By Jessica Nwokocha • March 15, 2012•Careers
“I find that I can try a case, put a bad guy in prison for life, go home and bake cookies and knit socks.” -- Sharla Jackson
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharla Jackson, Senior Assistant District Attorney and Zone 5 Community Prosecutor for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, GA. ADA Jackson is a native of Miami, Florida. She graduated from Spelman College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and then went on to attend the University of Miami Law School, earning her J.D. in 1990. After passing the bar, ADA Jackson’s first job in the public sector was prosecuting municipal code violations for the City of Atlanta Solicitor’s Office. She joined the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in 1998.
As a community prosecutor, ADA Jackson goes out into the neighborhoods of Atlanta to work directly with law enforcement and community groups to address their crime issues. Her territory is Zone 5, which covers the Midtown/Downtown Atlanta area. Part of ADA Jackson’s job involves monitoring crime statistics for repeat offenders targeting particular areas and focusing on those people for prosecution. She also attends community meetings and gets citizens involved in reporting crimes and participating in Court Watch, a program that bring citizens into the court system and allows them to give their input on how they think cases should be resolved and the impact an offender’s crime has had on their neighborhood.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your career path and your route to becoming a prosecutor?
A: I never thought I’d be a prosecutor. I thought I was going to be an international transactional lawyer. I am fluent in Spanish, I thought I could stay home and do that. The only reason I took criminal law the second semester of my third year was because it was on the bar. I took the bar, passed the bar, and couldn’t find a job. First job I found was as an Assistant Solicitor with the City of Atlanta and my first day of work during my first criminal case, I was like, “wow this is really cool!”
Q: What attracted you to doing prosecutorial work?
The way that I grew up, I had a great childhood but I didn’t really get to know a whole lot about life and the world. Being a prosecutor has really given me the opportunity to meet all different kinds of people from all different walks of life and to hear their stories. Prosecuting cases, I have been able to not only relate to people and get justice for the people that I work for, but also to kind of realize that we are all basically the same. I have always been interested in working with the community. I’ve been a public servant my entire life. Even my internships and summer jobs were always government centered or community based. So going into prosecution was a natural fit for me. Where most prosecutors wait for cases and are kind of reactive, community prosecutors are proactive, assigned to a particular community and work on those issues.
Q: What have been some of the most rewarding issues you have worked to combat?
A: One of the things that started happening were those smash-and-grab burglaries in Midtown and Buckhead, targeting the boutiques owned by these small business owners and that really had an impact on me because most of them were owned by women who really just wanted to make a living. I started working with the detectives on those cases, then we started working with the retailers, and the larger retailers and those stores started being affected as well. This coalition was formed, which became the Georgia Loss Prevention Council.
We ended up working with them to get laws passed to increase penalties on smash-and-grab burglaries and also to get better prosecution of our cases. We do crime prevention seminars for stores, we have conferences where we get law enforcement and loss prevention people together every year, we have training for law enforcement officers to try to get them talking and sharing information just trying to get the retail crime rate down. I go to community meetings at night to keep my relationships going with the community members, to find out what is going on in the neighborhoods and to be able to respond to their needs.
Q: In creating these types of relationships, how have you strengthened the relationships that you have with the community through your service?
A: You have to really develop a sense of credibility. When you work with people, when you deliver on your promises, when you do what you are supposed to do, and you’re someone who can get things done, people generally like to work with you. People like to be in relationships that are mutually beneficial.
Q: Do you participate in the community outside of work?
A: I sit on the Board of Directors for the Atlanta Police Athletic League. I felt that if I was going to be prosecuting kids for retail crimes I should be providing resources for them. We cannot prosecute our way out of our criminal problems that we have, particularly where our young people are involved. By participating I can help to get resources for after-school programs for kids.
I am really excited about being involved with The Links, Inc. It is a national organization of black women that was founded in 1946, by a group of educated women who saw that there were needs in the community that were not being met. We put together our talents and resources to serve the needs of black families and black children. I joined that organization about three years ago. What I really like about it is, from the service aspect it has really allowed me to practice my leadership skills and to actually implement and execute service projects and programs. The only thing about working in the field that I am in, is that it is kind of hard to have female mentors, who aren’t doing exactly what you are doing and this organization provides that. We developed a program around childhood obesity and delivering and seeing the impact of our services on kids was great, it was a lot of fun, and it really gives balance.
Q: When you are not giving your time to the community, what type of things do you do for yourself in your free time?
A: I like to travel, I love to entertain, I do crafts, knit, cook, garden. I really strive to have balance in my life, that was one of the things I had to really learn because I am a high energy person and can just go and go. I have two dogs and I like to spend lots of time with family and friends. I find that I can try a case, put a bad guy in prison for life, go home and bake cookies and knit socks.
I find that people kind of put that time for themselves aside. One of the things a friend told me when I first started working is to do one thing every day that you want to do because you are going to have so many things that you have to do. I try to decompress on the weekends. I have to set boundaries, there are times when I have had to learn how to say no and to be ok with it and comfortable with it and move on. I try to eat well, I exercise, I go for massages to try to do things to pamper myself. I know that if I am not in good physical, mental, and emotional shape I am not going to be able to give. You have to give to yourself sometimes to have more left to give back.
Q: What have you found to be your greatest challenges?
A: I’m really good at a lot of things. I do things and don’t think anything about it. It is not that I don’t value the things that I do, but I’ve had to learn not to take for granted what I do. Because if you take for granted the things you do, other people will too. Not that you want to be arrogant, but you have to learn to value the contributions that you make to the world because that makes you aware that you are giving your value in the proper place, at the proper time, and for the right reasons.
Q: What advice do you have for young women entering the legal profession?
A. As a young woman, even now as you are in law school you should start seeking people out that can help mentor you, nurture you, and guide you. It will also help to keep you accountable, to see what your goals and objectives are. What really matters in life are the relationships you have. Part of having balance in your life, is staying true to your family and your friends, spending time with them. Those are the things you feed yourself with, so that when you want to go back to work and get that case ready or work on that community service project you’re able to do it with an open heart and with passion and energy because you recharged your batteries by staying connected to your life.