By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
BRIDGETON – As a Vineland native, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said she believe she owes the public more than locking up bad guys.
Webb-McRae said she sees a holistic approach to law enforcement that means not only enforcing the law, but letting people know that she and others are invested in the community and cares deeply about them and the environment they live in.
“I think it is important to let people know that we are not only in the business of locking people up who harm others in our community,” McRae told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “While that is our primary function, we also seek to help youth and adults make healthy positive choices.
“With both kids and adults who have not yet touched the criminal justice system, this may be offering programs which help keep them safe or working with other stakeholders to get them the proper drug or mental health treatment before something rises to the level of criminality. With those who have touched the criminal justice system, we know that most people who commit crime will not spend the rest of their life in prison.
“That means that they will be coming back to our community. We have to let them pay their debt to society and re-integrate in a way where they can make a livable wage and raise a family. So that is why you may see the prosecutor’s office creating programs with agencies like Workforce Development (soon to come). That is the key to lowering recidivism,” she continued.
Making History in Cumberland County
Webb-McRae made history in 2010 when she was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine to become the first woman and African-American prosecutor in Cumberland County. She made further history when Republican Gov. Chris Christie re-appointed her to the post five years later. Webb-McRae said that history is lost on her.
“It is a great honor to be able to serve my community as Cumberland County prosecutor,” she said. “Being the first woman and first African-American means that I see things through a different lens than my predecessors. It was certainly an honor and a privilege to be re-nominated in 2016. It allows me to continue to figure out how to do justice on a daily basis.”
Webb-McRae, who graduated from Glassboro State University and earned her law degree from Rutgers Camden Law School, called her grandmother, the late Ardella Toney, who had none of those degrees, her greatest inspiration.
Toney became director of the local Head Start program and then won a seat on the Vineland School Board. The head start school at 116 W. Elmer in Vineland now bears her name.
“She was raised in an era where the boys in her family got to go to school We(and become educators, doctors, etc.),” Webb-McRae said. “She with little education became the director of Head Start in our area and served on the Vineland School Board for many years.
“She was a God fearing woman and a leader to many because of her wisdom and passion for people. If I can measure up to half of what she stood for and who she became in her profession and personal life, I will be proud of myself. I measure my success in every endeavor by asking myself, if my actions would make her proud,” she added.
Webb-McRae In Rare Company
If one may think Webb-McRae is a rarity as a black female prosecutor, they would be right. Atlantic County prosecutor Damon Tyner serves as one of few African-American male prosecutors.
New Jersey is one of three states – the others being Alaska and Connecticut – that appoint county prosecutors rather than having them elected. A 2015 study done by the nonpartisan Center for Technology and Civic Life found that 95 percent of elected prosecutors around the country are white and 79 percent are white men. Fourteen states don’t have a prosecutor of color at all while one percent of prosecutors serving are minority women.
“I realize that I have been given this opportunity to be the first because of a lot of hard work and struggle by folk who paved a way for me,” Webb-McRae said. “I feel that it is my responsibility to pave the way for others both in law enforcement and other disciplines. I do this by speaking to young, people and telling them that I am a living testament that in the 21st century that there are still glass ceilings to be broken and they can do it.
“I also try to be a resource for young people who are finding their way. It is sometimes a lonely road being in a position where you stay in the spotlight. You quickly realize that you will never be able to please everyone. I can’t believe that God would place me here and not expect that I would pave the way for someone else. I find that to be a duty for the blessing of being given the opportunity,” she continued.
Family Makes a Difference
Webb-McRae’s husband retired in 2016 as a major in the New Jersey Department of Corrections and has a 22-year-old son from an earlier marriage. She said family has always been important to her. At one point when she was a young, single mother, she said it was family that came through for her time and time again.
“With respect to balancing career and family, I could not have accomplished what I have been able to accomplish without the support of my family,” Webb-McRae said. “With my husband being in law enforcement and working shift work, my family (mostly parents) stepped up in a big way to cover for me when I had to work nights and weekends. It never felt like I was leaving my son with a babysitter which was a relief for me.”
Family is only one reason why Cumberland County remains a special place for her and feels comfortable with her decision about staying where she grew up.
“I moved away from home (to North Jersey) for a short time early in my career,” Webb-McRae said. “I used to long for the slower pace and large open spaces of my home. My grandmother used to say ‘Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.’ That happened for me when I divorced, was a single mom with a small baby and needed to come home to have the help of my family.
“I love Cumberland County because, for the most part, the people are genuine, hardworking and committed to the community. Because we are smaller with less population, it feels like you can make a difference that makes an impact on a larger scale because everyone who is making decisions knows each other and generally wants to row in the same direction,” she said.
Rooted into Cumberland County
Webb-McRae is admitted to the bars of the State of New Jersey, United States District Court and the State of Pennsylvania. She served as an assistant deputy public defender for the State of New Jersey for six years.
While serving in private practice from 2002-09, she focused on criminal and municipal court defense, business and real estate, and wills and estates. She also served as a child support attorney for the Cumberland County Welfare Board, solicitor for the Fairfield Township Land Use Board and public defender for Maurice River Township.
Greatest Joys, Preparing for Job, the Future
Webb-McRae talked about several additional subject in here interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.
FRNJ: What has been your greatest joy working at Cumberland County Prosecutor? Greatest challenge?
Jennifer Webb-McRae: My greatest joy has been the Community Justice work that I’ve done during my tenure. … It has also been a privilege to represent the interests of crime victims within our system. Victims are the only stakeholders in our system who don’t ask to be included. We have to make sure that the system does not re-victimize them unnecessarily. While I can’t always promise an outcome, I can always promise them that I will do my absolute best to treat them with dignity and respect through the process. We spend a lot of time making sure that everyone who works at the CCPO understands that we need to that for our victims.
One of the greatest challenges that I have faced is gaining and maintaining the community’s trust in Law Enforcement. We do a lot of community activities and dialog to let the community know that police officers are there to help keep the community safe. Every time there is a high profile incident that sheds a negative light on policing (either locally or nationally) we work hard to say, yes there are bad apples, but the overwhelming majority of police officers who take the oath to protect and serve want to help people.
Another challenge is getting people to understand that evil can flourish when good men remain silent. We live in a culture where no snitching is ingrained in our media (television, music and movies). It has been increasingly difficult to get people to come forward about the most heinous crimes we deal with in our system. I understand some of the reasons why this happens – fear, distrust, lack of investment in the community. Because every citizen of this great country has the absolute right to confront their accuser, we need the community to be witnesses in our prosecutions to hold people to account for their actions. Working to get the community to see this has been a challenge.
FRNJ: Growing up in Vineland and working as a public defender and defense attorney, how much did that prepare you for the job?
Jennifer Webb-McRae: Being a defense attorney before being Prosecutor has permitted to see issues from both perspectives. I think having a defense background made me understand from the door that justice is about serving everyone. A prosecutor takes a solemn oath to represent the people. That sometimes means telling police officers no, dismissing cases that do not comport with the rules, making sure that the State follows the Constitution and instilling confidence in the system by being as transparent as we can be.
FRNJ: You also have won numerous awards for your work. Any one of those you are most proud of? Why?
Jennifer Webb-McRae: Yes, I have been awarded quite a few awards. When I have had the opportunity to accept those awards, I give the lion’s share of the credit to God and my family (who instilled values in me and supported my pursuit of my profession). I have not received an award for what I am most proud of which is being a good mother and raising a child who I think is an honorable, decent human being.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Jennifer Webb-McRae: I always had professional aspirations to be a Superior Court Judge. I never set out to be Prosecutor. Notwithstanding, I am really happy that I got the opportunity to do so, because I think you have a more impactful opportunity to affect how the criminal justice system impacts the community as prosecutor. I am really enjoying this position and wouldn’t mind continuing in it if given the opportunity.
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