Going the Distance

I brought a chocolate sheet cake to work the other day.  I’d asked for an “outer space” theme for the decoration, and the cake decorator at my favorite bakery didn’t disappoint.  There was a quarter moon, and a sky full of stars, and even the planet Earth in blue and green frosting, showing the Western Hemisphere side of things.

The reason for the celebration was to mark the ten-year anniversary of my joining the staff of the Sheboygan District Attorney’s office as a state prosecutor.

The “outer space” theme was to mark the fact that in those ten years, I’ve driven more than 130,000 miles back and forth from home to office.  If you look that up, you’ll find it’s more than half the distance from the earth to the moon.

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “going the distance”!  

If you’d asked me ten years ago if I’d still be there, just based on the distance alone you’d have gotten a derisive snort.  I’d jumped at the chance to interview, just a few months out of law school.  It was a part-time position, just what I was looking for with young kids still at home.  And in criminal prosecution, no less, my “dream” job.  I looked briefly at a map just to see where Sheboygan lay in the universe, and thought, “eh, looks like maybe thirty miles.”  I’m notorious on both sides of the Atlantic for miscalculations like that.

So, under the mistaken impression that the Sheboygan County courthouse was no further than my morning drive to law school, I put on my best (and only) navy suit, slapped on some mascara, and set off to make a good impression.  My heart sank as the miles racked up on the odometer, coming to rest at a grand total of fifty miles charted door-to-door as I parked my minivan in front of the courthouse.  Before I even got out of the driver’s seat,  I had committed to never coming back.  It was just much too far to drive on a regular basis.  I would walk in, shake some hands, take the tour, and leave, period.  There simply had to be something closer.

Of course, love, and time, and snap judgments make fools of us all.  After a long free-wheeling, soul-baring, values-sharing interview with the district attorney, his deputy, and the victim witness coordinator for the office, I left with my head spinning.  What on earth was I going to do if they offered me a job?? Despite the distance, I felt like I’d somehow “come home.”

I took the job, of course, trusting my gut that something that felt this good straight out of the gate had to be right.  I haven’t had a second thought about it in all that time . . . although there have been some wretched and dangerous winter mornings where, halfway between home and work, I wished I’d stayed home safely under the covers and let the wheels of justice turn without me for a change.

The first few years were the steepest learning curve, of course.  I felt I had an advantage coming in off an earlier career (journalism) and the system of checks and balances that life hands out when you’ve got multiple children to manage.  Still, each case that I charged or that I prosecuted posed its own unique set of challenges that were never mentioned in law school textbooks.  Confidence grew with experience, as did the concept of “creative problem solving.”  Not every crime deserves the same outcome in court, and the ability to think on your feet requires covering a lot of ground first.

Unfortunately, the ranks of up-and-coming prosecutors with that same level of experience and perspective that only time can bring are getting thinner and thinner.  There is a genuine crisis looming in field of criminal justice because of a lack of pay progression for prosecutors.  It is approaching with the implacable force of a locomotive on the tracks . . . and so far nobody in government seems to be in any hurry to throw the switch.  It has been reported on by the media from one side of the state to the other as elected district attorneys have warned of the “brain drain” inexorably approaching, but there are no official solutions are in sight.  There was an excellent article on the subject in Racine’s Journal Times just last February in fact,  highlighting the decision of an experienced eight-year state prosecutor to leave his job for a better paying one . . . as a police officer.

The raft of career prosecutors who have been trying cases for a couple of decades and managed to make their way up the pay scale when the state still rewarded them for their service, are now starting to think about retiring . . . and many are acting on it, leaving a tremendous void of institutional knowledge and proportion and experience.

There will always be newcomers to fill the ranks, idealists who recognize that being a prosecutor is a noble calling, one that requires us not just to seek victory, but to seek “the right thing” as well.  And so for the first few years they make do, some of them working second jobs, others moving back in with Mom and Dad so that they can pay their student loans.  But not many remain after eight, or ten, or fifteen years under those circumstances.  And without experienced prosecutors to step into the ranks left by those who are retiring, everybody loses.

But still, I hold out hope that until this crisis is solved, those young idealists will keep coming . . . and that somehow, some of them will find a way to afford to stay in a job that is so rewarding, and challenging, and varied, and offers such a chance to “make a difference.”

In short, I hope that they can find their own way to keep “going the distance.”

Mary T. Wagner is an assistant district attorney in Sheboygan County and the author of two award-winning essay collections, “Running with Stilettos” and “Heck on Heels.”

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