Access to justice for crime victims, the accused, and the community: teaching law students about the role of the prosecutor in advancing social justice (PM)

by Paul Maharg on 21/06/2015

First session of the third and last day, and it’s Lynn Su from New York Law School.  She’s a former assistant district attorney from the Office of the District Attorney (DA), Bronx County, NY City. She is describing a clinic run at NYLS that focuses on prosecution (apparently the model for the office of Law & Order…), where NYLS students are trained and work in the Quality of Life court part under the supervision of ADAS.  Student-ADAs investigate and prosecute quality of life misdemeanours and violations (eg shoplifting, unlicensed general vending, fare-beating, trespass).

Students sit side-by side with new DA, doing intense procedural and ethics courses, going ride-along with the DAs to understand the local communities, the jails, etc.  Then the students get a case load.  The clinic requires 3 days a week (in addition to student workload…), and it focuses on important aspects of case preparation, courtroom advocacy, substantive criminal law, ethics and professionalism.  There are simulations, drills, interactive exercises and case rounds.  Student-ACAs collaborate, preapre for and evaluate the work that they are doing in the DANY clinic, and reflect on their developing legal skills.

There is a syllabus, but Lynn emphasised the need to be flexible in adapting the outcomes of the course.  Eg ‘stop and frisk’ is currently a big issue in the US, so Lynn and colleagues created a scenario based on this, eg how far can a police officer go on reasonable suspicion, legal actions an officer can take, etc.  Basic trial skills are emphasised, from the point of view of prosecution.  Case rounds are reports that students create, summarising their case.  Sounds quite like medical case rounds, where students and staff share knowledge collaboratively about a case.

There are discussions generally about justice, and the place of a defence attorney, eg how to respond to defence attorneys, including questions about what to do if a prosecutor believes the defence attorney isn’t representing his or her client appropriately.  ‘Doing Justice’ is a key theme in the seminars, including discussion of prosecutors’ obligations such as

  • substantive safeguards
  • procedural safeguards
  • speedy trial requirements
  • disclosure of exculpatory material

(ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.8, ‘Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor’)

Lynn then introduced a scenario, on prosecutorial discretion concerning plea bargaining, which we worked on in small groups (under NY law the scenario was a larceny, with enough detail for the case to go through), which included issues such as –

  • decision to prosecute
  • charges
  • pleas
  • dismissal
  • sentencing recommendations

(See Vera Institute of Justice, ‘Anatomy of Discretion: An Analysis of Prosecutorial Decisionmaking‘, December 2012)

I like the idea of a prosecutorial clinic, and the way that NYLS has implemented it is impressive, with students learning alongside real DAs and experiencing the prosecutorial culture – social, topographical, legal, sociolegal, personal.

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