A 30-Year Reflection: by John Norsetter

John Norsetter is Assistant District Attorney of Dane County, Wisconsin

Having been a prosecutor for some time, it is hard to remember whether my strong interest in criminal law preceded my involvement in the Legal Assistance to Inmates Program, or whether it was my involvement in that program that focused and strengthened the interest. I do know, however, that 30 years after my first interview with a prison inmate, and 22 years after my first case as an Assistant District Attorney, my fascination with the criminal justice system continues.

Having started as a student in the Legal Assistance Program in 1970 and later, moving on to work as a supervising attorney, my memories of the program are vivid and positive. As a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, and one who followed stories of crime in the newspapers, I remember my curiosity and, in retrospect, my naivete when, during my "first day on the job" as a student, I sat face to face at Waupun with a man who was then one of the most notorious killers in recent Wisconsin history. From that day when the gates and doors of Waupun slammed behind me, I recall many things about my experiences.

I can remember when Walter Dickey and I were the only students in the program. We made frequent trips to Waupun for diagnostic interviews of inmates, the program not having the resources to provide services at the other institutions. The sameness of every day, from the inmates' standpoint, was striking. Everything spoke of lost identities - the khaki uniforms, the short haircuts, and the group meals served on metal trays. I remember sitting in the basement of the A&E Building one summer afternoon when, through the door, walked a high school classmate of mine. We were obviously uncomfortable with the meeting, which was occasioned by his conviction for forgery. It was not too much later that I found myself, during the holiday season, attending the WSP Lifers Group Christmas Party. That was a bittersweet gathering of inmates serving life sentences; most had little hope of being released soon, sharing a brief time with family members.

Equally memorable were the many students whom I had the opportunity to meet and supervise. They were, almost to a one, able, energetic, arid responsible. Some were drawn to the program by a desire for a clinical experience, but most found their way there because of a deep interest in the criminal justice system. Today, as a prosecutor in Dane County, I regularly have contact with lawyers, both prosecutors and defense attorneys, who were participants in the Legal Assistance Program. The lessons they learned there continue to be reflected in their work.

In terms of the impact that the program has had on my career, and I think that this is true for many students that participated in the program, the benefits were substantial. Not only were we exposed to the concept of incarceration as a sentencing option, but we were exposed to the reality of it as well. Assisting residents of Waupun and other institutions gave new meaning to the sentences that were imposed throughout the state. The interview process we used to assess the legal needs of inmates was valuable in developing a skill that has served me on an almost daily basis in interviewing witnesses, victims, and others. Developing those skills, making judgments about which were legitimate claims, and writing letters and legal documents were experiences from which I continue to benefit.

Perhaps even more valuable than those highly practical experiences, however, was the opportunity to meet and, to some extent, get to know the residents of state correctional institutions. I developed a realistic perspective on what to expect inmates would gain from the correctional experience. In addition, the program provided a means to understand many of the people who were incarcerated. These were not, generally, reincarnations of Hannibal Lechter, but rather an assortment of individuals, many of whom had the same aspirations about life that we did. For some reason, most of them did not possess at least one of the key ingredients for becoming a successful adult. They generally lacked the ability to put others before themselves, they were unable, in many cases, to wait for something they wanted, and an overwhelming number were unable to resist the escape provided by alcohol or drugs. Some individuals you hoped never to see again, but most were people that, with better life skills, would be working in your community.

It was a privilege to learn and teach in the program under the watchful eye of Frank Remington. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word, and instilled in us the notion of doing things well and doing them responsibly. He communicated that the inmates were our clients, that they were relying on our assistance, to the extent that we could provide some, and that we had the duty to perform our responsibilities professionally. He taught us the importance of precision in thinking, and writing, and doing the best job we could for these individuals, who were indeed our first clients.

Whether Frank was sitting in his office, motioning us in for a conference, while ending a phone conversation with Wayne Duke or Warren Burger, or editing, with fountain pen in hand, in five minutes a motion that we took two days to draft, his influence was invariably positive. Frank was not naive, and knew that many of the people with whom we dealt had done horrible things. But what he made us realize was that the Legal Assistance Program stood, and I believe continues to stand, for the proposition that every individual counts and, above all, the system should be fair.

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