We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of its prisoners. One way to address the prison population is to do a better job in helping people transition from prison back to the community to reduce the recidivism rate. Such reentry programs should focus on education, employment, vital records and housing. A modest investment up front could save taxpayers in prison costs, improve the lives of returning citizens and reduce crime.
As a part of our series of interviews with NBC News and MSNBC’s legal contributors who are who are critical to to NBC News’ coverage heading into midterms, I had the pleasure to interview former US attorney and NBC News and MSNBC contributor Barbara McQuade.
McQuade’s interests include criminal law, criminal procedure, national security, data privacy, and civil rights. From 2010 to 2017, Professor McQuade served as the U.S attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she was the first woman to serve in her position. Professor McQuade also served as vice chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-chaired its Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee. As U.S. attorney, she oversaw cases involving public corruption, terrorism, corporate fraud, theft of trade secrets, civil rights, and health care fraud, among others. Before becoming U.S. attorney, McQuade served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit for 12 years, serving as deputy chief of the National Security Unit, where she handled cases involving terrorism financing, export violations, threats, and foreign agents. Professor McQuade began her career as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman in Detroit, and then practiced law at the firm of Butzel Long in Detroit. Professor McQuade has been recognized by The Detroit News with the Michiganian of the Year Award, Crain’s Detroit Business as a Newsmaker of the Year and one of Detroit’s Most Influential Women, and the Detroit Branch NAACP and Arab American Civil Rights League with their Tribute to Justice Award.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
I once prosecuted a man for falsely impersonating a federal agent and carrying a gun onto a commercial airline flight. In fact, the man was working as a body guard for a rap artist, but he presented false identification claiming to be a deputy U.S. marshal escorting a witness in the witness protection program so that he could carry his gun onboard the flight. He had the bad luck to sit next near six Secret Service agents who were also on the flight. The agent next to him noticed the gun, visible in a holster, and realized that the man was not complying with protocols for officers who fly armed. The agent engaged the defendant in conversation, and learned that he was escorting the rap artist. The agent asked if he could get a photo with the rap artist and the defendant after they landed. His photo later became an exhibit at trial, where the man was convicted of false personation of a federal employee and carrying a firearm onboard an airliner.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am teaching at the University of Michigan Law School. At this moment in history, when our legal institutions are being threatened, I can’t think of anything more important than helping students to develop a deep understanding of our legal system and respect for the rule of law.
I am helping with a ballot initiative in Michigan called Promote the Vote to improve access to the polls. This initiative would amend the state constitution to permit same day registration, no-excuse absentee voting and early voting for military members, among other things. Improving access to voting is essential to having a democracy that works for all of our citizens.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Can you share any stories?
On Christmas Day, 2009, the day after I was confirmed as U.S. Attorney, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also known as the Underwear Bomber, attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit by detonating a bomb concealed in his underwear. We were very lucky that his bomb did not work as intended. The bomb created only a fire and not an explosion, and the only person who was injured was Abdulmutallab himself. The passengers, fight crew and law enforcement responded quickly and effectively. Because of the excellent trial preparation by our team, Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty on the second day of trial, and was sentenced to life in prison. I learned from this case that a terrorist attack can occur anywhere. He chose Detroit as a target only because he could afford the flight here from Amsterdam.
While I was serving as U.S. Attorney, our office also prosecuted former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. That case was a great example of the power of corroborating evidence. Our team used a search warrant to obtain the text messages of Kilpatrick and some of his co-conspirators, and the messages provided powerful evidence of criminal intent. At trial, after witnesses testified about incidents of extortion, the jury would see text messages from Kilpatrick and his associates describing exactly what the witness had just said. In this way, the text messages confirmed the witness testimony.
One of the most satisfying cases I handled was one that did not receive any headlines. It involved the prosecution of a man who stabbed a letter carrier while she was delivering mail. She had been seriously injured, and was understandably traumatized by the attack. She found some measure of relief when her assailant was convicted and sentenced to prison.
With the recent Kavanaugh hearings and the ongoing Mueller investigation, what’s it been like covering this news climate from a legal perspective for NBC News and MSNBC?
My goal is always to help people understand the law, which can sometimes be complicated and confusing. Our country depends upon an informed electorate, and it can sometimes be difficult to sift through information overload. The Mueller investigation and the Kavanaugh hearings are especially challenging because they are not only complicated but also politically charged, and so those with political agendas sometimes deliberately mislead the public. My goal is to strip away the political rhetoric and explain the facts so that people can form their own opinions.
I hear from people at airports and shopping malls that they appreciate my commentary to help them understand the news in these confusing times.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I have always been inspired by the people who have broken racial, gender and ethnic barriers — Jackie Robinson, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harvey Milk and others who were the first of an entire group of people to reach the highest levels of their professions. It is confounding to me that some members of society would exclude the talents of entire classes of people for bigoted reasons. I admire the people who have defied stereotypes to achieve great things in the face of bigotry. In performing their jobs, they had to withstand extra scrutiny, unwarranted criticism and threats, while carrying the burden of the hopes of others like them. Their grace in achievement provides examples for others who will be firsts.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in law?
A democracy relies on laws to ensure that all people are protected and treated fairly. Lawyers are needed at every level to ensure that everyone follows those rules. A career in the law can provide work that is interesting, challenging and important to society by helping to protect people and solve problems. No matter where technology takes our society, we will always need laws and lawyers.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
1. I would like to see us address the inadequate criminal defense system for the indigent. Our criminal justice system does not work the same way for poor defendants as it does for wealthy defendants. Public defenders in many states are dedicated, but spread too thin to represent their clients effectively. As a society, we want to criminalize a great deal of behavior, but we aren’t willing to pay for adequate defense counsel.
2. I would also look for ways to reduce the prison population in the United States. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of its prisoners. One way to address the prison population is to do a better job in helping people transition from prison back to the community to reduce the recidivism rate. Such reentry programs should focus on education, employment, vital records and housing. A modest investment up front could save taxpayers in prison costs, improve the lives of returning citizens and reduce crime.
3. I would encourage the public to look past the rhetoric of politicians who want to appear to be tough on crime to thoughtfully consider how we are spending our scarce public safety resources. We spend more than $30,000 a year to house prisoners, and even more on prisoners as they age and need medical care. We should consider whether dollars spent on lengthy prison sentences could be better spent on officers on the street to prevent new crimes from occurring.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In teaching law, I hope that I am helping students to develop a deep understanding of the importance of the rule of law in our society, so that they can use the law to make positive impacts on the lives of others throughout their careers.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
My first memory of the news was reading about Watergate as a child. I was stunned that a president would betray the trust of the American people. I admired the reporters and lawyers who worked to hold the president accountable. As a result, I have always wanted to help serve as a watchdog of those who abuse power.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Never eliminate yourself. I see many people, particularly women, who do not apply for a promotion or leadership role because they think they will not be selected. They are afraid to fail. But you can’t obtain the promotion or position unless you try. You may fall short, but let the decision maker decide that you are not qualified. Even if you don’t have all of the attributes of other candidates, you may have some qualifications that others don’t have. A great example of this lesson occurred during the 2002 Winter Olympics, when an Australian short track speed skater named Steven Bradbury raced against the great Apolo Anton Ohno and other elite skaters. Some wondered why Bradbury would even try competing against these superior skaters. But in the last turn, the entire field crashed, and Bradbury, who was so far behind that he was able to avoid the pileup, cruised across the finish line for the gold medal. He won because he did not eliminate himself. We always should try because we never know whether others may fall. Never eliminate yourself.
2. It’s not who you know or what you know, it’s what others know about you. Candidates are often selected for jobs because of the recommendation of others. You can only be recommended for a job if someone knows what you can do. It is important to build relationships at work and within your profession through committee work, projects and networking, so that others can see your attributes and recommend you for other opportunities.
3. Don’t wait to be asked. So often, I hear people, usually women, say that they were asked to apply for a job or asked to run for public office. They act as if it is somehow impolite or immodest to volunteer to lead. They would not wait to be asked to hold a door open or pick up a crying baby. If they see a job that needs doing, they do it without worrying about what people will think about them. Leading or seeking a promotion should be the same way.
4. Find mentors who are different from you. We naturally gravitate to people we perceive to be like us. But we can learn more from people who are different from us. We should seek advice from people who are of a different race, gender, generation or background. They can offer us a different perspective about our work and ourselves that can be invaluable.
5. Admit your mistakes. When you admit a mistake, you gain credibility. Covering up a mistake is worse than the mistake itself. I once prosecuted a young man for arson. He was too ashamed to admit that he had stolen petty cash from his employer, and did not have receipts to support his expenditures. Instead of admitting his theft, he burned down the office building, and in the process, badly burned himself. He was convicted of arson, and sentenced to five years in prison, a far more severe penalty than he would have received for his petty theft.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to sit down with President Donald Trump. I would remind him that as president, he has a duty to unite our country. Instead of using divisive rhetoric to rally his base, he should seek common ground with all of our citizens. I would remind him that he won the election, and now it is time to govern and serve all Americans.
Originally published at medium.com