I am a child of two public servants and I have always known that I would follow the public service path too. In spite of my own privileged situation, I grew up watching my parent’s clients struggle with poverty, lack of access to services, and additional law enforcement scrutiny due to their race. While many who view such hardships may choose public defense or policy work, I have chosen another method to fight injustice and ensure the fairness of the system – prosecution. Since high school, I have worked in various prosecution offices, and I will soon be a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice. I know this seems counter-intuitive, given what I grew up witnessing. It is a path that has raised many eyebrows – both from my friends and my family. In fact, I have had to explain my motivations to various people, ranging from my public defender father to visiting ACLU lawyers.
Despite the judgment of some peers, I have always wanted to be a prosecutor, due to the important role of prosecutorial discretion throughout the criminal justice process. For years, I have believed that it is important for liberal or defense-minded lawyers to consider prosecution, since so much good can be done from that side of the case, and prosecutors have the tools to be powerful adversaries. Rather than being bogged down by the long trudge of fighting each case as it comes, with the goal of getting the best outcome for each individual defendant, a prosecutor can choose what kinds of cases to prosecute and can practice empathy in deciding everything from charging to crafting a plea bargain. Prosecutors can choose to take a hardline – or not. Prosecutors can seek rehabilitation and ensure that defendants can return to society ready to contribute or they can pursue punitive goals.
In my various jobs with prosecution offices, I have interacted with both victims and defendants, as well as with fellow prosecutors. During these various times, I saw the benefits of prosecutors that recognized that defendants may have committed criminal acts, but they were not necessarily bad people. I have witnessed such prosecutors decide to practice mercy, giving defendants a chance to rehabilitate and re-build their lives. A brush with the criminal justice system should not unalterably change a defendant’s life for the worse and many liberal prosecutors tend to subscribe to this position. However, I have also witnessed the perils of having prosecutors that lack empathy or fail to fully appreciate the collateral consequences that come with a conviction. Prosecutors that take pride in their high conviction rates and hardline attitude can do real damage, since the duty of prosecutors is justice and serving the community, which includes defendants.
While many public defenders and liberal cause lawyers have a strident, persistent mistrust and dislike of all prosecutors, I believe this is a shortsighted view to take. Not only does it harm collegiality in and out of the courtroom, it discounts the real public benefits to having a prosecutor that exercises discretion and pursues liberal criminal goals. I should think it obvious that defendants will benefit from a criminal justice system where the prosecutor in their case wants to ensure a fair deal designed to rehabilitate, rather than simply to punish. I have long believed that prosecuting criminal cases is about getting the right result for the community, the victim, but also the defendant – that it is not about winning, but about what is fair. More young lawyers are becoming attracted to prosecution for the same reasons and other liberal-minded public service lawyers should encourage this path rather than label it as misguided or traitorous.
Now, while I encourage liberal lawyers to pursue prosecution, it is necessary to explain that there are some accompanying personal struggles for any lawyer who pursues this path. Through my work, I have realized two major issues for any liberal prosecutor: (1) the stress of working in an over-criminalized system that favors prosecutorial power and implicitly demands charges; and (2) barriers for new prosecutors to actually being able to exercise discretion, and thereby being forced to pursue borderline and questionable cases. While I still believe that it is important to have liberal prosecutors, I have personally struggled with being forced to pursue cases that I would have preferred to drop for policy reasons. Even worse, I have been taken off of cases that I wanted to drop. It has been a repeated frustration that I know many young prosecutors face. Regardless of these negative points, I still believe it is a worthwhile and meaningful career path.
The biggest lesson that I have learned from this process is that there are so many things about the criminal justice system that need to be adjusted. Not just the excessive number of criminal laws, but the leadership and attorney recruiting in prosecution offices. I believe that prosecution offices should hire and encourage lawyers who want to ensure fair convictions and who recognize that defendants are part of the community too and deserve protection from unjustified charges. Most importantly though, I argue public service lawyers should encourage liberal lawyers to pursue prosecution, since I trust we can do so much good in changing the long-standing punitive environment. Liberal cause lawyers and public defenders do so much good, but having liberal prosecutors on board can make the process of ensuring a fair system less of an uphill battle.
Rebecca Caruso is a third-year law student from Florida. She studied Political Science and History at the University of Florida, before coming straight through to Virginia. After graduation, she will be prosecuting white-collar criminal cases at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Rebecca is an audiophile, bookworm, and movie junkie with a long-standing relationship with Netflix.