Working Inside The System

Working Inside The System

by Anne Tully

I could be fired for telling this story. “Anne Tully” is the pseudonym of a prosecutor in a large city district attorney’s office.

When I graduated from college and decided to attend law school, becoming a prosecutor was a natural career goal for me. I wanted to do something about violence, especially our society’s epidemic of violence against women, which drastically reinforces women’s inequality.

I knew that prosecutors’ offices are notorious for being populated by politically ambitious and socially conservative lawyer-politicians. Still, I entered my job expecting my supervisors to exercise some commitment to the basic public goals of deterring crime, punishing crime, reempowering victims, and removing dangerous criminals from the streets and from homes.

When I put a batterer or sex offender in jail,
knowing that the ADA down the hallway
would probably have settled for probation,
I can go home feeling very, very good
about my day’s work.

I was wrong. The busy prosecutor’s office in which I work is run with one foremost object: the political self-promotion of the district attorney (who is up for reelection every four years) and his high-level assistants. The DA cares more about good publicity than about public safety.

Information is very closely controlled. Media relations are handled through a press director, and prosecutors are forbidden, on penalty of firing, to speak to journalists about anything having to do with the office, so the results reached in the vast majority of cases are never known by the public.

Only the very small percentage of crimes that make headlines are prosecuted with the fullest extent of the office’s resources, while the many violent crimes that never receive media attention are prosecuted with shamefully little effort or concern. The high conviction rate boasted by my office does not reflect the many cases plea-bargained out or simply dismissed because they require too much work for too little payoff.

Worse yet, the high-level prosecutors (overwhelmingly men) who set policy in our office are extremely sexist, beyond anything I was prepared to expect. The feminist movement against violence against women has brought law enforcement a long way from the days when rape and domestic violence victims were routinely mocked and blamed to their faces by police and prosecutors. But today the mocking and victim-blaming continue behind closed doors, and rape and domestic violence cases are quietly dismissed, reduced, or plea-bargained down to insignificant charges. Meanwhile victims’ phone calls are not returned and their questions are not answered.

I am still at a very junior level, but I have already worked on hundreds of cases of physical and sexual violence against women. I have learned a great deal about violent crime and even more about what really goes on in our criminal justice system when men are arrested for violence against women. I still believe that the criminal justice system has a major role to play in reducing misogynist violence: by punishing acts of physical and sexual violence, by mandating counseling for abusers who still have the potential to change, by incarcerating those who are proven too dangerous to be free, and by sending a forceful message to society and especially to men that violence against women is socially unacceptable.

I know that each year, more and more young feminists are deciding to continue their activism through the career they choose, as I did. Many of them, as undergraduates, helped build the growing campus movement against sexual violence. I urge any feminist considering a legal career to spend part of it as a prosecutor, because the decisions made in DAs’ offices have serious and concrete effects on the lives of women. I also want to tell feminists what is going on inside prosecutors’ offices, so that we know what we-as prosecutors or as members of the public-must work to change.

Here are some of the factors my office uses in deciding which rape cases to reduce to misdemeanor sexual misconduct charges: The victim does not have visible bruises and there was no gun or knife used. The victim and the rapist knew each other. The victim did not report the rape immediately. The victim is a prostitute. The rape did not involve “enough force.”

To give an idea of what “not enough force” means, I will tell you of one case that I begged a supervisor to charge as a felony rape. A 12-year-old girl was changing in her room and was undressed. Her 16-year-old brother came into the room. The girl shouted at him to get out, but instead he pulled down his pants, pushed his sister down, and pinned her by the arms. As she cried, “No, stop!” and tried to pull out of his grasp, he had intercourse with her. This 16-year-old had already spent time in a juvenile facility for a violent assault on his younger brother. The rape of his 12-year-old sister was charged as a misdemeanor. When I asked why, the sex-crimes assistant DA assigned to the case told me, “It wasn’t a rape. There was no force used.”

Domestic violence, too, is outrageously underprosecuted. Assaults are automatically taken less seriously if they are committed by a husband against a wife. One man was arrested in my county for kicking his wife’s face until her nose was broken, the bones around her eye shattered. She required multiple surgeries, one side of her face was paralyzed, perhaps permanently, and she was hospitalized for over a week. The assault was prosecuted as a misdemeanor because, I was told, there was “no serious injury.”

Not all crimes in my county are treated so leniently. Highly visible “quality of life” crimes like car theft and graffiti are zealously prosecuted, with generous office resources and meaningful sentences. There are at least two reasons for this: First is outright misogyny — the widespread feeling among law-enforcement professionals that crimes in public against property are “worth more” than crimes in private against women. (In prosecutor jargon, what a case is “worth” means “What charge should we go for, and how much work should we put into it?”) Second, women in my county have not yet forced the DA to see us as a powerful and vocal constituency who insist that crimes of violence against women must be prosecuted vigorously.

Working in this environment is often difficult. I want to succeed within the office, because I want to get to a position where I can make some much-needed changes. At the same time, it is hard to establish good professional relationships with supervisors who are so hostile to the needs and rights of women and to me as a female and feminist lawyer. Nevertheless, I do not regret my career choice for a moment. I urge other feminists to take on the work of continuing to reform the criminal justice system, working both inside and outside law-enforcement organizations (see “Advice From Inside Out,” previous page). .

Inside a profession like mine, young feminists encounter a lot of frustrations, but it is extremely important for us to be a presence there, for many reasons. For one thing, I really can make a difference to the individual cases on which I work. Young prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in the handling of the cases assigned to them: deciding which to plea-bargain and which to try, taking the time to encourage victims and to answer their many questions, and building solid cases against those who abuse women. When I put a batterer or sex offender in jail, knowing that the ADA down the hallway would probably have settled for probation, I can go home feeling very, very good about my day’s work.

In addition, a few feminist prosecutors, even at our very junior level, can work together to start changing the “standard” pleas and sentences for violent misdemeanors. Slowly we can nudge the work of the office in the right direction. In a few years, we will be senior enough to conduct interviews of job applicants, act as supervisors, and establish office policies. It is important for feminists not only to enter the law-enforcement system but to stay around long enough and succeed well enough to have an impact.

The knowledge I have gained in a short time in the DA’s office is invaluable. I’ve learned a great deal about how violence against women happens and who commits it. I’ve come to understand what law enforcement is failing to do and — even more important — what we could be doing that would actually and significantly reduce levels of violence against women. Whenever I do leave this job and move on to another, I will take this experience and information with me to use in the service of the women’s movement.

The prosecution of violence against women is a major battleground every day for the rights and the equality of women. Feminists must not shy away from this battleground. I have the opportunity every day in my job to advance the interests of women. And with the knowledge I’ve gained working inside the system, I expect to be a much more effective advocate for women in the outside world.