‘You wanna be startin’ something’

By Jarvis Parsons
TDCAA President and District Attorney in Brazos County

As public servants our first job is always to do justice. It’s often the reason we went to law school, and it’s usually the reason we became prosecutors. We believe that one of the best ways to make our community a safer place is to make sure individuals who harm others are punished for that conduct.

However, in this day and age, I believe it’s not enough to do justice. We as public servants who believe in the criminal justice system have to be ambassadors to our constituents. We should open the curtain and be transparent with the citizens in our community about The What and The Why of prosecution. Creating a Citizens Prosecutor Academy (CPA) is a great way to meet those goals. The Brazos County District Attorney’s Office formed such an academy about two years ago, and it’s been a great success.

Nuts and bolts

A Citizens Prosecutor Academy is an 8–12-week program that works much like a Citizens Police Academy. The public is invited to attend the sessions to get a better look at what happens in the District or County Attorney’s Office. Topics can vary. For our office, we focused on things we think the public may be interested in. Our introductory session starts with the citizens introducing themselves to us and each other. We then ask them a couple of questions:

1) Why did you sign up for the class?

2) What is one question about the criminal justice system you would like answered?

We ask these questions so we can tailor our presentations to the specific needs of the citizens taking the class. After hearing all of the questions and concerns about the criminal justice system, I begin my session, which basically is an overview of the office, the divisions within it, the work we do, and why we do it. Working as a prosecutor for essentially my entire life, I forget how many people have no idea what the District Attorney’s Office does or why people become prosecutors. It’s clear when I start to speak about why I am a prosecutor and give attendees an inside look into what we do on a daily basis that average citizens who may not know much about the criminal justice system transform into engaged citizens.

Our sessions last from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. one night a week. While that seems like a long time, it actually goes very fast. We usually find that attendees ask so many questions that we are struggling to finish within the allotted time. I view that as a good thing because it means they are engaged in the talks. While you can break down your sessions anyway you want to, here is how we have it broken down in Brazos County.
Week 1: Introduction and Overview of the Office
Week 2: The Role of the Grand Jury and Narcotics Presentation by Law Enforcement
Week 3: Domestic Violence
Week 4: Crimes Against Children
Week 5: Local Gangs and Juvenile Prosecution
Week 6: Punishment (we use this session to explain enhancement paragraphs, misdemeanors and felonies, punishment ranges, and the like)
Week 7: Prosecutor Ethics and the Death Penalty
Week 8: Mock Jury Selection
Week 9: Mock Trial and Graduation

What I like most about this model is you can input any topic you want, present it, and make it your own. You could make your office’s Citizens Prosecutor Academy a six-week process if you wanted to. However you choose to do it, it’s a great way for citizens to see you in your element and to appreciate the job we do as prosecutors in the community.

The secret sauce

While the content is important, the most important thing is getting some of your prosecutors and staff on board because it takes more than an elected DA to pull off a program of this magnitude. In my office I knew I needed to get three types of people on board with this vision to make it work. I needed a “cruise director” (someone who would be immediately excited about the program), an “executor” (a person who can not only dream big but also make it happen), and a “critic” (someone who would be wary at first, but once won over, could provide strategic vision to take the CPA to the next level). I could paraphrase their thoughts for you, but I feel it’s better to let them tell their own stories.

The Cruise Director, Ryan Calvert (theme song: “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie)
“Like most prosecutors, I frequently complain that the public ‘doesn’t understand the criminal justice system.’ I constantly see news stories about cases, and the public’s response to those stories, and lament that people ‘just don’t get it.’ But it occurred to me that no matter how much we complain about the public’s ignorance, the public will remain ignorant unless someone teaches them. And if we, as prosecutors, don’t educate people about what we really do, then who will?1

“So I was thrilled when my boss, Jarvis Parsons, came to me in early 2017 and asked me to be one of the cruise directors for his new Citizens Prosecutor Academy. Jarvis explained that he wanted the public to understand what we do and how we do it—in particular, Jarvis wanted to include people in the community who may not typically like law enforcement. ‘If we can help them understand us,’ Jarvis said, ‘then they will share that understanding with their families, neighbors, and church groups.’

“For the first academy, we hand-picked attendees who could help the program grow. Elected officials (including our county judge and several commissioners), business leaders, educators, and members of the media were invited to participate. We decided that the group would meet one evening a week for nine weeks. Additionally, Melissa Carter, one of our victim assistance coordinators (VACs) and our executor (more from her in a minute), convinced local restaurants to donate food for each meeting so that we could provide dinner to our attendees.

“My role in most sessions is similar to that of a color-commentator on a sports broadcast. The speaker(s) for the session discuss their respective topics, and I periodically chime in with examples or further explanation. Additionally, I am responsible for the voir dire session. I select a case that requires me to cover topics that jurors will find engaging and challenging, such as Law of Parties and circumstantial evidence. During the first half of the session, I conduct a voir dire with the attendees as the panel. For the second half, I give attendees a glimpse “behind the curtain” of voir dire by explaining to them exactly what I was doing during jury selection and why I was doing it. We discuss challenges for cause, the use of peremptory strikes, and how voir dire is part of an overall trial strategy, even though we cannot directly discuss the facts of the case.

“Finally, my last role in the academy is to participate in the mock trial during the final session. Because we are always looking for ways to train our youngest prosecutors and get them ‘reps,’ I see the Citizens Prosecutor Academy mock trial as an opportunity for some of our less-experienced people. I choose two young attorneys to prosecute the mock trial case while I play the defense attorney, and I select a case that gives each side good material to work with. Finally, I reach out to police officers or other professionals involved in the case to play themselves as witnesses. Because time is short, we use only two to three witnesses during the trial. Jarvis plays the judge. The trial lets attendees see in action many of the topics we spent the previous nine weeks discussing. It also gives some growing prosecutors a chance to practice their skills, and it lets Jarvis and I see what those young prosecutors need to work on.

“After we completed the first academy in the fall of 2017, the response from attendees was overwhelming. They recommended numerous friends and colleagues to attend future academies. Additionally, Melissa and I went on a local news station to invite the public to attend. To date, four academy classes have completed the program, and our fifth will kick off in September.

“Something I especially love about the CPA is that it gives us an opportunity to show the public how seriously we take both our ethical responsibilities and attempts to rehabilitate offenders. Coming into the academy, most attendees have no idea that we turn all of our evidence over to the defense, while the defense has no obligation to provide any evidence to us. Attendees are fascinated to learn that if we ever encounter information that is, in any way, harmful or damaging to our case, we must disclose it immediately. Many attendees begin the program thinking that we are mere ‘government workers’ who simply punch a clock 40 hours a week and are primarily interested in conviction rates and obtaining maximum sentences. Those attendees are shocked when they see the number of hours we actually work, how each case is evaluated on its own merits, and how justice for both the victim and the offender drives everything we do.

“While I certainly don’t expect to eliminate public misunderstanding of the justice system through the CPA, I have seen the impact the program is having within our community. We have had graduates of the program on juries and jury panels. We have heard from friends and family members of graduates about what they learned just from hearing about the program. Recently, I spoke to Dennis Maddox, a graduate of our Spring 2019 session. Dennis is a retired pastor who also happens to work in the courthouse as a supervisor of our custodial staff. Dennis mentioned to me that he “worked in these hallways every day and had no idea about the great things that y’all do right here.” Comments like that convince me that the Citizens Prosecutor Academy is worthwhile. The more our community understands who we are as prosecutors, what we do, how we do it, and (most importantly) why we do it, the better we can do justice.”

The Executor, Melissa Carter (theme song: “Taking Care of Business” by Bachmann-Turner Overdrive)
“I often joke that my journey with our Citizens Prosecutor Academy began because I was wandering the halls of the office as my boss, Jarvis Parsons, was looking for a ‘volunteer’ to hear his new idea. I remember sitting there as he talked through the plans, and as much as I love to give him a hard time about the extra work it would entail, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. For me this project meant so much more than just hosting a few people in our office and teaching them about our work. I was born and raised in Brazos County, I have lived most of my life here, and I’m raising my family here, so anything that helps the community understand the work of the District Attorney’s Office is important to me. When Jarvis asked me to help him, I was hooked and ready.

“We started the planning process and to be truthful, we borrowed a lot of our initial ideas from other counties. Jarvis wanted to get started right away so I had to convince him to give us a few months to make the plans and set everything up. As we brainstormed topics, it was evident that attorneys like to talk. A lot. I had to remind them we were keeping this to nine weeks so we couldn’t cover everything.

“After we chose our topics and speakers (most of whom were our ADAs, VACs and investigators), we started reaching out to our inaugural class attendees. Jarvis wanted to do an invite-only class first so that we could work out any problems and be ready for the public in the spring. We started a list of people in the community we thought might be willing to sacrifice their Tuesday evenings for our class. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to fill the 25 spots so we came up with more than 50 names, and as we got their addresses, we sent out invitations. I even convinced my dad to be one of our attendees, just in case we didn’t have enough people. Within days, though, the class was full and I had a waiting list for Spring!

“Our first session was interesting. We had planned to have a quick introduction time and then get started with the ins and outs of intake and grand jury. We asked each attendee to introduce him or herself and tell us one thing he or she didn’t like or understand about the criminal justice system. Well, that one question opened up over an hour of discussion and before we knew it, our intake chief had only 30 minutes left to teach. These attendees were a cross-section of our community, and they definitely opened our eyes to the issues they had with crime, justice, punishments, trials, ethical issues, and so much more. Even though we taught very little that first night, we had so much new information to work with, and we knew we had so much to explain about the law, our office, and the criminal justice system.

“Throughout the next few weeks, we began the process of educating our community on all aspects of our office. We told them the good, the bad, and the ugly. We let them ask questions, we showed them the courthouse, and we even let them be jurors for a night. At the end of that first academy, we graduated 22 community members who included a judge, county commissioners, high-school principals, small-business owners, a nurse, a reporter, a stay-at-home mom, a banker, a preacher, and others. They stuck with us until the end and as we took a group picture, we realized this class was more than just us teaching them about our office. They had taught us so much about why we serve the community, how to better serve citizens, and the importance of never losing sight of doing what is right through our work. We were pumped and ready to make this academy part of our normal course of business.

“Since that first academy, we have hosted three more and educated 60-plus community members about the DA’s office. We have tweaked things along the way—we now have our “alumni” provide dinner, we have extended the session times, and we make sure there is always fresh coffee brewing. We have filled the academy each session, and there is usually a waiting list for the next one. This academy has given us a glimpse into the people who represent our community so that we can better represent them. They have asked tough questions of us, challenged our results at times, and have even said they don’t like what we are doing; but through each class, we have been able to educate them, create relationships, and impart knowledge of so much within the system. I think each of our attendees would agree that it is through those hard questions that we have seen a way to work together and make this community a great place to call home.”

The critic, Brian Baker (theme song: “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy)
“OK. Let me tell how it really. Went. Down. March 2017. Monday. 8:03 a.m. Jarvis’ office. As I walk in and start to sit, I see it! Jarvis has that familiar look—a cross between a welcoming smile and an evil smirk. I immediately know that one of the following has happened: Jarvis has:
• heard something at a conference;
• talked to a DA in another county; or
• listened to a podcast; and
He has an idea … aka a project.

“I settle into a chair, take a sip of coffee, and make sure my cup is full. Then when I have exhausted all reasons to stall, I ask: “What?” (I’m asking with equal parts curiosity and dread.) He says he wants to host a Citizens Prosecutor Academy that fall.

“For the next few minutes everything is a jumble of Jarvis explaining that he sees such an academy as a great way to educate the community on what we do. At the exact same time, my brain starts conjuring all the reasons that it is not worth the time and energy it will require. I mean … are we really going to ask prosecutors and staff who are burning the candle at both ends already to give up more of their nights and free time?

“An hour later, like so many times before, I walk out of Jarvis’ office and start making calls. We are going to put on a Citizens Prosecutor Academy, and it is going to happen fast. I reach out to other counties already holding such programs and ask for all their advice. The TDCAA community comes to my rescue and with their materials as a starting point, we set off to make it happen.

“Over the next few months we come up with a curriculum and assign presentations. Ryan Calvert and Melissa Carter agree to be the academy concierges. They will walk with the attendees every step of the way. We then hand-select our first class, intentionally picking people who have a voice in the community and who can facilitate others to attend in the future.

“I will admit that I was still skeptical and secretly thinking that we would put on one class, maybe two and then realize that I was right: It was more work than it was worth.

“Oh, how wrong I was.

“The first class was an amazing success. I watched as 22 residents of Brazos County were exposed to what we do day in and day out and they were totally engrossed. They were seeing up close the things that make me love this job and this office. We all watched as the class truly got a small taste of the good and the bad, the frustrations and the joys. But most importantly, I proudly observed as these attendees got a chance to meet and hear from the people who work in our office. There was a real connection being made. I realized their experience here would have far-reaching implications for how each of them, as well as their friends and family, would view our office and the cases, as well as the news those cases generated.

“We have now graduated four classes and are about to start our fifth. We have expanded our applicant pool from people we know to strangers who have never stepped foot in a courthouse. I have seen this academy change the minds of those skeptical about the criminal justice system in Brazos County.

“I’m not sure if it was a conference, another elected DA, or a podcast that set us down this path. I continue to readily admit that indeed I was wrong, so no need to bring it up again. Whatever inspired Jarvis, he was right to listen, and he was right to want to enlighten members of our community, class by class, on how our office ensures justice is done. Our community is stronger and better for it, and not allotting the extra time and resources would be a huge loss for our office and law enforcement in Brazos County.”

Conclusion

My hope for you, readers of this article, is to spur you to take reach out to your communities in new and exciting ways. Citizens Prosecutor Academies are just one way to fulfill that goal. It is more work for you and your staff, but it is definitely worth the time and effort. Please don’t hesitate to email or call my office—my email is [email protected] and my phone number is 979/361-4320. We would be happy to share with you like other prosecutors shared their ideas with us. i

Endnote

[1] I once heard a colleague say, “As prosecutors, we must define ourselves, lest we be defined by others.