those with power determine outcomes—from who makes the law to how the law is interpreted and how parole terms are enforced.
In 2022, UU the Vote developed a toolkit to help you shape the discussion in your community around criminal prosecution using District Attorney races as the entry point. See it on Crafting and Deploying Candidate Surveys for District Attorney Races on UU the Vote's website.
Abbitt’s next major career step after the Bronx DA’s office was to the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office, where she eventually became a Deputy Bureau Chief pursuing white-collar crimes such as public corruption, environmental crime, and securities and tax fraud. There, she generally pursued people who tended to be better educated and had more advantages in life but chose to prey on others out of choice. Nevertheless, Abbitt often was uncomfortable about putting people behind bars.
“It not only punishes the people that you put in jail, it negatively impacts their families,” says Abbitt.
Abbitt later moved on to the State Office of Children and Family Services, where she supervised a staff whose core mission was protecting and promoting the legal rights of youth in the juvenile justice system. Abbitt found the work gratifying, recalling, “We were making positive changes in the lives of children in a system where they were historically unable to advocate for themselves successfully.”
Abbitt went on to find a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism while living in Clifton Park, New York, in 2002, ultimately inspiring her to earn a Master of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
Justice and human dignity are prominent in Unitarian Universalism’s guiding Principles, and Abbitt’s breadth of experience working in the criminal justice system and as a UU minister has given her a special perspective. She offers these ideas for improvement in the system based on her observations:
- Community support and programs: Abbitt stresses the importance of community support and programs for children and families to prevent the start of any involvement with police in heavily patrolled neighborhoods.
- Diversionary programs: She also recommends diversionary programs such as New York City’s Alternative to Incarceration initiative. “If you can keep young people out of jail, it’s not just a win for the youth, it’s a win for society that leads to better outcomes as adults,” says Abbitt.
- More training: Abbitt observed the prevalence of systemic racial bias. “We need ongoing training for people who work in the criminal justice system so that they can understand how implicit and unconscious bias shows up in implementation, enforcement, and decision-making,” she says, adding, “we also need more work to understand trauma and the role that it plays.”
The UUA and its Side With Love team provide many resources to help people learn about decriminalization and other issues discussed here, and take meaningful action close to home. See "Related Resources" below for more information.
UUA Justice Communications Associate Jeff Milchen welcomes your comments or questions. Tweet @JMilchen
UU the Vote on the importance of District Attorney races and guide to creating candidate questionnaires.
UU College of Social Justice’s Love Resists discussion guide
Common Read materials (including video and discussion guide) for Defund Fear by Zach Norris