I sat down this week with Shelly Wood, a Chesapeake native who’s running for Commonwealth’s Attorney there, to replace Nancy Parr, who is not running again. Shelly was a Public Defender before going into private practice doing family law, and ultimately joining the law firm of Parks Zeigler as Managing Partner. – Cindy
Can you give me your background, where you come from, and why you’re running?
I’m Shelley Wood, and I’m running as the Democratic candidate for Chesapeake Commonwealth’s Attorney. I actually grew up in Chesapeake. My father is an immigrant from the Philippines, and my grandmother told him while he was in college that he needed a better life and he was going to get that in America, so he needed to join the United States Navy and come to America, so that’s what he did. And when he got here he was stationed in Norfolk, and met my mother. My mother is a native of Chesapeake as well; she went to the same high school as my brother and me, Deep Creek High School. My family continues to live throughout the city of Chesapeake. I have aunts, uncles, cousins, my brother, and his family and then of course I live in Chesapeake with my family. I find Chesapeake to be a beautiful place to live, a great place to live, work, and raise a family. I went to Old Dominion University, and then Regent Law School. So I’m homegrown.
As far as my legal experience, I have done criminal defense my entire career. The last year of law school I was an intern with the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. I utilized my third year practice certificate, and I started with my own caseload as a third year law student, helping out prosecutors there, and then I went to be a public defender for two years, and after that I continued to serve the community both in Norfolk and Chesapeake as a court-appointed attorney for indigent defendants. I continued to take court-appointed work just up until recently. I opened up my own practice in 2006, and I ran that until December 31st of 2019 and on January 1st of 2020 I merged with my current firm, which is Parks-Zeigler, where I’m a managing partner–they wanted a footprint for their firm in Chesapeake so here we are. Now I’ve chosen to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney, to be the top cop in our city, and to keep our city safe.
How do you think your time as a public defender and doing defense work informs you in this job as a commonwealth’s attorney or prosecutor?
I think that’s a really easy question. Having done criminal defense for 20 years I’ve seen over that time how different offices operate, have different policies and procedures, and I have seen how even the laws and rules of criminal procedure and statutes and supreme court rules affect how someone is prosecuted and how someone in turn, on the other side of that, is being defended. A lot of times unfortunately the way cases are prosecuted is lopsided because we don’t have as much information on the defense side as the prosecutors do on their side and I think that that’s where the progressive prosecution comes in is that we need to make it fairer. It needs to not be so lopsided with the prosecutors having so much information, and the defense only having very little, when it’s a person’s livelihood and their life and liberties are at stake. Let’s just have it fair across the board, everybody has the same information, everybody is treated fairly and has the same opportunities. We’re starting to move towards that, and people can feel more comfortable that they are going to get a fair trial and a fair shake because with the body cams and things going into place with the laws and the rules of evidence recently in the criminal field, that’s where we’re making some headway so that it’s a more fair process for everyone.
Do you know what the discovery policy is right now in the Chesapeake Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and how you would change it?
Chesapeake does not have an open file policy. They certainly follow the rules of discovery, but they do require an order to be filed and signed by both parties and the judge. Something that I think would be more helpful is getting it in a more timely manner. A lot of times, as a defense attorney, I’m sending in a discovery request, say May 28th for something that’s in July, and now here we are July 29th and I may or may not have my discovery with a trial next week. I think that that needs to definitely be looked at because what’s happening is, we don’t get the discovery in a timely manner, so the defense needs a continuance, which means now we’re bogging down the courts even further (because they’re really bogged down because of COVID) and cases are not being able to be handled and moved through the process.
If there were an incident in Chesapeake with an accusation of police brutality or police misconduct, would you want your office to be the one that investigates it, or would you want to call for an independent outside investigator?
I think an independent investigator is going to be the best way to go. There’s already the allegation of misbehavior improper behavior by an officer and as prosecutors we have to work alongside of, in conjunction with the police officers. Meaning we want officers to do the best investigation that they can. It makes it easier on both prosecutors and defense attorneys if an officer has done their job, and has done it right and it’s flawless. When there are holes in the investigation or there’s misbehavior by an officer, that’s going to bog down our system. I think it would bode well for not only the prosecutor’s office but also for the police department because we have someone independent coming in, and there would be no allegation of impropriety or trying to cover up misconduct, so I wholeheartedly believe that having someone independent of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and the police department look at it instead of our city.
Some other prosecutors have said that they would do it themselves because they answer to the community, they’re the ones who are voted into office by the community.
I see that point of view as well that we answer to the public, but aren’t we answering to the public by making sure it’s a clean investigation. We are making sure that it’s looked at. It’s just that we’re not doing it. So we’re taking our duty, and we’re doing that, but we’re asking someone else to make sure it’s done. I think by not doing anything at all, that’s when it appears that we’re not doing something for the public.
What kind of diversion programs are in effect in Chesapeake, and which ones would you like to see added in?
We have a behavioral health docket in the general district court which was started by now Circuit Court Judge Rob McDonnell. While Judge McDonnell was on the bench in General District Court, he was successful in establishing the behavioral health docket. That docket’s purpose obviously is behavioral health, mental health, those people who can be identified as having mental health issues and who can benefit from very closely-monitored treatment, medication management, and to assist in keeping them from a cycle of crime.
Is that pre-plea or post plea?
It’s in General District Court and it would be simultaneous with a plea, so basically it would be a disposition. So as you know, you’re pleading no contest or guilty, and your disposition is you must successfully complete the behavioral health program. It’s kind of like the drug court program that various jurisdictions have, it’s the same idea but it’s for behavioral health. That being said it’s in General District Court, and what that means is that only those people who have misdemeanors can participate, unless the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is prosecuting a felony that starts in General District Court, and they choose to fashion a disposition, which ultimately means they have to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor so that the person can participate. That becomes an issue with funding because a lot of times Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices are funded by the number of felonies and convictions. There is a little bit of a problem there because if we reduce the felony to a misdemeanor and keep it in General District Court, then that in turn affects the funding for the office.
The great thing is that because Judge McDonnell has been elevated to Circuit Court, part of his goal up is to get a behavioral health docket in Circuit Court, So I’m excited for the potential that I could be elected and assist in that process there. Mental health issues are so prevalent and so stigmatized, and if we are able to assist in lifting the stigma of mental health issues, and get people help… Because it’s a never-ending cycle if they’re self-medicating because of the mental health, or they have mental health issues and they’re not treated, then we’re mass incarcerating people when really all they need is that assistance and that treatment and the medication management. So I would like to see that program in the Circuit Court. I do know that Nancy Parr’s office has started to be a little bit more willing to reduce felonies to misdemeanors; that is happening more often, and the concern is the funding, and I guess that always has to be taken into consideration because people lose their jobs if there’s no funding.
Do you have a veteran’s docket?
No, we do we do not have a veteran’s docket here. But just in the last 30 to 45 days, there is now going to be funding for a branch of the VA hospital. Right now, the VA is only on the other side of the water, on the peninsula like Hampton, Newport News area. We’re now actually going to have that on this side of the water, and it’s actually going to be in Chesapeake connected to Chesapeake Regional Hospital. So I’m hoping that while we may not have a vet program, at least now we know that the vet hospital is there, and the services are closer and available and we can see what programs they may have available for behavioral health and substance abuse. Hopefully that’s something that we can work together with that branch here in Chesapeake to help the vets.
Do you have any thoughts on a better funding model for Commonwealth’s Attorneys?
I do not unfortunately at this point in time. With everything in flux, I haven’t been able to see what the funding looks like and the various resources, but that is definitely something to look at. Election day is November 2nd, so on November 3rd, I will start the transition, and get in there with Nancy and see what types of funding are available. We do have the ability to get funding from the city as well, and I would hope that that’s something that we can do. Virginia Beach gets a lot of supplemental funding from the city, I would hope that maybe we can see our city council give more funding to the courts to assist with that program.
What about public defender pay?
It’s awful. Comparing that of a prosecutor to that of a public defender, it’s very uneven. And court-appointed attorneys are paid even less than public defenders, and they’re doing the same job, just not working as a state employee as a public defender. Again, that’s where we look at the skew on the Commonwealth’s side–the prosecution side, versus the defense side. We lose a lot of really good attorneys because of not being paid, whether it be as a public defender or as a court-appointed council. A court-appointed attorney gets paid $120 per misdemeanor, no matter how much time you spend on it, $120, that’s it. A felony is $445, no matter how much time you spend on it; unless of course it’s a higher felony, in which case you get $1,365. If you’ve done extra work you can ask for a waiver, but unfortunately sometimes those waivers aren’t granted by the judges, so you’re still stuck with your $445.
How involved do you think you would want to be in lobbying Richmond, and what issues in particular would you most want to see Richmond work on?
My biggest thing is hoping that we can get that behavioral health docket up in Circuit Court. I would also focus on juvenile behavioral health. Most of my career, actually all of my career really, has been a lot in the juvenile court. I’ve defended lots of juveniles. I have a current juvenile who has mental health issues and the services in the juvenile court can only do so much. There’s not a lot of programs necessarily for juveniles when it comes to mental health, so I would like to try to lobby for more attention and funding for behavioral health across the board. While we have a lot of services for juveniles, I think it would be beneficial to have a behavioral health program in the juvenile court available as well.
How do you feel about restorative justice, particularly as it relates to juvenile justice?
I do think that there is room for restorative justice programs. You have to have the right case to do it, that has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. I think there’s a lot that goes into it. You know, if you’ve got a kid who is from a home that isn’t supportive, who doesn’t have a lot of guidance, I think that restorative justice can be a little bit harder. But I also think that starting at a young age, and really having the opportunity to see and understand the impact that their behaviors have on not only themselves, but the victim, the victim’s family, your own family, and to really see it and hear it, to really understand and know that effect, I think is what would be helpful in having restorative justice. But I also think that it has to really be looked at on a case-by-case basis, because I don’t think that for every case and every defendant that is going to be effective. We don’t know until we try it, it’s a new concept and I think that’s part of change– trying things out to see if they work so that we can stop the cycle. We don’t want these kids committing crimes and then keep turning to gangs and other behaviors. So hopefully having that type of interaction would help stop that cycle and it doesn’t hurt to try it. I think if it’s effective, then we dive deeper into that.
What are some ways that you would like to be out in the community and inform the community and get feedback?
I know Nancy has established community outreach by way of having a satellite office. I know Norfolk has done the same thing in the last few years, but I think it comes down to interacting with the community and having those various events. We had National Night Out this Tuesday, so having prosecutors there, having police officers there, and interacting. Because in this day and age so many people think that prosecutors are bad, police officers are bad, “they don’t care about us, they’re only out to get us,” and so if we have more community outreach, more events, more of that interaction to say “hey you know, we really do care about you, we’re not here to just lock everybody up, we’re here to make sure everybody is safe” that would go a long way. So I would definitely continue the programs that Nancy has put into place, and then see where there is room to do other programs. There are attorneys in the office and deputies that are there that have been there a really long time and I think that they have a lot of knowledge that would be useful and helpful to making sure that the community stays safe and that the community trusts us as prosecutors to keep them safe and make sure we keep the crime rate down.
Thank you for talking to me. Final thoughts?
That’s most of what I’ve really been working on or thinking of working on if elected. We’re kind of walking a fine line between keeping the trust of the community and what Nancy has done since 2005, but also understanding that we are in a time where there needs to be change, and we need to re-evaluate look at all the policies. That doesn’t mean we’re going to throw them all out, and that doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be changed, but we definitely need to take a look at everything to make sure that everyone is treated fairly. That’s not to say that they have not been, but we need to make sure that that is in fact happening, and I have confidence in the staff that is there now to do that, and be ready to do that, and ready to make change where we need to make change.
I know as a defense attorney there are things that I feel work and don’t work but I also see it from the outside and not the inside. So it will be interesting to be elected and get in there and say “okay here’s how I saw it from the outside as a defense attorney. Now tell me how you see it as a prosecutor and as a deputy, and let’s see what we can do to make sure that it is fair and just to everyone. And if we need to change the policy then let’s change the policy. If it worked, then let’s keep it and continue on with what we’re doing.”