Tackling justice one class at a time

By LASHONDA COOKS
The Dallas Examiner

For decades, shows like Law & Order, CSI and Criminal Minds have given Americans a glance inside the United States’ criminal justice system from the comfort of their couches. This spring, 35 Dallas residents seized the chance to journey behind the scenes in real life through the District Attorney’s Citizen Prosecutor Academy.

“It’s not an academy where someone stood up with a PowerPoint and asked, .Are there any questions?’” chuckled James Tate, a Public Policy graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas.

After signing up for a District Attorney’s academy miles away in Collin County, Tate wondered why a similar program didn’t exist in Dallas. He decided to place a cold call to the office to find out.

“[I realized] if I’m interested in what goes on in that office as a taxpayer, then I’m sure that other people are interested as well,” Tate stated.

When he called the office again a couple of weeks later to follow-up on the suggestion, he was asked to come in and meet with District Attorney Craig Watkins.

“He immediately signed off on it,” Tate stated.

Over the course of the 10-week academy, Watkins himself often joined department heads and division leaders at the Thursday evening classes at the Frank Crowley Courts Building.

“They worked like they were an Olympic team,” Real Estate Broker Candace Rubin revealed.

For two hours every Thursday night, Rubin joined academy classmates in soaking up lectures from division heads and guest speakers and venturing across the county on a couple of field trips to the Dallas Medical Examiner’s office, Lew Sterrett Jail, the Forensics Institute and morgue.

She discovered the academy purely as a coincidence. After 40 years of services as a real estate broker, for the first time in her life, Rubin found herself journeying to the county courthouse every single day for two weeks because of a lawsuit.

“I had never been in lawsuit, no action for or against, until this year,” she said.

The sudden immersion in a world full of lawyers and judges made Rubin realize how foreign the criminal justice system was to her.

“It hit me how much I don’t know about it,” Rubin revealed.

She bugged lawyers with countless questions about the process until one forwarded her an email with information about the academy and suggested it might be fun.

Unlike Rubin, her classmate Bob Lydia was no stranger to the justice system. The private investigator and reserve deputy constable for Dallas County had encountered the shifting scales of justice first-hand. He had even taken the FBI Academy. Yet, he too found this program insightful.

“I encourage as many people as possible to get involved,” he stated.

Dallas County Public Information Officer Jamille Bradfield celebrated the diversity of the class.

“We had a mix of young, middle-aged and older African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos and Asians in the class. There were undergraduate and law school students, business owners, community leaders and journalists to name a few. Each participant came into the program with a different level of understanding of what the District Attorney’s Office does and how it operates, which was exactly what we anticipated. From week to week, you could see the academy students chatting a little more, getting to know each other, asking questions and sharing stories,” Bradfield shared.

Thanks to feedback from its first graduating class, the academy has been expanded from 10 weeks to 12. This fall’s class will run Sept. 6 to Nov. 29 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Applicants are subject to a background check. Selected applicants must attend at least 10 of the 12 classes. More information can be obtained by contacting the DA’s office at cpacademy@dallasda.com or 214-653-3612.

“While we are eager to teach citizens about the day-to-day operations at the District Attorney’s Office, it is important to note that this is not a forum to discuss a family member or friend’s pending criminal case. Our goal is to equip citizens with an accurate understanding of what the District Attorney’s Office does and how it operates. Often citizens hear about cases in the media and with very limited information about the facts they rush to judgment, or complain that it is taking too long for a case to go to trial without having a real world understanding of how things work, especially in a jurisdiction as large as Dallas County,” Bradfield explained.

One class at a time, the DACPA is working to change that. “Empowered citizens breed empowered communities,” Tate affirmed.

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