Law in Contemporary Society
Some days I swear off criminal prosecution. Other days it comes back with a powerful nostalgia, connected to a time when I was paraded around by family as an up and coming “community leader.” I spent the last draft trying to keep prosecution alive as a career path; I will spend this draft trying to bury it.

Can I Live with The Downsides?

In my last draft, I told the story of how my sister made an effort to duck cases involving undeserving defendants at her district attorney externship. I was proud of her for taking a stand, and I thought that I could hold onto her story as reassurance, drawing on it every time the usual attacks were laid on the criminal justice system and the district attorneys responsible for its execution.

However, the previous draft showed how little I could squeeze out of that story. Putting it in writing made it feel less like a plan for change, and more like a final gasp of rationalization from someone who desperately wanted to maintain his sense of having a plan. I am not sure what fantasy DA’s office I had in mind in that draft. How would things go when I, a 26-year-old ADA with no experience, try to push back on cases handed to me by a veteran DA who has no patience for my vague attempts at prosecutorial reform? How does “I can’t do this one” sound to the old Irish-Catholic San Franciscans that run the offices I would work for? To them, it sounds like some liberal, ivy-league elitist mistakenly thought criminal prosecution was a space for moral self-expression. I know these guys personally, they do not question nor do they take well to questioning, and I erroneously believed I would successfully operate as a disruptive force when thrown into their world. Besides, I have spent my entire life following the rules, there is no reason I would suddenly get good at saying “no” when the stakes are higher.

Truthfully, I know myself well enough to know that I would feel forced to take most of the cases I said I would deny. When I did help land some dumb kid in prison, I know I would not rest easy by simply telling myself that I would make up for it later in my career. I want to avoid viewing my work as a series of social-good pluses and minuses, hoping to land on the net-positive side when things are said and done. I am not that economic with my conscience.

I understand that a job having downsides is no reason not to do it, but I do not take that to mean that a person should knowingly accept those downsides without examining whether he could live with them first. I am currently working in a prosecutor’s office, and I have already begun working on a case that is not exactly inspiring the pride I expected to feel when I used to imagine prosecutorial work. It is unsettling to sit at my desk writing a brief that has an enormously negative impact on the life of a man I will never know. I believe he is not evil, but dangerous, and he very well might offend again if released. If prison is all we have to keep a continuous threat away from innocent people, then he should be there, right? I keep telling myself that, but it still feels wrong to have this degree of control over another man’s existence. Maybe it is because I know his life is marked with poverty and personal tragedy. Maybe it is because I spent 24 hours in jail when I was younger, and, although career criminals would laugh at the notion that I know what life in prison is like (and I would agree), I know a fraction more than nothing about what the inside of a cell feels like, just enough to give me pause when I make the argument that someone should spend years living in that world.

“District Attorney” is beginning to feel like a passionless stock answer to “what do you want to do with your law degree.” It was the answer I had rehearsed about a thousand times, it rolled off the tongue, it was safe, and it made people proud. I kept saying it, all the while growing increasingly wary of the warning signs. Maybe it’s time I let this dream die, and understand that it seemed like a dream job only because I never truly understood what it was when I was a kid.

What’s Left?

If being a DA is not my first stop, then at the very least it was a good way for me to express some things that are important to me in a career. First, it helped me figure out the type of person I wanted to work with. Prosecutors swear at work, which I appreciate. I liked how these offices didn’t roll out the red carpet when they heard a Columbia student was shadowing for the day – in fact, some of them treated me like crap, and it was refreshing to meet people willing to say (with their body language) that I had yet to earn their respect. These are real people, too busy with real work to fake excitement. Next, I liked the whole show of it: the litigation; preaching from the podium to twelve very confused, but awestruck jurors; arguing with the PD in the hallway, no longer even feigning the usual workplace niceties; and complimenting the judge’s tie. Most importantly, what attracted me to prosecution was the prospect of making it harder for bad people to do bad things. While that goal may have been tarnished for me in regards to prosecutorial work, it does not mean the underlying passion is itself ruined. It is still my career goal, I preferred being able to label it (“prosecution”), but now I have to find a more suitable home for it, one with sufferable downsides.

It's no reason not to go into any line of practice that it has downsides. If the particular protective function you think you can best serve is to negotiate guilty pleas with defense lawyers and try to duck the cases no office ought to bring, it's not for anyone else to tell you otherwise. But the thinness of the rationale is apparent even to you, and in this well-made but cagey essay, it goes without question. The only thing ADAs can do is to negotiate prison sentences, or force them by going to expensive and wasteful trial. This is only as protective as we believe the incapacitation function of imprisonment is protective, which is not very much in anyone's telling. A cop can risk her life to stop something dangerous on the street. But all an ADA can do is to affect the deployment of the already obscenely large corrections budget to the making of better career criminals in his own neighborhood. Your GPA doesn't go to work: you do. One way of revising this essay would be to take childhood and your family out of the next draft: the background is important only because it brings you to the thoughts that essay would then be more about thinking.

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r4 - 31 May 2017 - 03:32:54 - GregorySuhr
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