|Jennifer Kirkland, L’09, celebrates her graduation|
“It was a unique feeling, being behind walls. The fact that I could leave and they couldn’t sat heavy with me the entire time I was in class and afterwards also,” Kirkland recalls. By the time she finished the course she was advocating for prisoners’ rights. “It’s not that I wanted to free everyone, but it was difficult seeing so many people there who looked like me,” says Kirkland. She wondered how their lives had diverged from hers, where they had made a wrong turn. She also began questioning whether their sentences were proportional to their crimes and the fairness of the criminal justice system in general.
The following year, Kirkland worked as a GED tutor at the Community Transition Center, a facility for juveniles on probation. Working with teens was uplifting, says Kirkland, because education paved a path away from prison to a possibly brighter future. Today, Kirkland is outspoken in her desire for greater justice on both sides of the bars. And so, in September she began her career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. “Prosecutors are fundamental players because they have a say in who goes to prison and who doesn’t. Injustice can happen on both sides. It is important to have a well-rounded prosecutor to advocate for victims and the people they are sending away,” she says.
Kirkland fits that profile well. Along with working as an advocate for prisoners in law school, she also worked with crime victims during her summers at the Office of the District Attorney in Philadelphia and Manhattan.
Kirkland considered working for a law firm and teaching, before interviewing with the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia. The interviewer was convinced that she would love the job.
He was right. Kirkland spent her first summer working in the sexual assault and family violence unit, helping the district attorney’s office prosecute rape and other sex crimes. “I saw myself in the inmates at Green Haven, and I saw myself in the victims whose cases I worked on. But I felt a lot more satisfied helping the victims,” says Kirkland, recalling cases where successful prosecution of a victim’s assaulters finally brought peace into victim’s lives. By the end of her second summer she had established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she wanted to work as a prosecutor.
While Kirkland is motivated by the sense of closure and resolution she can offer victims, she is careful not to overstate what the criminal justice system can achieve. “I think when victims say they want justice they don’t understand that the law does not always give them what they want. I think it’s important for me as an ADA to be more sensitive to such issues and communicate to victims what the criminal justice does and what it simply is not built to do,” she says.
For Kirkland, choosing to be a prosecutor was tough because Penn Law created many lucrative opportunities in the corporate sphere, as well as less profitable but more rewarding ones in the public interest arena. Professor William Burke-White influenced her decision, she relates, when he advised students to do what they love and not to worry about anything else. The counsel struck a chord with Kirkland because it echoed a sentiment her mother used to repeat often.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., her mother was an ardent civil rights activist. She marched with Martin Luther King and little could deter her from her convictions, including police brutality. In 2002, when Kirkland was a freshman at Vassar, her mother died from breast cancer.
“Going to law school was as much for her as it was for me,” says Kirkland, but admits that the process was difficult because her “biggest cheerleader” wasn’t there. In her most trying moments, however, Kirkland recalls that the memory of her mother enabled her to continue. In some ways, her decision to be an assistant district attorney is both an homage to the vision of justice her mother fought for, and a continuation of her mother’s struggle.
Law School CV
Prisoner’s Legal Education Project
Associate Editor and Research Editor, Journal of Law and Social Change