Ministers of justice: Prosecutors doing the right thing for the right reason
To the average viewer of the 24-hour news cycle, and in particular to someone who at least casually follows developments within the criminal justice system, it seems as if a prosecutor’s main role is to punish bad people who have committed an offense by putting them behind bars and throwing away the key. The individual that committed the crime is never seen or heard from again—out of sight, out of mind, right? While that narrative plays out in some circles around the country, my work with prosecutors reveals a different picture of compassion, thoughtfulness, dedication, good intentions and a desire to do what it takes to protect the communities they serve.
At the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), my colleagues and I serve a dedicated team of professionals whose passion for justice, victims of crime, holding offenders accountable and doing what is right shines through daily. Every day, NDAA receives outreach from prosecutors seeking training and technical assistance to expand their own knowledge base to ensure they are following best practices in the prosecution profession to serve their communities. They are eager to continuously test and replicate new and innovative programming and practices and are driven by their duty to protect all individuals with whom they come into contact. Last week, we honored and reflected on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by using a quote of his that is central to core beliefs held by prosecutors: “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.” NDAA repeatedly points out that prosecutors are ministers of justice dedicated to seeking the truth, protecting the innocent and keeping their communities safe. That is a mission that should apply to all people, all the time. That is what I see in practice when I visit prosecutors in the field.
I recently traveled to the Alabama District Attorneys Association statewide conference where I spent 2.5 days with chief prosecutors and line assistants from across the state. I watched and listened as they intently heard from experts around the state and country and as they discussed how they could improve in their roles within the criminal justice system. One evening, I had dinner with a small group of chief prosecutors and was a little surprised when the conversation turned from what their children are doing in school and what their weekend plans were to a more somber discussion about the role of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system.
What I heard was a constant struggle to take all necessary steps to ensure they are doing the right thing and setting an example from the top for their own staff. That’s true leadership. One prosecutor told the story of meeting with one of his assistants to review documents ahead of a trial and discovering additional exculpatory evidence that had not been disclosed to the defense or judge previously. The chief prosecutor had pored over the documents numerous times and had missed a key element that one of his assistants caught. Could he have moved on and withheld the mistake? Sure. But what he did reflects the actions by the vast majority of prosecutors around the country. He called the defense counsel, told him the situation and offered to call the judge and take the blame directly for missing a piece of evidence that needed to be disclosed. Not only did he own up to his mistake, but that lesson will forever stay with the assistant as an example of doing what’s right in the name of justice. That’s leadership. That’s developing the future generation of prosecutors who will eventually lead offices around the country.
I was also struck by another example I heard that evening. A family was grieving over the loss of a loved one who was a victim of a heinous crime. Justice, or an attempt at justice, was not yet attained for the family and they couldn’t have closure and move forward with their lives. The chief prosecutor in the jurisdiction spoke about the family and her promise to seek the truth and justice for them and their loved one. During the conversation, the chief prosecutor looked around the table and in a lowered voice said that she was the only person the family had left. She’s the only person that can try to help them heal and she owes it to them and their community to be their voice. Even if the case doesn’t result in a guilty verdict, her conscience would be clear that she had done everything in her power to stand up for the powerless. She could be their voice and help the healing process.
These are just two stories of many that I hear time and again when I visit with prosecutors across the country. What I hear and see is compassion. What I hear and see is thoughtfulness. What I hear and see is dedication. What I hear and see are good intentions. And finally, what I hear and see is a desire to do what’s right, to lead by example and to seek truth and justice as they protect the rights of the people that they take a solemn oath to serve. Reach out to your local prosecutor’s office. Talk to them about what they see and hear daily—the lives they have touched and passion in which they do their job. You will find human beings just like yourself that want to help their fellow men and women through kindness and protect their loved ones. What you won’t find is a desire to lock everyone up and throw away the key.
Nelson Bunn is executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
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