Monday, November 24, 2008

We're doing the right thing, aren't we?

I think one of the first things you have to learn in this job is that you can't make a person's decisions for them. They are either going to do the right thing or they aren't. Oh sure, you can push them in one direction or another, but it is completely up to them whether or not they choose to head down the right path.

You see a lot of young people file in and out of the court room with possession of marijuana, DWI, and Assault cases and as a naïve young person, my first thought is that I wish I could just take this person outside and say:

"Look, your life doesn't have to be this way. You don't have to continue down this path. You can be anything you want to be. Just don't (insert offense here) anymore. Go to class, do your homework, work hard."

But I know that no amount of begging and pleading with someone can MAKE them do the right thing; I can't force them to make the right choices. Instead we give them their one year probations, their 6, 9, or 18 month deferred adjudications, or their jail time and we go on to the next person.

I think to some degree we all come into this job thinking we can help people. We come wanting to stand up for those people who are victims of crimes and to face down those individuals who have taken it upon themselves to break the laws that the rest of us choose to follow. And yet you look at those people who file out in the orange jumpsuits, or those people who come up from the audience (who thought it would be a good idea to wear shorts to court) and I think "These people need help too."

I want to do the right thing by all parties. I want the victims to get justice, I want criminals to accept responsibility for what they've done and pay the price for their actions, but I also want the defendants to get it through their heads that their actions are not acceptable. Unfortunately, I feel like very few defendants who stand there in front of the judge during their pleas understand and grasp the idea that what they've done is no acceptable. They may say they understand that it is wrong, or that they know they shouldn't have done it, but I'm not sure any of that is true.

I don't know what it is that sends some people down the path of a law abiding life versus a life where breaking laws is an acceptable way to make a living or pass the time. Nature vs. Nurture? Both? Neither? By the time they come to court and plead out their little possession and DWI cases is it too late for them to make things right? I know the answer to that last questions is "It is never to late", but for some people it just might be past the point of no return.

The point is, when I sign plea paperwork or have the opportunity to stand up and take a plea, one thing goes through my mind: "We're doing the right thing, aren't we?" Sometimes the answer is yes, but sometimes I feel like the answer is no.

-ADA

PS - A grammarian I am not, so I apologize in advance. I tend to write in a very conversational manner. My commas are rarely in the right place (they tend to end up where I think the reader should take a breath), and I've yet to find anyone who can clearly explain to me the proper use of a semicolon, so if you read these posts expecting a lesson in grammar, syntax, or spelling I'm going to warn you right now you're in the wrong place.

17 comments:

jigmeister said...

Boy, you are asking a hard question. Remember the county courts have historically financed the rest of the system with fines and fees. Perhaps few will admit that, but time and numbers have always limited the ability of the county courts to address the individuals problems. Offers are standardized to move cases and emphasis placed on probation officials and psudo-social programs without much thought. They work sometimes. Perhaps we ought to utilize diversions more often, especially at that level and particularly with the marijuana cases.

Thinking about the problem shows you are on the right track.

Quinn said...

As a law student who has started to feel a bit cynical towards the criminal justice system, it is heartening to see a prosecutor with an attitude like yours. On the other hand, it's hard for me to believe that such an attitude is common among prosecutors given the horror tales I've heard of Brady violations and coercive plea deals.

I look forward to reading your new blog.

Anonymous said...

Quinn- Clearly you haven't met many prosecutors.

Anonymous said...

Brady violations and coercive plea deal are definitely NOT the norm among Harris County ADAs. Your horror stories sound like tall tales.

Ghostrider said...

I think all the people in the criminal justice field, "want to do the right thing". The shame is the crooks don't. I like your blog so far, and I, like you, probably needs help in the proper sentence structure. As long as the point gets acrossed, hopefully we are both good.

qwints said...

I've met a total of 3 current and former prosecutors while at law school. The stories I hear come from current and former defense lawyers, an admittedly biased source. I have no personal knowledge of misconduct by Harris County prosecutors, and my comment was not meant as an accusation.

I was simply saying that the impression I have formed of criminal law is a negative one and noting that the attitude reflected in this blog was one I respected and admired.

elcaballodiablo said...

Opinions are like assholes...everybodys got one and they all stink. If you are a law student, you haven't dug in deep enough to really know anything, so i'd advise you to wait and form your own opinions once you are clerking somewhere for awhile or actually practicing law. You'll learn that law, like any other profession, has a few really bad people and a whole bunch of just normal people...and that like politics..usually only the extremeists stand out.

Tenderfoot said...

Often times a simple talk doesn't work. Either they have to experience the consequences for themselves or have the **** slapped out of them.

qwints said...

I freely admit I have no real world experience. That doesn't change Harris County's reputation.

Anonymous said...

Qwints,

Actually, Harris County is one of the premier District Attorney's Offices in the country. The HCDA Office has a very good reputation amongst those in the field. That is why prosecutors come from around the country to work here. That is why you see 800-1000 people from around the country applying for about 10 slots for baby prosecutors in the pre-commit program.

Chuck Rosenthal is not the Office. He is one guy who was messed up in the head.

Some words of advice...don't accuse people of being unprofessional when you don't know anything about what they do.

Anonymous said...

Really want to help people? Do not saddle them with criminal records. Even a deferred adjudication has life-long consequences. The 18 year old with deferred or time served, soon has his case over, but yet, for years to come, he will not receive the job for which he is applying, he will be denied the ability to rent an apartment. He may even be denied the ability to live in a college dorm. Sadly, it is the criminal "record" that feeds the continued behavior for some. Granted, there are some to which this does not apply. But, I pre-trial diversion or drug court diversion which includes a true dismissal, actually gives a kid a chance to change. A criminal record does not. No matter how much they try to change, they are constantly reminded of that one poor lapse in judgment that started in Harris County. While diversions are given a little more these days than in the past, they are still not even 1% of the cases. I recently met a lady who had gone to college, then graduate school, and then accepted a job with a brokerage firm in New York. Eventually, she was able to apply for her SEC license, only to find that she will never work as a broker (or any similar job) because she had a deferred adjudication for shoplifting when she was 17...some 15 years ago. Never in the system again, but yet you cannot help her reach her dreams. This is the mentality that must change to have meaningful help. Now, that does not mean that all defendants should be afforded this type of opportunity, hardly! But the non-violent, first-offender with a low level misdemeanor or maybe even state jail felony dope case, needs a chance to do better. That chance only works where there is no criminal record attached to them for life.

qwints said...

I never said anything about Harris County prosecutors being unprofessional. I've met a former one whose advocacy skills I really respect. Instead, my original comments reflected my perception of the criminal justice system as a whole - a generalization made by a law student with no practical experience.

Furthermore, the reputation I refer to has nothing to do with Chuck Rosenthal. Instead it has to do with a mentality more focused on winning than seeking justice.

Anonymous said...

Brady violations and coercive plea deal are definitely the norm among Harris County ADAs. Your horror stories sound like my everyday life.

A Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyer

Anonymous said...

Quinn:

Don't be bullied by those who claim to have soooo much experience, or who claim that Harris County is thought of as the actual paradigm of justice.

Harris County has long been considered one of the most repressive in the country, criminal justice wide. The home of the death penalty, and the city where the sleeping lawyer tried a death penalty case -- only to be found perfectly effective by the sitting judge and the TX Court of Criminal Appeals.

Also, remember that the Harris County DA's office defended that conviction and sentence. "Sleeping lawyer? Who cares? Fry the bastard!" was their attitude.

Your cynicism is well justified. Those two busy patting themselves on the back to see the injustices that occur here on a daily basis have one-sided, myopic experience. Yours is just as valid.

Anonymous said...

I wonder - have you stopped blogging for fear of retaliation from the new DA?

Anonymous said...

i hope you still like your job.remember your oath to seek justice.you sound like you are an honorable person. be wary of those great people you are working with.most you work with let the power go to their heads and like some of the other bloggers said will ruin the lives of someone who stumbled and made a mistake.i hope you dont do that.

Ashley said...

I fight every day to teach people to do the right thing. At the end of the day sometimes I feel like I am succeeding, and other times I go to bed at night feeling like I am not making a difference. But such is life.

P.S.- If you want a grammar lesson, I may be able to help. ;-)