Scott Colom: Reflections after two years on the job

January 6, 2018 10:35:46 PM



This Christmas marked the mid-point of my term as district attorney. That reality caused me to ponder what I've learned in my two years on the job.  


The first thought that came to me was the weight of the decisions I've had to make. Learning to make decisions is a big part of any profession, but, when you're district attorney the decision making is magnified. The job requires you to make hundreds of decisions that impact hundreds of people, while also supervising the hundreds of similar decisions of five other prosecutors. And you have to accept that each of these thousands of decisions impacts at least two people: the person charged with the crime and the victim of it.  


That level of decision making can tempt one to be controlling, to pretend to know the outcome beforehand. For me, though, I've tried to remind myself how much I don't control, and to have the humility to accept that.  


I have to accept I can't control when and what crimes are committed. My office works with the police as much as we can to make our communities safe, yet, it's impossible for any police agency, or anyone, to prevent all crime. People often make decisions that can't be predicted. Our best hope is a police department that is quick and effective enough to contain and deter crime, while also maintaining the trust of the community.  


Even when police respond perfectly, we can't force people to cooperate. If people don't want to tell the police what they saw, whether it's because of the counter-productive idea that talking to the police is "bad" or because of fear of reprisal, we can't force people to see, talk, or remember. The police try countermeasures like cash rewards, but, for the most part, we rely on simple goodwill to solve crimes. The less goodwill a community has for the police, the less safe it usually is.  


We have to accept the lack of control doesn't stop at the goodwill of the community. Because we operate with a grand jury system, for every felony arrest, 20 citizens decide whether there is enough evidence for a person to stand trial. If there's an indictment, we have to accept that there's no scientific way to know the right punishment for every person. We don't know when drug rehab will work and when it won't. We don't know if a person will see probation as a wake-up call or as a slap of the wrist. We can't predict whether it will take one year in prison to prevent a person from committing another crime or whether it will take a lifetime.  


As cliche as it sounds, we try our best to make sure the punishment fits the crime, considering factors such as the wishes of the victim, the nature of the crime and the person's involvement, criminal history and potential for rehabilitation.  


The uncertainty doesn't stop there. We have to accept that every defendant is given a lawyer, whose job, at it's best, is to make sure the state doesn't violate his client's legal and constitutional rights and to see that the process is fair, honest and just.  


But both the defense lawyers and the prosecutors have to accept that it doesn't really matter what we think of the evidence. For, eventually, the person charged with a crime decides whether he or she wants to take responsibility for it or wants a jury trial. If they choose the latter, everyone in the courtroom -- from the bailiffs to the court reporter -- have to accept that 12 random members of the community have to unanimously decide whether a person is guilty or not.  


When I ran for the position, I wasn't naive. I knew the criminal justice system was full of responsibility and uncertainty. But it's impossible to know how one will respond to that mix until you've been forced to. I've tried to embrace it. My office is a small part of a big ecosystem of families, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, churches, non-profits and other elected officials. All we can do is control that small part the best we can. That's why my New Year's resolution is the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."