Karissa Taylor KCPAO Women in Leadership

This Women’s History Month, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is highlighting some of the depth and breadth of women leaders in our office as part of our “Women in Leadership” series. These profiles are only a few of the many amazing women in our office.

Karissa Taylor, Vice-Chair of the Homicide and Violent Crimes Unit

How long have you worked at the PAO?

Since 2001.

What is your role in the PAO?

I am the Vice-Chair of the Homicide and Violent Crimes Unit — that’s most of my job. I supervise the deputies in that unit, including trial and filing attorneys. The other part of my job is working with our Crime Strategies Unit, looking for ways to combat firearm violence, working with community partners, public health, law enforcement and our office to have a different take on firearm violence.

I have had a very normal progression in the PAO. I started in District Court and worked my way up through the Juvenile Division, at the time I did a rotation in the Drug Unit, and I’ve mainly been in trial rotations or supervising since then. Since 2008, I’ve been in my current role, doing some sort of gun violence prosecution.

What were you doing before coming to the PAO?

I worked in Washington, D.C. for two years as telecommunications paralegal and lobbyist at a big law firm. I spent a lot of time on the hill, going to hearings on telecommunications bills and I quickly realized that I had no interest in politics or working at a big firm. So that’s what set me on the path of working at the PAO.

I was a college grad in D.C., so I applied for law school back home at the University of Washington. When I was in law school I did a one month trial externship at the end of my second year, and the prosecutor at the time, Norm Maleng, asked if I wanted to come work for him. So I came back, and I’ve loved it ever since.

What are some of your goals in regards to the work you do?

Right now I have a couple of big overarching goals, and a couple goals specific to 2020 and 2021.

The big goal is to act with integrity, even if it costs me something: a case, a filing decision, I don’t get the plea offer I want — whatever that looks like — to act with integrity and honesty.

The second big goal is to keep an open mind in my cases, and to remember that every defendant and every victim are unique individuals with unique stories and backgrounds. And to treat them as human beings with the dignity and integrity that they deserve. For me that means making sure that if defense counsel provides me with information, I consider it and look at it; even if we don’t agree on how to take that information into consideration. For victims, that means making sure they are heard. Everyone in the criminal justice system is a unique individual and is struggling in their own way.

More specific to right now, one of my goals is to keep morale up among my folks. It’s a hard time everywhere, and in the prosecutor’s office we have a lot of cases and trials aren’t moving quickly so people are feeling overworked and overwhelmed. And then just to remember that again, everyone is struggling in their own way, so to try and have grace, forgiveness and patience. Not just with deputies, but with judges, prosecutors, paralegals, etc. it’s just a hard time to be working. Norm Maleng used to talk about this a lot, realizing that people had a lot of other things going on in their life, and we never know what burdens people are carrying.

What sort of obstacles have you faced in your field? What was it like dealing with those?

Something that is really on my mind now is the difficulty of being a working mom. There’s a lot of attention on it now, but it’s an oft-overlooked obstacle to success. I have three kids and for so long I worked on finding work life balance, I thought that was something I could achieve. And what I’ve realized in the past five years is there is no such thing — it is a myth! One of those things is always suffering, and you have to vacillate between which one is suffering. I think sometimes my family bears the brunt of it, and then I’ll take time off and focus on them for a while and then I realize my job is suffering. And so it’s trying to acknowledge that you can’t be all things to all people, and something is not going to be as up to par as you want it to be. And as much as I want to be a super great mom and a great prosecutor, you can only do so much.

What gets lost in all of that, at least with me, is you are constantly torn between the two, so it comes at a great cost to me: trying to figure out how to set aside time to do the things I want to do that don’t serve my family or my job is really hard. That’s a difficulty that a lot of working moms struggle with.

Another difficulty is that our office has changed a lot in the past 19 years. And a lot of those changes are really good. But there is a speed with which the world seems to be changing in the last few years, and being thoughtful about how those changes affect my job: how I look at cases, how I interact with victims and defendants, how we resolve things, and going back to old cases and resolutions to figure out if that’s how we would look at them today. That’s a hard thing, because you are questioning your own judgement and what you did 15, 20 years ago. To be clear eyed about that, and to realize that it’s not an indictment on you but maybe we’ve changed some of our ideas about what it means to prosecute. Those are hard things to do. So I try to be very thoughtful and careful about how I do that work.

What advice would you give to other women who are considering a similar career path?

My advice is primarily targeted to women who are moms or envision themselves becoming moms. I was a married prosecutor with no kids for 10 years, but for the past 10 years I’ve had children so that’s really what my recent experience is at the PAO. My advice is that the work will always be here, especially in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system will always be with us, no matter what it looks like, I don’t anticipate we are ever going to solve crime completely.

With that in mind, making decisions in the best interest of your family is really key, and it’s OK to maybe take a different path to where you want to end up. I worked as a part time prosecutor for years, I worked three days a week. And even so, I’ve ended up in the spot that I want to be in and the spot that I aimed for. It might have taken a little bit longer, but I was able to spend valuable time with my kids when they were young.

The other thing I would say, and I think this is true for all prosecutors, is to find a support network and a group of friends outside of the office. They can give you life experience, and perspective and job stories that don’t revolve around crime. What we do is hard, and it can be kind of dark sometimes, and it can make you cynical, and it’s really helpful to have friends who teach, or are doctors, or stay home and raise their kids, and remember that not everyone has the same experiences we do.

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Catch up with the entire KCPAO Women in Leadership series on our blog at https://kcprosecutor.medium.com/.

A blog from King County’s elected Prosecutor, Dan Satterberg.