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Assistant U.S. Attorney Helps Lawrentians Examine the Complexities of U.S. Penal System

On October 20, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Teresa Soltis spoke in the Bunn Library to students taking the School’s most in-demand history elective, “Race and Mass Incarceration.” The course examines the complex reasons why the United States is the world’s leading jailer – and why a disproportionate number of those locked up are people of color. Using a variety of resources and monitoring current events, students examine the complexities surrounding the issue, including the role of prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Helps Lawrentians Examine the Complexities of U.S. Penal System

Students came into this lecture understanding that prosecutors bear some responsibility for mass incarceration because, in their roles, they have pursued more serious charges and longer sentences, even as crime rates in the U.S. declined, explained Dana Kooistra (associate dean of academics and director of teaching, learning, and external partnerships), who teaches the course along with History Department Chair Marisa Hedges. “The sheer volume of cases in the system, further, have led to a steep decline in jury trials. On television, fictive defendants face a jury of their peers. In reality, more than 90 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains, which can lead innocent people - who in some states might be sitting in jail - to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit,” Kooistra continued.

Soltis, who works in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Eastern District of Pennsylvania, addressed these concerns, differentiating between the federal and state systems. Federal prosecutors have, she said, “the luxury of time” compared to their state counterparts, who are “overwhelmed and overworked.” “We can pick and choose what cases to bring – and I do not bring cases to trial that I don’t believe I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard,” Soltis said. She still moves as quickly as possible, especially when an individual is being held in jail awaiting trial.

“We don’t want innocent people imprisoned - and you are presumed innocent throughout the entire trial until we, the government, have proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

While she represents the citizens of the United States, she is “an open book” when it comes to sharing evidence with defendants. “We turn over everything [to the defense]. There are no trials by surprise. I want to make sure the person charged makes an informed decision about what they are facing and what the trial will look like. We’re talking about a person’s life here,” Soltis said.

The role of a prosecutor, she explained, is not to rack up convictions, but to serve justice. She returned to the importance of juries as a check on power, saying, “When 12 people decide they don’t agree on a verdict, that’s when you know the system is working properly. We prosecute the guilty, but we also protect the rights of the innocent.”

Soltis described the “sobering” and “profound” impact of the first federal sentencing hearing that she witnessed while an intern in the U.S. Attorney’s office – something that she continues to feel to this day. “The attorneys are not high fiving, no matter what the sentence. Someone has lost their liberty. No matter what they did, this person is someone’s mom, or dad, or son, or daughter – entire families are affected by the sentence,” she said.

She summed up her responsibility as a prosecutor with a quote from George Sutherland (U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice 1922-38):

“The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape, or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor – indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.” [Berger v United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935)]

In the 10-week “Race and Mass Incarceration” class, Lawrentians deliberate on the complex and nuanced reasons the justice system works as it does. They use a variety of resources to contemplate how the system might be reformed to ensure public safety while being less punitive and more productive. Current events, Kooistra said, “constantly shape our curriculum.”

Students view issues through a variety of lenses (including history, law enforcement, politics, race, and more). Each layer of complexity invites students to consider a new perspective and see that “there’s no one cause—or one solution—to the problem,” said Kooistra. The varied viewpoints, Hedges added, “allows all kids, no matter whether they are the child of a police officer or somebody who's experienced fear or concern when dealing with the police to all be able to have this conversation together in a really productive way.”

Throughout the term, the teachers check in on the students’ evolving understanding of the issue. “We ask ‘How did each new article or new experience challenge or enrich what you were thinking before?’ Students often leave class with more questions and confusion than when they came in, and that’s good! That’s a sign of learning,” Kooistra said.

Students culminate the term by researching and then advocating for changes in our criminal justice system. The final "exam" is a letter to a public official in a position to make a difference.

“We’re really trying to get students to think about their own civic responsibility and how they can try to move the needle to make change,” said Kooistra. Even if they are too young to vote, she said, “they have a voice.”  

Bunn Library at Night

Top photo, left to right: History teacher Marisa Hedges, School President Annie Katz '22, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Teresa Soltis

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.