Brynn Jacobson and fellow law student Laura Harmon faced stiff opposition when they attempted to launch “Future Prosecutors for Social Justice” as a student organization at Seattle University School of Law.
The law school’s mission focuses on social justice, they were told by students and even faculty, and the work of prosecutors does not advance social justice.
“Prosecutors have a lot of power and discretion,” Brynn said, explaining the negative reactions she encountered in law school. Prosecutors have the option to file or dismiss charges. They have discretion over which charges they pursue. And prosecutors have significant influence in setting the punishment for crimes since judges are required to work off of a sentencing grid based on the variety of charges and counts for a conviction—charges and counts which are determined by the prosecution.
“A lot of friends in law school were very defense-focused,” Brynn said. “The cases we studied all started out with the state doing something wrong, and people think of prosecutors as people who are just there to win convictions and lock up people indefinitely.”
That was, and often is, the prevailing perception of prosecutors. Many also point to prosecutors as the culprits for the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities in prison and the people responsible for locking up youth when they would benefit from alternatives to incarceration.
Brynn, who maintained a high GPA and worked on the law review, said she was hurt by the idea that because she wanted to be a prosecutor, she was somehow not part of the school’s mission.
It is every bit the responsibility of the prosecutors as it is of the defense to ensure someone an honest, fair, and ethical trial.
“In my view, prosecutors can play a huge role in social justice. In fact, you need good prosecutors if you want to see a change,” says Brynn, who worked in the King County Prosecutor’s office during law school and is now a deputy prosecutor in the county. “Yes, prosecutors can use their power poorly, but they can also use it really well.”
“I saw the King County office do very innovative things, and I was excited to work here,” Brynn said. “There was no use arguing with the other students and faculty. The way to change things was to show people what I was seeing; show them that there is a connection between being a prosecutor and social justice.”
Brynn and Laura forged ahead with “Future Prosecutors for Social Justice” which is still in existence at the SU school of law today. The group brought prosecutors to the law school to discuss what they were doing with progressive programs such as reentry work for people being released from prison. Brynn’s group organized a bake sale to benefit 180, a juvenile diversion program for youth which Seattle University School of Law now hosts in partnership with the King County Prosecutor’s office and other community organizations.
Brynn, who is currently a second-year deputy with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, spent long work days attending to pre-trial hearings, sentencing, arraignments, and trial work in district court before rotating to the misdemeanors jail calendar these days. It’s DUI land, she says of the trial load of cases she manages there.
On the ground, Brynn sees a prosecutor’s office with a conservative filing policy. “We don’t hit people with every charge we could file,” she says. Cases are reduced when there’s insufficient evidence rather than basing reductions on whether a defendant’s a nice person or what kind of lawyer they are able to afford. “It is every bit the responsibility of the prosecutors as it is of the defense to ensure someone an honest, fair, and ethical trial,” Brynn says.
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