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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Prosecution and Poverty

I am grateful to Dan for inviting me back to Prawfs. We have just finished classes here at Marquette. I taught Crim and Crim Pro this semester. I tried something new with Crim Pro over the past couple of weeks. Figuring everyone had had it with doctrine, I invited four criminal law practitioners to spend about a half-hour each with the class, describing what they do on a day-to-day basis, how they got where they are professionally, and where they see a need for changes in the criminal justice system. I’ve already gotten some positive feedback from students about these sessions, particularly with respect to a long-time state prosecutor who visited class last week.

I was struck by this prosecutor’s response to my standard lead-off question: “So, why did you become a prosecutor?” His reply, which must have surprised some of the students, emphasized his interest in working with poor people. He observed that, contrary to common perceptions, the population of victims with whom prosecutors work (at least in a large urban jurisdiction like his) is almost indistinguishable from the population of defendants with whom the public defenders work. He plainly views his job in social justice terms, as a way of providing services for some of the most desperately needy people in the community.

In my experience, the law students who are most sensitive to the realities of poverty in our society are almost invariably more oriented to public defender work than prosecution work. Over the years, I’ve invited several to be more open-minded about the possibility of becoming a prosecutor. I have pointed out that prosecutors possess an extraordinary degree of discretionary power over the lives of the (usually poor) people caught up in the criminal justice system, and that a left-leaning do-gooder might actually be able to accomplish more in this role than as a public defender. The (not unreasonable) response I get is an articulation of concern that even the most devoted left-leaning do-gooders are apt to be changed for the worse by immersion in law enforcement culture. While I did not invite my state prosecutor with the idea that he would supply a rejoinder, I’m glad that my students were exposed to a veteran prosecutor who can still talk the social justice talk and who really sounds like he means it.

Posted by Michael O'Hear on December 2, 2007 at 04:22 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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Thanks for this post. I found this very interesting and have passed this on to many people whom have also found it worthwhile.

Being a 4L I have gotten a bit sour about the future and I see very little social awareness among my cohorts (sadly,myself included). But that could be just that we are so very busy with our studies and have needed to put our social awareness on hold for a few years. Now we are coming back into the world, and it is nice to know there may be a place for a"do-gooder" other than the PDs office.

Posted by: Amanda | Dec 4, 2007 5:08:40 PM

From what I've heard, the ability of a liberal to survive as a DA also depends on the particular DA's office. Some offices are more open than others to allowing light pleas or even dismissals when the ADA deems leniency appropriate. Milwaukee's longtime DA Mike McCann struck me as someone progressive enough for a liberal ADA to thrive; I'd be less sure about Waukesha's longtime DA, Paul Bucher; and both of these folks have been replaced by new DAs, which also brings up the matter of DA's offices changing over time.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Dec 2, 2007 7:13:52 PM

The response back to the response is that even the most devoted left-leaning do-gooders are apt to be changed for the worse by immersion in the *criminal* culture. If everyone you see on a daily basis is guilty of some crime (ok, not literally everyone, but just about), it would take a lot of fortitude, more than I probably have, to not get jaded.

Anyway, I'm glad you've written about this, because it has become a frustration of mine that people don't accept the social justice value of the work done by people outside of Legal Aid and Public Defender offices.

Besides, how about those white collar prosecutors! Every liberal do-gooder should want to be one.

Posted by: Jason W. | Dec 2, 2007 4:58:46 PM

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