If you were to ask Professor Miji John Vellakkatel what makes for a successful Deputy District Attorney (DDA), he would recite a long list that includes fairness, firmness, adaptability, objectivity, open-mindedness, and the ability to listen effectively. However, respect, compassion, kindness, and strength rise to the top of his list.
As the Deputy-in-Charge District Attorney of the Inglewood Area Office with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Miji oversees other DDAs and serves as a resource to meet the office’s needs. He also assumes the responsibility of training incoming DDAs on victims’ rights and restitution, ensuring that they treat victims of crime with fairness, dignity, and respect. Although it is a complex and layered role, he finds being an advocate for victims extremely rewarding.
Miji earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of California, Irvine; a JD from Whittier Law School; a Master of Laws in alternative dispute resolution, as well as a graduate certificate in business law from USC.
Below, he sheds light on his role, his commitment to volunteerism, and his hopes for the future of the criminal justice field.
Please briefly walk us through your journey and how you chose this career path.
I’ll start by saying that 20 years ago, I had no idea that a career in criminal justice would be a part of my story. My undergraduate degree is in international relations, and I’ve always had a deep interest in people, their cultures, and how we are all connected. When I graduated, I pondered whether I should pursue a law degree or an MBA. Fortunately, my relationship with the Dean of Students helped guide me to my decision to attend law school.
As a law student, some courses had an emphasis on international relations, which really interested me. The curriculum offered comparative studies to learn about laws between different countries and ultimately gave me the foundation to recognize other cultures, communities, and biases.
Like going to law school, I feel I stumbled into this career. I did not plan to be in criminal law, let alone be a prosecutor. However, I believe that my interests and experiences have aligned in the way that they were supposed to and have taken me to where I am today.
You’ve held a position with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for quite some time. What’s been a career highlight that you’re most proud of?
Being a part of the Bureau of Victim Services as the Special Assistant was a great honor for me. I am grateful to the then Director, Michele Daniels, for selecting me and the then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey for giving me the opportunity to fulfill that role. I learned so much about how the office and the county-operated and, more importantly, how selfless, kind, and compassionate the victim advocates, paralegals, and professional staff were towards victims of crime. They honored victims and victims’ next of kin, empowered them, and illuminated the way for them in the darkest time of their lives. Serving them and the spirit of victim advocacy was humbling and enlightening to me.
What are some of the difficulties you face in your role?
I find that determining fair and balanced dispositions on each case that will protect victims of crime and society and encourage offender rehabilitation and deterrence can be a challenge. I would also add that relying on other institutions, agencies, and agents to perform their roles in the criminal justice system to rehabilitate offenders and deter them from re-engaging in criminal activity can be a challenge as well. This includes the judiciary, probation, corrections, and state and locally elected officials. Each of those institutions plays a critical role in the rehabilitation of offenders, and in turn, public safety. Their shortcomings impact the overall system, placing stress on the attorneys involved.
What future changes do you hope to see in the criminal justice field?
I have a lot of questions yet hope for the future of the criminal justice field and those that are affected by the system. I hope to see an increase in support services and resources in the community to protect victims against repeat offenders and make them financially whole for their crime-related expenses, whether it be for a property crime or a crime against a person. I believe that for every dollar committed to the offender population, there should be a dollar committed to the victim population: one for one.
Also, victims’ lives are often turned upside down to the point where they experience life-long physical, psychological, mental, or emotional trauma. There is a lack of respect and fairness towards the victim’s experience as if they welcomed the harm. Their rights are not vigorously protected as required by the state constitution and statute, and I truly wish that these discussions increase so that we can find solutions to constructively address these shortcomings.
Do you have any guiding principles that inform how you approach your work?
I try to align my work by leading with kindness, compassion, and strength. This goes for my team as well. I also stand by doing the right thing and being fair – whether in the courtroom or the office. While there are tough days, I make a deliberate choice on a daily basis to take one case at a time, put my best foot forward, and maintain a positive attitude.
What do you hope students take away from your course, Analysis of Criminal Justice Systems?
I hope they recognize that complex, layered, balanced approach: that criminal justice begins and ends with the community, and that police, prosecution, courts, and corrections are in between those two points. The people must be mindful of the unspoken social contract amongst all of us: the community sets the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. And when someone crosses a boundary or breaches the social contract, the community must hold that person accountable. If not, the contract deteriorates over time and public safety is endangered.
Also, I believe it is valuable to expand their focus on the other institutions, agencies, and agents involved in the criminal justice system: identify their shortcomings that impact the system and its potential success. Additionally, I hope they recognize that they are part of the “community” – they need to be engaged in the process such as participating as jurors on a case, which is community accountability.
What excites you about teaching the future leaders of the criminal justice field?
The promise of balance, servant-leadership, being enthusiastically curious, challenging confirmation bias, filling gaps created by incomplete narratives, and bringing to light misleading narratives excites me the most.
You give back in numerous ways through your volunteer work and service on various organizational and nonprofit boards. Where does your desire to give back come from?
I believe the source has been my father who participated in organizations for our South-Asian community. He was a true servant-leader. He did not care about lofty “positions” or “titles.” He was motivated purely by the privilege of service to others.
It was a slow realization that we were similar as I participated in my fraternity, striving to fulfill its mission statement to build balanced leaders for the world’s communities. That same subconscious desire for me to serve and lead in such extracurricular activities continued while I attended law school. There are moments I can directly point to where someone expressed their belief in me that I can bring value to an organization or position. For that I was grateful because it pushed me to not let that person down or bring doubt as to their belief in me.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I enjoy travel and recreation with my family, playing basketball, learning about history and how it can be applied to today, and reading historical books.
Learn more about the MS in Criminal Justice program.