by John Reid
For more than twenty years, Matt Lowery has been a protector in his community, serving as a prosecuting attorney. Now, he is preparing to protect the county on a greater scale as its Commonwealth Attorney. Recently, he spoke with the PW Perspective about the reported rising crime rates, the drug epidemic, and what he’s learned in his career.
A week ago he was at an event called “To Protect and Serve,” where he addressed the need for change in the current prosecution policies. “If you look at the last 20 years, we’ve had a long stretch of downward motion in our crime rate,” he said. “When our Commonwealth Attorney’s office in Prince William County was run by Paul Ebert, the training that prosecutors got was to run policies that were victim-centric, which considers victims first, and doing the prosecution’s main job which was to ensure the proceedings were exquisitely fair.”
“We’ve had a movement that happened in 2019 which had been a long dynasty of justice, going back 60 years in Prince William County, Fairfax and Loudoun, was swept out by a new breed of Commonwealth Attorney’s candidates. They came in and started changing prosecution policies away from victim-centric and towards resolving non-individual issues. One example, they talk about ending mass incarceration: that’s a real-life issue. There’s an issue of how much it exists and where it exists. That’s not the job of a prosecutor to resolve mass incarceration on an individual basis. If you try to apply a macro-level solution to an individual case, it leads to prosecutors saying, “I’m not going to risk putting this person in prison, because I don’t want to increase the chances of mass incarceration.”
“When you do that, you get results that don’t make sense. You get people who get treated too lightly, or not at all. they get treated without any regard for the victim. People start to notice that there’s no application of policy, and the punishments are disproportionate.”
He responded to the April report released by the Prince William County Police Department that showed a rise in violent crime rates over the past few years. “I think it’s startling. They go down until the new administration took over in January 2020. The increase is not tied to COVID, or a change in police leadership, it’s a change in the Commonwealth Attorney, who started changing the policies.”
“It’s important to recognize that the criminal element talks. When word gets around that cases are being treated lightly, the absence of a deterrent to crime leads to more crime. If you fail to treat small crimes, everything builds to bigger crimes. I don’t like what’s been happening, but the truth is we’ve had a quadruple homicide and a few double homicides. 71 percent is a sharp rise, and one murder is one too many, especially if it can be prevented.”
One of the most important aspects of the position is the relationship between Commonwealth Attorney and the police department. “You don’t have to look too far to see that the public safety is protected by two levels. The police, who go out and make the arrests, and the prosecuting attorney who gets them appropriately punished. What people don’t know that especially with investigated cases, the relationship between the police and the attorney are very important. They bounce ideas off each other, they make decisions on how to investigate, and who is going to be prosecuted, as well as who will be a witness. Because of that working relationship, if everyone is working together, you’re going to get cases that are well investigated, there aren’t discovery problems because people know the materials before it gets to court, and the team that conducts the trial is able to put on a case that gets the evidence beyond reasonable doubt.”
“Do the police and Commonwealth Attorney’s office have the same goals? Yes. Are they the same team? No, but they work hand-in-hand with each other. That’s how it’s designed. It’s a system of checks and balances. In a world where there’s several types of criminal activity, including people violence who are using knives and guns, there’s an enormous fentanyl crisis in Prince William County that is well beyond what’s reported. There’s very little going on when it comes to these investigations. It’s remarkable that in the most lethal drug crises we’ve ever had, we’re essentially doing nothing about it. The drug cases have to be taken to the federal level to get prosecuted.”
So, what does he think should be done? “It’s a local offense, and in the past when we’ve had jury sentencing. It’s not like that anymore, that’s more on the General Assembly. The reason the drugs are illegal is to avoid having people become a public charge. You can do all the heroin you want, but if you wind up heroin-addicted, breaking into people’s houses and cars, just to get money to feed your habit, that’s where we draw the line and say look, this just can’t be legal, because society doesn’t want to tolerate you doing whatever you want.”
“The next step is determining what to do about it. We need to have bigger treatment options available for users and destroy the systems that are dealing it. The numbers are staggering in Prince William County, and the death numbers across the country are in the thousands. If you talk to local police officers, the poisonings are underreported. The proper prosecuting response is that the Commonwealth Attorney’s advocacy groups should beat down the doors in Richmond, trying to get more services in place. The answer for possessors isn’t prison, because it doesn’t work, and the entire thrust of finding someone in possession is to get them appropriate treatment. That might involve prosecution so you can get them treatment, but when fentanyl possession, it’s better to have a conviction than to be dead. I’ve worked in narcotics for a long time, and one of the best experiences I had is when someone in a grocery store recognized me and said, ‘You were tough on me in court, but I appreciate it.’ I’m a firm believer that is the way. We have referral tools to help people without too much court intervention.”
He talks about changing misconceptions and looking more into developing solutions to help individuals.
“I think a lot of people have a misconception of what the average fentanyl user looks like. Everyone has a different viewpoint, but that’s not what it is. We’ve made a big mis assessment about how that market came to be. There was a time when oxycontin was highly distributed, and it led to drug markets that didn’t exists until then. The average user is: high school varsity athlete, who has a knee injury, who gets prescribed Vicodin to treat the injury, and they’ll do whatever they can to get it. They end up taking a press pill made of fentanyl, and they die. It knows no color, or where you live, and the addictions are really hard to fight. Bypassing the opportunity to help people, it’s harmful to society as a whole.”
He was a guest on the Mike Van Meter show, where he talked about systemic racism as a trope. “It pains my soul,” he responded. “Since I was a kid, I’ve worked in public safety. I was anti-racist before it was a term. I don’t want to be in a law enforcement agency that’s associated with the Klan. I’ve seen injustice and I said to myself, I can do more than this. Are there places where there’s been wrongs? Yes. Has there been historic inequities? Absolutely.”
“Are there wrongs being done now in Prince William County? I sure hope not. We’re cognizant of it, and there’s been active steps to get around it. We want to find those who have been doing societal harm and hold them accountable. If someone shows me that something is being done intentionally racial, I want them to show me so we can do something about it.”
“Every time I hear we’re prosecuting someone of a different race that is stabbing someone, well, there’s the victim that needs to be stood up for. I think it’s something used to drive political narratives and to be inflammatory on purpose. To say it’s completely absent is wrong, but if you look at the crime report, police brutality reports on use of force is at zero, as well as racially motivated crimes. We don’t have that prosecution office, and the change has been in place for 60 years. There’s been problems in the past, and there are still visible results in Woodbridge. But if you go through my neighborhood, it’s very diverse, but it’s different than what it used to be. I don’t think that we have systemic racism as a whole, but there’s incidental racism. That’s on a person, not on the government.”
He learned from one of the nation’s longest running Commonwealth Attorneys in Paul Ebert, and the most important lessons that prepares him for this next level. “Two things: be hard and hold the line on crime and do the right thing in every single case. Be subject to change when it’s necessary,” he said.
“I’m a big fan of the golden rule of prosecution: if you’re a civilian and you come in on some minor scrape, you’re going to be treated lightly. If you’re part of the criminal element, there’s a certain manner in which you’re going to be treated. It’s just a matter of every individual and determination on how to resolve it. The core of prosecution policies have led to an immediate decline in our quality of life and safety and has changed the county for the worst.”
“The reason I’m running is because I am the best qualified to do so. I’m not going to create a police-state. My goal is to let people know is if something bad happens, they can expect justice to take place in court.”
He is running against current Commonwealth Attorney Amy Ashworth. To find out more about his campaign, check out his website.