From Tacoma’s Hilltop to the Prosecutor’s Office

James Curtis’ mother stood up to gangs during his youth, and he does it now

Staff WriterApril 5, 2014 

Pierce County deputy prosecutor James Curtis has roots that run deep into Tacoma’s Hilltop, which he can see from his office in the County-City Building. Curtis credits much of his success to his single mother’s loving but iron discipline and remembers her depending on him to do things like make a meatloaf dinner after school for him and his siblings.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the house at the corner of South Eighth Street and Cushman Avenue on Tacoma’s Hilltop, Deborah Curtis didn’t allow her five children to hang out with gang members — and she kept gang members out of her yard.

“We’d have gang members standing on the corner, and Mom would go out there and tell them to leave,” James Curtis said. “She told them, and they moved.

“You’d see guys with their pants down low coming down the street, but they wouldn’t step on our grass.”

It would be easy to say that’s why James Curtis today is a 37-year-old deputy prosecutor in the gang unit of the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

But that would miss most of the story.

When James was about to enter fifth grade, the Curtis family — mother Deborah, her brood of three boys and two girls and one of her grown sisters — all moved from the gang violence of Chicago to the milder threat of violence on Tacoma’s Hilltop.

When he graduated from Jason Lee Middle School in 1990, James and his classmates sang “Lean On Me.”

“A lot of us didn’t make it through high school. A lot of us didn’t make it through that summer,” he said.

Several were killed in gang violence. Others were arrested, sent to prison.

James Curtis graduated from Stadium High School at age 17 and went to work.

“I’d worked at Taco Bell and Pizza Hut; I stuffed ad inserts in The News Tribune at night,” he said. “I worked for Brown Bear Car Wash after graduation, then as a janitor at Tacoma General Hospital.

“I’d graduated with a 2.1 grade-point average. No one had any expectations of me, and I didn’t think I had anything to offer. College wasn’t a reality.”

Four years slid by. Watching doctors and nurses every day, Curtis realized he wanted more, so he enrolled at Tacoma Community College.

“My first quarter, I had a 3.0 GPA. I was hungry to learn, and by my third quarter I had a 4.0,” he said. “I got a scholarship that paid for my second year.”

After two years at TCC, he was awarded a Gates Foundation Grant and was accepted at the University of Washington.

“I still keep both those letters in my office. It meant someone not only believed in me but was willing to invest in me,” he said. “Until then, I was a janitor talking about being a lawyer.”

At UW law school, Curtis had to work the graveyard shift as security at a juvenile detention center to pay his $6,000-a-year tuition. When he applied for a K&L Gates scholarship and a summer internship, he interviewed with Jamie Pedersen, now a senator in the Legislature.

“They brought me a root beer and I spilled it on his light-colored carpet. I thought that was it, there was no way I’m getting this thing,” Curtis said. “The next day they called me and offered me the job, which paid $1,900 a month for the summer, then paid for my tuition.”

And that wasn’t even the best thing that happened to him in law school. It was there he met Leila, now a deputy King County prosecutor. They married and have two sons.

After law school, Curtis worked for a Seattle nonprofit legal service and realized what he wanted most was to come back to Tacoma.

“Growing up, I had few mentors. If I’d had them at Jason Lee, who knows what I might have done in high school,” Curtis said. “Well, you can complain about that, but at some point you have to step up to the table.”

In 2007, he joined the Prosecutor’s Office, housed in Tacoma’s County-City Building. From there, he could see the Hilltop out his window.

“I speak a lot to kids, and if I’m asked to speak, I go,” said Curtis, who’s on the board of the Northwest Leadership Foundation. “If I have to take my kids because of the timing, I’ll take my kids along. But I go.”

He has prosecuted children of gang members he knew years ago.

“I try to be a fair prosecutor. If I see people I know in this building, I’m probably seeing them at their worst, and they’re seeing me at my best,” he said. “I take my kids to the same barbershop I went to as a kid — Sam and Terry’s in Hilltop. If I see a former defendant there, I’ll say ‘I hope you’re doing well’ and mean it.”

Tacoma taught him life lessons.

“I see kids of guys I knew come through our system, and I realize, just as wealth can be passed down, so can poverty and all that brings with it,” he said. “I want to help break that cycle. If you want more, you can accomplish that. I’m proof.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service