When our justice system takes a life

Blurred photo of a sunset or sunrise, as scene from behind a fence.

Courtesy of Shayan Sanyal / Wikimedia Commons

A.D. was the first client I ever worked with as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I was taking a year off between college and graduate school, working full-time at Father Horace McKenna Center on Eye Street, which still shelters and aids D.C.’s poor and homeless.  

But A.D. is dead now. His story, though, feels very much alive in recent weeks, as I struggle again with a client whose life hangs in the balance. 

I met A.D. in 1985. He was homeless at the time and slept at the 2nd and D Street Shelter, operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an anti-war and anti-poverty Christian community that found homelessness immoral. I had many jobs at the McKenna Center that year. One was to help people like A.D. navigate their way out of homelessness. A.D. was smart, thoughtful and patient enough to teach me how to play chess. We talked about strategies to end poverty, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and the tools of homelessness. I got him an interview at McKenna House – also named after Father Horace. At the time, McKenna House was the best-known ticket out of homelessness: It was small, it met you where you were at as an individual and it had everything you needed to get yourself out of homelessness. A.D. did not show up for the intake interview.  

Not long afterward, A.D. was arrested in a police sting, set to lure persons with outstanding warrants into custody with the lie that they had won a raffle to receive tickets to a Washington Redskins game. Long story short, A.D. was arrested and jailed. He went into prison drug-free. He came out addicted to crack. Not long after his release, he was shot and killed for arguing over change for a $20 bill after buying another hit of crack to feed his prison-induced addiction. He was 24 years old. Along with a CCNV community member named Jenni, I planned his memorial service. We played a tape of singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car,” something A.D. died in need of, unable to drive his way out of the trap of life at 2nd and D, the nation’s largest shelter for homeless adults, then and today.  

I applied to work as a JVC volunteer because the organization was rooted in the values of social justice, spirituality, and community. I was raised Catholic; my father was a professor at the Jesuit John Carroll University outside Cleveland; and my high school’s motto, “Men for Others,” resonated with me. I continue to hold those values dear today. They are what drive me in my work as Street Sense Media’s executive director. As such, A.D.’s story is, to me, a tragedy and a travesty. While thoughtful persons may disagree, I know that A.D. was not rehabilitated in our criminal justice system. His was a death sentence. The time did not fit his non-violent crime. Story over. Life ended. 

A.D.’s story would be nothing more than a sad history lesson if it were not for the fact that our criminal justice system has failed another life. Privacy concerns prevent me from discussing the specifics of the case. But, in short, a court set up to divert arrest cases involving persons with mental illness has given up on a defendant who is mentally ill. Additionally, our behavioral health system, under the purview of Mayor Muriel Bowser, has failed to recognize that a citizen was presenting a threat to self and others. 

My fear is that I will soon be organizing another memorial service. A.D. Is long buried, but the subject of this story is still alive. I am pleading with those in power  our courts and our elected officials — to recognize their complicity in a system that condemns instead of rehabilitates the most vulnerable among us, before another life is cut short. 

Issues |Addiction|Civil Rights|Health, Mental

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