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Commentary: A letter to new prosecutors

It’s that time of year when social media becomes flooded with pictures and posts from new law school graduates, all who will soon embark on different careers.

Each year, a sizeable percentage of these graduates will become prosecutors in different parts of the state. Most people who have a passion for this type of work are seeking to fulfill a lifelong dream, or to secure a certain amount of experience before pursuing work in another field.

This May marks my tenth year out of law school. While that is not a tremendous length of time, there are certain pieces of advice I can now offer to those who are younger than I am.

Remember, prosecutors have the ability to do tremendous good. You will find that, nearly every day, you are able to alter someone’s life. Your power, in fact, will be tremendous, and will most likely continue to grow, especially as the legislature criminalizes more activities and increases penalties for existing crimes.

Your power lies not so much in the sentences you recommend, or the number of charges you dismiss and “read in,” but rather in how you wield the charging duties entrusted to you.

To charge a person, regardless of outcome, is to alter his or her life. A decision of that sort begins to have consequences the minute it is made.

Use that power wisely. The best prosecutors I have encountered are those who treat that awesome power with the caution it deserves.

Be pragmatic in your recommendations. Truth-in-sentencing has resulted in our prisons filling up at a rapid rate. We incarcerate tens of thousands of inmates, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers. Take to heart the words of Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, who, in a recent New Yorker article, described defendants as mostly fitting into one of two categories – those who scare us and those who annoy us.

Take part in activities and projects outside of your job. As a prosecutor, you can make the community a better place simply by holding yourself to the standards of your profession.

But, knowing that to be the case, don’t become complacent. No matter how beneficial your professional work, one of the best things you can still do is to perform volunteer work in some capacity for the community you live in.

Gaining that perspective is crucial. Trust me, it will make you more compassionate and it will keep you grounded.

Most importantly, remember that there’s an exception to every rule. We have a legal system that is designed to be adversarial but, for better or worse, is in fact becoming less so. Fewer than 5 percent of all cases now go to trial and treatment courts offer a way to divert a large number of criminal offenses.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone. Those who you least expect it from, may surprise you the most.

A version of this column originally appeared in Wisconsin Law Journal, sister publication to The Daily Record.