How could a young Black man from Compton, California make a living putting Black people in prison? Although rarely verbalized, this was the question that ran through most people’s minds once they became aware that I was a prosecutor. Not surprisingly, it was the first question that crossed my mind 16 years ago when I was interviewed for the job. Could I make a living that would require me to become intimately involved with putting thousands of Black people in prison?
I tried not to over-dramatize it. I thought to myself, "well, everyone won’t be Black." Although I wish it weren’t so, it turns out that the vast majority were. I’m reminded of an excerpt from one of Richard Pryor’s albums, where Pryor says “I went to prison looking for Justice and that’s just what I found. ‘Just Us.’”
So, why did I become an Alameda County prosecutor? My answer took the form of another question: "Why not?" I was born in 1965 and while the Civil Rights Movement was winding down, a different, less popular movement was starting up in my own backyard. In the 1970s you could get jumped (beat down) for wearing the wrong colors or being in the wrong neighborhood. In the 1980s the crack epidemic made drive-by shootings with assault weapons a daily occurrence.
By age 18, I knew enough about crime in the Black community to write a thesis. A bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and law degree from UC Davis were added bonuses. Would growing up in Compton, California and having two degrees be enough to take the job? Common sense dictated that the criminal justice system might be the last place I would start a career in. I saw some things as a child that I still have nightmares about. Why would I want to relive those tragedies?
The simple truth is this: I felt that I could make a difference. For 15 years, I brought a unique set of eyes and ears to a system that was in dire need of a different perspective. Sometimes the difference was big, sometimes it was small, but mostly it was so subtle that it went unnoticed.
I love having the ability to positively change people’s lives. I love being able to give them counsel, comfort, and peace of mind. To provide solutions that give them honor and dignity.