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Why I Left My Prosecution Career to Give Future Prosecutors Meaningful Tech

“At the core of every prosecutor’s motivation is an incessant desire to do good that has yet to cease in me.” – Brittany Ford

Billable hours don’t mean anything to me, but people do. My first real lawyer job was at the district attorney’s office, where I thought I would be for my entire career. Well, life is full of unforeseen plot twists. Case in point, after only four years I left prosecution altogether and accepted a job at a tech company.

I loved being a prosecutor. My office, like many others, was a family. The work was extremely rewarding but also challenging. The high from a victim’s gratitude would stay with me for days, but their disappointment sometimes lingered over me for weeks. As I type this, several months after leaving, certain scene photos and videos still play on a loop in my mind. When I was in the thick of it, I often asked myself, “but if I don’t do this work for victims, who will?”

At the core of every prosecutor’s motivation is an incessant desire to do good that has yet to cease in me. Guardify offered an opportunity to join a mission-driven team creating a product for prosecutors that not only makes discovery less burdensome and time consuming, but could also prevent unnecessary delays, accelerate justice, and promote trust in a system that often lets all parties down. When faced with the decision to make a career change, I asked myself, “but if I don’t do this work for my fellow prosecutors, who will?”

The COVID-19 Pandemic was another one of those unforeseen plot twists. The resulting repercussions on how the criminal justice system operates? Not as much. The landscape of criminal prosecution was already evolving, the pandemic was just an accelerant. Most states had transitioned to e-filing systems, duty judges held 48 hour hearings virtually, and some jurisdictions requested that exhibits be admitted electronically. More specifically, criminal investigations, more than ever before, involve large amounts of digital evidence. When you open a case file you probably not only see an officer’s report but their body worn camera footage too. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “47% of general-purpose law enforcement agencies had acquired body-worn cameras by 2016.”*
A number that has likely only gone up in the past six years.

Based on more than one deadlocked jury I’ve encountered, this is just the type of evidence juries expect to see. Can we really blame them? Technological advances are prevalent everywhere we look in our personal lives. We no longer wait weeks for our polaroids to be developed, check out movies from a Blockbuster, get our news from a paper delivered once a day, or access the internet via dial up connection. American prosecutors no longer wear wigs or write on scrolls, yet, until now, the technology we use to acquire evidence, manage caseloads, and prepare for trial hasn’t exactly evolved with us.

When I started at the DA’s Office in 2018, I prepared discovery completely by hand. I often lost days walking documents to the copier and then redacting them with a Sharpie, simultaneously waiting for multiple copies of a statement to burn to DVDs. If a defendant changed counsel or a copy of a document was inadvertently lost, the process seemed even more daunting. I had graduated to occasionally turning over discovery via email when COVID forced my office to cease in-person operations.

Because defendant and victim rights never simply cease, prosecution offices scrambled to find discovery solutions while working from home. I experimented with resources already available to me: email, shared drives, software designed for law enforcement. It was immediately apparent that in addition to being hard to use, the systems also lacked adequate security, discovery features, and storage space. However, I learned from my “experiment” that detectives and defense attorneys were open to sharing and receiving evidence electronically if for no other reason, convenience.

One day while working on discovery for a batch of recently indicted cases I told my office neighbor that if I were rich, I would invent an app for prosecutors with a laundry list of features that made our jobs easier and more efficient. At the time, it felt more like a daydream than an actionable idea. A few months later I found out that Guardify had already invented my app and that the tech went further than I could’ve imagined with tagging, transcription, tracking, redaction, and more.

People don’t become prosecutors for all the glitz and glamor. The reality is that acquiring software that checks all the boxes is not a luxury, it’s a need. And prosecutors needed it yesterday. The system is no longer a figment of my imagination, it is tangible and available.

Now, when I attend a prosecution conference, meet with our product team, or witness our engineers bring a new feature to life, I find myself asking a familiar question, “but if we don’t continue to do this work for future prosecutors, who will?”

*Hyland, S., Body-Worn Cameras in Law Enforcement Agencies, 2016, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2018. Note that this survey excluded federal agencies, sheriff’s offices with only jail or court duties, and special-purpose agencies such as transit police and campus police.

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