BRIDGETON — When the opportunity presented itself to be the Cumberland County prosecutor, Jennifer Webb-McRae, 50, saw it as a challenge.
“The most challenging part, but the part that I find the most passion in, is the fact that I get to do justice,” she said. “Justice is a noun, but in my opinion, doing justice is like a verb. We have to make sure, as a prosecutor, that what we’re doing is fair for everyone. We have to make sure that people have confidence in our system, that it’s working well and that it’s serving everybody.”
Webb-McRae became the county’s prosecutor in 2010. She’s the first female and African American to hold the position.
Born and raised in Vineland, Webb-McRae graduated from Glassboro State University (now Rowan University), Rutgers-Camden School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers College in Georgia. Prior to becoming the county’s prosecutor, she was an assistant deputy public defender for the state of New Jersey.
She never set out to become a prosecutor. When she was younger, she wanted to be a lawyer and still has dreams to be a Superior Court judge.
“I still have that aspiration, but that’s not up to me,” she said.
In her position, she oversees 115 employees, including about 40 detectives and 30 attorneys. She rarely appears in front of a judge, and her job duties differ every day.
“I feel like I practice firehouse law,” she joked. “I’m putting out little fires all day. I used to be in court every single day arguing individual cases in front of judges. Now, a lot of what I do is oversight.
“A lot of my job is running a big law firm, from budgeting and making sure we have the resources that we need to effectuate our trials,” she said. “It’s still practicing law, but it’s more dealing with the fires and dealing with the budget and daily operations of the office.”
And as a woman, she believes she has a different management style.
“I think what women are really good at is collaborating,” she said. “I think women are good at looking at issues and solving problems as a team, but I have a lot of males on my team, and they’re good at that as well.”
Carl W. Cavagnaro, trial chief for the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, likes the openness that Webb-McRae has with her employees when it comes to input on certain decisions.
“I like the fact that I’m part of a team atmosphere, and I think she does an awful lot to foster that,” he said. “I think she carries herself extremely well. She shows people what can be done. I also think she’s an excellent speaker. It’s not off the cuff, it’s been thought out.”
Lori James, director of staff for the Prosecutor’s Office, said Webb-McRae is very hands-on and believes in transparency in the office.
“She is a far-reaching prosecutor,” James said. “She just doesn’t deal with law enforcement. She also deals with the community, the churches, the schools. She’s very hands-on, she’s very visible. She wants people to better themselves. Each administration is different, but she’s the most proactive prosecutor that I’ve worked with.”
Under Webb-McRae’s direction, multiple programs have been initiated, or grown, such as CC Thrive — a program to reduce gangs, guns and youth violence.
Two other programs that have prospered under her tutelage are the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition, a juvenile delinquency prevention program, and Cumberland CARES., a program that offers peer-to-peer recovery mentoring.
“Why is the Prosecutor’s Office involved in that? Because when we do that work, and we do it well, we all win, and public safety is uncompromised,” Webb-McRae said. “That’s my passion. If I ask myself, ‘Do I want to have a legacy?’ That’s what I want to be remembered for. Being a person who was willing to work outside of silos to solve problems and create sustainable solutions for our community.”
And as more and more women enter legal jobs, Webb-McRae feels it’s her duty to encourage other women to enter the field.
In 2019, women made up 38% of all legal professions in the United States, according to the American Bar Association. In 2009, women made up 31%. In 2001, they made up about 29%.
When the prosecutor meets other women who have an interest in law enforcement, she takes the time to mentor them.
She gives them her card, takes time to answer any questions they have and invites them to shadow her for a day.
“I make myself accessible,” she said. “I feel like that’s the rent that I have to pay for all of the people who paved the way for me. We as women continue to be more prevalent in the workforce and continue to be able to assume leadership roles, and it’s only going to get better.”