Jan Scully

Government/Journalism - Class of 1973

Jan Scully forged a history-making career as a five-term district attorney for Sacramento County. Newly retired, she looks back on a career rich with challenges and rewards, and looks ahead to another chapter of service to the community that completes a circle that began at Sac State in 1969.

  I want my legacy to be one of partnership and collaboration that
helped move our community forward.

Jan SculleyJan Scully says her experiences at Sacramento State are what "hooked me on wanting to go to law school." (Sacramento State/Steve McKay)

January 2015 – Most people will say they never want to meet a Sacramento County district attorney.

That's because most people assume that when they do encounter the county's top prosecutor, it's because they are the victim of, a witness to, or the person accused of a crime.

That's not the case with five-term DA Jan Scully.

In her 20 years at the helm, Scully transformed the office into an essential, integral community institution while forging one of the most unusual and influential law careers in California's history.

Following her fifth and final term in 2014, the newly retired Scully left behind an office that today means so much more to Sacramento County than when she took charge two decades ago.

"To a community, all they knew was that the DA goes over to court and tries to hold people accountable and put them in jail," Scully says. "I felt that we could be and should be much more than that."

Under Scully's leadership, the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office established myriad programs and community partnerships focused on social justice and public service, including the District Attorney Multi-Cultural Community Council, the Citizens Academy and the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center.

But before she set out on what would become a historic career as a prosecutor, Scully got her start at Sacramento State in 1969.

Scully, a lifelong Sacramentan and a product of all-girls parochial institution Loretto High School, chose Sac State in part because it would be accommodating to a local student who had to work to put herself through school.

"Going to an all-girls high school, I was pretty sheltered," Scully says. "So Sac State really was - as college should be - a much bigger education than just going to class."

A passion for law ignites

Scully initially wanted to pursue a career in journalism and thought that she would be an investigative reporter for a local paper like The Sacramento Bee. She graduated with her bachelor of arts in government/journalism in 1973.

But a particularly engaging experience in the classroom would prove formative in shaping her future legal career.

For a midterm in a constitutional law class taught by Professor William Dillon - whom Scully cites as the inspiration for her life's work - students were tasked with writing a Supreme Court decision based on a particular fact pattern, forcing them to look at multiple sides of an issue from a legal perspective. That, Scully says, is what "hooked me on wanting to go to law school."

Scully remained connected with her alma mater throughout her career, and while on campus in fall 2014, she channeled the same ethos that so inspired her when she was a student.

As she stood at the front of Professor Gary Lowe's packed criminal justice class on sexual offenses and offenders, a student asked the DA what she thought of the recently passed SB967, also known as the "Yes Means Yes" law.

Scully's response to the young woman: "What do you think about it?"

"That's how education should be," Scully says. "It shouldn't be lecturing at students; it needs to be interactive so you ask the students to think and to respond, because when they're beyond school, they have to make those decisions and . . . evaluate and think about things from their perspective."

A fateful turn and a tragic twist

ScullyJan Scully graduated from law school in 1978 and was elected district attorney in 1994. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

After putting herself through her undergraduate education, Scully immediately turned her attention to law. She stayed local, graduating from Lincoln Law School in 1978 while working full time for the State of California.

Scully started as a deputy district attorney in the Sacramento County DA's Office in 1979. Five years later, she became a supervising attorney overseeing prosecution teams focusing on adult sexual assault, child abuse and felony trials.

In her first 16 years as a lawyer, Scully "grew up in the office," she says, and built a reputation as one of the county's top prosecutors.

Scully estimates that during her time as a line prosecutor, she was personally involved with hundreds of cases, trying more than 80 herself. The charges were far-ranging: DUIs, assaults, armed robberies, gang-related crimes, homicides, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and elder abuse. As a supervising attorney, she was responsible for overseeing thousands of criminal cases.

In 1994, Scully ran for Sacramento County district attorney in a hotly contested election that went to a runoff, in which Scully prevailed. In just a decade and a half, Scully had reached the county's top prosecution office, and she was brimming with ideas on how to reform and reconnect the DA's Office and the community.

But her triumph soon was marred by tragedy.

Just over a week after the runoff election in November, Scully's husband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Her children were 4 and 6 at the time.

"It was ecstasy to agony," Scully says. On the cusp of the biggest achievement of her career, she barely had two weeks to mourn before having to return to work and prepare to take office.

As a testament to her resolve and resiliency, Scully returned to work in early December, less than a month before stepping up as DA for the first time.

The task at hand loomed large before her: Public opinion of the office was low or nonexistent, many units within the office were constantly in flux and in need of an overhaul, and Scully had no mentor and no experience running, much less reforming, an institution of that size.

Career marked by great distinction

Jan Scully never has been a stranger to adversity, and even as a neophyte in elected office, she hit the ground running with a ferocity that would characterize her next five terms.

"As a career prosecutor, I had the opportunity to go in and help make a difference and bring us back to just being an office of professionals, of career prosecutors," Scully says. "It doesn't happen overnight. You have to be consistent, and it's a long-term commitment."

She immediately set to work pulling together a team to start streamlining and reconnecting the District Attorney's Office with the region:

Jan ScullyVisiting campus in Fall 2014, Jan Scully addresses Professor Gary Lowe's criminal justice class on sexual offenses and offenders.(Sacramento State/Steve McKay)

In 1995, Scully established the Citizens Cabinet, which comprises community leaders who serve as advisors on policy and program issues; in 2001, she brought together key individuals from the capital region's different ethnic and cultural communities in the District Attorney Multi-Cultural Community Council to reconnect oft-maligned groups with the criminal justice system; in 2002, she kick-started the Citizens Academy, a 10-week program each year for individuals looking to learn more about the DA's Office and criminal justice; and her Community Prosecution Unit puts prosecutors to work outside the courtroom to address quality-of-life issues and concerns in the region.

Scully also oversaw an office of prosecutors who handled roughly 40,000 criminal cases each year.

Additionally, she chaired the Sacramento County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, the multi-disciplinary Domestic Violence Death and Elder Death Review teams, and served on a number of other criminal justice and community advisory boards.

For Scully, her tireless approach to serving the community and advocating for victims who can all too often fall through the cracks in the system is a natural extension of who she is and what she believes.

"As a DA, you advocate for justice - not winning, but what is just," Scully says, "and really on behalf of the victims and the residents of your community."

Her extensive work did not go unnoticed by her colleagues: In 2005 and 2011, she was elected by her peers as the first woman to serve as president, respectively, of both the California and National District Attorneys associations.

When asked to reflect on these accomplishments, Scully deflects praise and instead notes the hard work and cooperation it took to tackle so many challenges with her team.

"I can have an idea, and I can say I would like to do this . . . but actions speak louder than words," she says. "I need people that will believe in the things that I want to accomplish to get there. Those are the people that are in the building with me; those are people in the community . . . and those are my partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

"It's being collaborative and seeing issues that are much bigger than you or any one agency and can't be solved or really be improved upon by any one agency - you have to be able to bring the right people and organizations together to move forward as a team."

Even in the last months of her fifth and final term, Scully worked tirelessly to push the criminal justice system further forward. In October 2014, she announced partnerships with nonprofit, law enforcement and government agencies as part of a national effort to fight human trafficking.

Throughout her career, Scully was recognized for her service both in and out of the office: She twice was named Woman of the Year by the California Legislature; in 1996, she earned the Distinguished Service Award from Sacramento State's Alumni Association; and most recently, the California District Attorneys Association bestowed on her the 2014 Edwin L. Miller Leadership Award, the highest honor for an elected district attorney in California.

In the nomination for her latest accolade, 25 Superior Court judges signed an endorsement letter that summed up Scully's distinguished career in its conclusion:

"In two decades, Jan Scully has served as a leader with a unique ability to recognize needs, envision programs and foster collaborations to the benefit of a wide range of parties, and to all citizens served by the criminal justice system. She is well-deserving of CDAA's highest award."

Forging ahead and 'giving back': Family Justice Center

ScullyAfter her retirement, Jan Scully will continue to serve victims in the community as chair of the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

With her career as an elected official behind her, Scully is returning to the place her law career really began: Sacramento State.

The connection she maintained with the University through her career helped lead to the creation of the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center. The partnership with Sacramento State and other agencies will provide a central place for victims of domestic abuse and their families to seek support and resources to free themselves from violent situations.

Sacramento State will provide faculty and staff for the center, as well as internship opportunities for students. Scully is chair of the center's board of directors and will devote much of her time to getting the center up and running.

After years of tackling domestic violence issues from a prosecution standpoint, Scully now will be able to advocate from the victims' side, a role she is thrilled to embrace.

"Being involved with the Family Justice Center, I get to do it from the community perspective, which is really exciting for me," Scully says. "I'm hopeful that the Family Justice Center in this region will be the most significant and biggest collaboration of public and private agencies and programs that we have ever seen.

"That's my giving back to the community."

The end of Scully's tenure as the county's top prosecutor marked an end of an era for Sacramento and for her personally: Since 1995 when she first took office, Scully has remarried, her children have grown up and moved out of state, and Sacramento's identity has evolved.

"I think that the people of this community have a great deal of respect and admiration for the office of the district attorney and that we mean something to them far more than just putting bad guys away," she says. "We mean more to the community than they had ever experienced with the office before, and so I want my legacy to be one of partnership and collaboration that helped move our community forward."

Collaboration, commitment to community, and always pushing forward - traits that were reinforced throughout her time at Sacramento State and her ascension as a prosecutor - define Scully's work and begin to explain why her storied career set a new bar for California district attorneys.

As she moved on from the post she held for so long, she left behind a leadership core that she is confident will live up to and even exceed the precedent she has set.

"If you've worked to develop people in your office to take over, then they deserve their time," Scully says as she reflects on her decision to leave office. "And like a proud parent, if you will, you always want your children to do better than you did.

"I want the newly elected DA and her leadership team - some of which will be my team - to take the office to the next level. And I'd be proud if she does with her team better than I did as the DA."

That team no doubt has big shoes to fill.

In the next chapter of her life, Scully says she looks forward to putting a few more home-cooked meals on the table, spending more time with her parents, traveling to visit her children and enjoying simple pleasures like walking and reading.

After 36 years as a prosecutor working on behalf of others, Scully at long last can concern herself with her own affairs.

When asked what she ultimately wants to do now that she has turned off the lights at the DA's Office for the last time, Scully cracks a wry smile and laughs:

"Whatever the heck I want."

- John Blomster

Last Updated: November 2014

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