14 September, 2016
Jennifer Webb-McRae always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
"I really never wanted to be anything else when I grew up. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and that was because my family kind of put that notion in my head. They used to tease me and say I argued every point, so I should grow up and be a lawyer."
But neither Webb-McRae, nor her family, knew how far she would go -- all in her home state of New Jersey.
"I am the Cumberland County prosecutor, which means that I am the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the county of Cumberland. There are 21 county prosecutors throughout the state. I happen to be the first African American and first female prosecutor of Cumberland County."
Webb-McRae was raised in Vineland, New Jersey. She received her law degree just 40 minutes away from home, from Camden School of Law at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Early on, Webb-McRae was interested in family law. She clerked for a judge involved in that field. He became a lifelong mentor. However, she found she had a passion for criminal law when she worked with the juvenile justice system.
"I was fortunate enough to get a job very quickly at the Office of the Public Defender representing juvenile defendants. So it was interesting because it gave me a passion for criminal justice, but it also kind of suited that social work element of me to want to do justice and help serve the whole person and kind of started me on my way in the criminal justice world."
Webb-McRae says her responsibilities as Chief Prosecutor of Cumberland County are complex.
"There are a lot of hard issues that you face when you have to made decisions that affect people's lives in the criminal justice system. However, with some of the national issues that are going on in our country, with you know with Ferguson, with mass incarceration, with a lack of confidence in law enforcement. It's been a challenge being the first African-American prosecutor."
Sometimes the challenges might feel personal.
"Also being a mother of an African-American boy, to reconcile that I have a role to play in this system and how to do that responsibly. One of the things that we work really hard on, and I hopefully have brought to the forefront, is that I understand that my primary responsibly here is to prosecute people who break the law in Cumberland County as well as protect the citizens of this great county."
There are many ways to serve that purpose, however. Webb-McRae says she works to help people make good choices, especially when they are young. She recognizes the power of peer pressure that children face. She notes the strong "no-snitching" culture among young people that can block needed intervention.
To battle this, Webb-McRae launched an Annual Back to School Initiative. After just six years in existence, the program now involves 40 schools. McRae and her office staff attend over 30 back-to-school events each year. They share information about programs that help keep kids safe.
Earlier this year, Webb-McRae also launched a community engagement series.
"With Ferguson, with police-involved shootings, it's important that we dialogue with the communities in times of rest and when things are calm, so that we can capitalize on those relationships when we have unrest or we have crises that we all have to deal with together."
Prosecutor Webb-McRae hopes her example will inspire girls in Cumberland County.
"I'm passionate about what I do. I'm proud to be career woman. I'm proud to a role model for other young women who are embarking to be decision makers and I'm passionate about doing justice every day."
Jennifer Webb-McRae plans to continue to grow in her career. She hopes to become a judge someday. Her belief in community involvement, public service and justice will continue.
"I believe that everyone is a stakeholder in our community and everyone has a right and a vested interest to make sure that the justice system is fair and just and equitable for everyone. Our system is not perfect, our justice system across the country certainly is not perfect, but I'm passionate about doing my little part to make it better. I believe in action and moving the ball forward."
I'm Marsha James.
Marsha James wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
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Words in This Story
notion n. an idea or opinion
tease v. to laugh at and criticize (someone) in a way that is either friendly and playful or cruel and unkind
clerk v. a person whose job is to keep track or records and documents for a business or office
mentor n. someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a person
passion n. a strong feeling or enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
incarceration n. the state of being put in prison
reconcile v. to find a way of make exist or be true at the same time.
embark – n. to begin a journey
stakeholder n. a person or business that has invested money in something
vested interest n. – a personal stake or involvement in an undertaking of state of affairs, especially one with an expectation of financial gain.
equitable adj. dealing fairly and equally with everyone