Reaching out to local citizens

Stephanie N. Mitchell

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Dallas County

Dallas County launched a Citizens Prosecutor Academy last fall to get the word out that prosecutors are ministers of justice. Read the inspiring story of how they did it and the response they’re receiving.

What does it mean to be a prosecutor? When we asked this question at one of the sessions of our Citizens Prosecutor Academy, a Dallas County resident replied, “Prosecutors are youngsters trying to get a start and who are not good enough for private practice.” Ouch.
    The truth of the matter is, the average citizen has no idea what it means to be a prosecutor. Why would they? Unless a citizen has served on a jury or been the victim of a crime, he has little to no interaction with prosecutors, and his perception of who we are and what we do is defined by what he sees on television or reads in the newspaper.
    The Citizen Prosecutor Academy (CPA) aims to change that. Last fall, James Tate, a graduate student in the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Texas at Dallas, approached our office with the idea of starting such a program in Dallas County. Tate had participated in a similar program in Collin County, and after hearing about his experience we were inspired to implement our own academy with the hope that the students would share what they learned with others in their communities. We decided to have the program twice a year, with a spring and fall semester.

Planning and publicizing
A diverse team of prosecutors and support staff met weekly for several months to develop the curriculum and application process. We developed a comprehensive 10-week program that took students step by step through the judicial process. Our mission was to expose Dallas County residents to the numerous divisions and procedures within the Criminal District Attorney’s Office, provide them with an opportunity to engage in open dialogue with prosecutors and leaders in the community, and allow them to discover the inner workings of the judicial process.
    The curriculum we established was as follows:
Week 1: Opening Ceremony
Week 2: Jail Tour, Juvenile Division, and Civil Division
Week 3: Divert Courts, Grand Jury, and Intake
Week 4: Intoxication and Property Crimes, ID Theft, and White Collar Crimes
Week 5: Family Violence and Child Abuse
Week 6: Narcotics, Gangs, and Homicide
Week 7: Medical Examiner Office Tour and Conviction Integrity Unit
Week 8: Investigations and Trial
Week 9: War Stories (Behind the Scenes)
Week 10: Graduation
    The planning committee divided the weeks up and were responsible for organizing speakers for each class. To offer an idea of how much work went into it, we met every week for about three months for two to three hours per week to check on everyone’s progress as well as review any new applications. The speakers took approximately an hour to prepare their own presentations and were expected to speak for 35–40 minutes and allow 5–10 minutes for questions.
    With the program outline complete, we started publicizing CPA. Information about the academy and the application were posted on our office website. We also issued a press release to various media outlets and reached out to local universities with criminal justice departments. Shortly thereafter, applications began coming in. Aside from basic contact information, we asked why applicants were interested in participating and whether they or any of their relatives had ever been arrested or convicted of any criminal offenses. An affirmative answer didn’t automatically bar an applicant from participating, but we wanted to avoid people using this program to gain inside information on criminal matters, so we reviewed those applications on a case-by-case basis.
    Our goal was to admit 35 participants that represented Dallas County’s diverse population. Unfortunately we did not have enough spots to accept every application we received (we got more than 80!), and those who were not admitted were notified and encouraged to apply again in the future. Students in the class ranged from age 18 to 70; some worked for other government agencies, such as the Attorney General’s Office, and others had no prior experience in the criminal justice system. Our spring class also had two students who worked for the media and wrote articles on their experience in the program.
    The students we selected were advised that class would meet every Thursday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 starting March 1. To graduate from the program, they had to attend eight of the 10 classes. Aside from two planned field trips (to the county jail and the medical examiner’s office), class was held in the courtroom of Dallas County Criminal District Court 3. Dinner was provided at each class. Students were given a binder that outlined the course schedule and weekly handouts of the presentations.

Class is in session
The opening ceremony was a huge success. Students were welcomed into the academy by Dallas law enforcement leaders including District Attorney Craig Watkins, Mayor Mike Rawlings, and Police Chief David Brown. Participants learned how the various agencies interact and work together with the shared purpose of serving and protecting Dallas County citizens. They were given an opportunity to ask questions and express any concerns they had. As students left that evening, many of them expressed enthusiasm about the weeks to come.
    Week Two of the academy presented some challenges when a pipe unexpectedly burst causing a flood in the courthouse. The building was evacuated and class had to be cancelled. The planning committee decided to forgo the class and pick up as scheduled the following Thursday. The students, on the other hand, expressed their desire to extend CPA a week and make up the cancelled class. To avoid scheduling conflicts with the planned speakers, we decided to push graduation ahead one week to make room for the rescheduled Week Two presentation.
    The subsequent weeks went off without a hitch. Assistant district attorneys within various divisions/units of our office made presentations about the topics outlined in the curriculum. Presenters gave students an overview of the types of cases their divisions handle and explained some of the evidentiary issues they have to deal with. There were also presentations from Dallas Police Department detectives and our various service providers, such as The Family Place (the largest family violence service provider in Dallas). An effort was made to ensure that the students not only enjoyed the presentations but also developed an understanding of what a prosecutor’s workday is like. They were taken on tours and allowed to view our offices, divisions, victim waiting areas, and the grand jury rooms. Students were amazed by everything that prosecutors do outside of the courtroom.
    Week Seven was especially exciting for the students. The class met at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science, commonly referred to as SWIFS. Following a presentation from our Conviction Integrity Chief, Russell Wilson, the students heard a presentation from Charles Chatman. Chatman was wrongfully convicted and received a 99-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault in 1981. He was exonerated in 2008 after DNA evidence proved his innocence. He spoke to the students about his experience and commended the work of SWIFS and our office for giving him his life back. The students were then taken on a tour of the facility. They learned about the testing processes for DNA, trace evidence, firearms, and toxicology. At the close of this evening one student wrote that this experience made him “proud to be a part of this county and under the leadership of those who fight to serve true justice.”
    Week Nine was dubbed War Stories night. Senior prosecutors from our office presented a behind-the-scenes look at high-profile Dallas County cases they have tried. We wanted the students to walk away with an understanding of each case, but more importantly with an insight on the personal effect these cases have on the prosecutors handling them. They were able to hear about the sleepless nights we experience during trial and about our drive to pursue justice for our victims and their families. The highlight of the night for them involved a case that is deeply rooted in American history: the trial of Jack Ruby. Jack Ruby was tried in Dallas County for the 1963 murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. The lead prosecutor in that case, Bill Alexander, visited and spoke to the students about the issues he dealt with preparing for trial. The students described this class as a truly eye-opening experience.
    The CPA concluded with a graduation ceremony. The students received a certificate and small gift for their participation. Special announcements and recognition were made for those having perfect attendance. Students used this time to express their gratitude to our office. One by one, they took the stage and shared their appreciation for all that we do. Not only did they feel more informed about the Dallas County judicial system, but they also felt empowered to do more in their communities. This was largely impacted by the efforts we made to integrate them in all that our office is doing. Outside of the academy, students joined our office in various community outreach projects such as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) walk and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Bowl For Kids’ Sake event.

Reflections
After each class, students were asked to complete a presentation evaluation. We reviewed these for suggestions on how to improve the academy going forward. Surprisingly, the overwhelming criticism was that the classes weren’t long enough. Students suggested extending the academy a few weeks to allow presenters more time, so we extended the fall semester of CPA to 12 weeks long.
    Since graduating from the academy, the students have continued to be active, from sharing what they learned to encouraging others to participate. In fact, the number of applications we received for the fall semester nearly doubled from the spring. Due to the high application response we decided to accept more students. The fall 2012 semester had 42 students enrolled. Our spring graduates joined us to welcome the fall participants at the opening ceremony and continue to come to some of the classes.
    The overall response to CPA has been incredible. We anticipate that with each semester, interest will continue to grow. It has made our citizens more informed about the justice system and aware of how hard prosecutors work to protect them. There was a 180-degree turnaround in their perception of what it means to be a prosecutor from the first night of class to the last. We would encourage all district attorney’s offices to start a program like this if you don’t already have one.
    Please feel free to contact our office with any questions you may have. It’s time to make our communities aware of all that we do. We take great satisfaction in knowing that when our citizens are asked what they think of prosecutors, they proudly say that prosecutors are public servants full of integrity and passion, working to ensure that justice is served.