I used to think criminal justice was like a puzzle. Lawyers and judges were given a set of rules to apply and, as long as they followed those rules, they could ensure a just outcome. I have since realized, however, that unlike puzzles, criminal justice does not come in a box with a picture of justice on the front. We can only ensure that the rules will lead to an acceptable outcome if we constantly discuss and define what it means for law and punishment to be just.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Victim Witness Assistance Program, where I am interning this summer, is a product of this continually evolving understanding of justice.
The Victim’s Bill of Rights was established in 1982, resulting in 44 states adopting statutes to give victims access to funds, protection, case information, and rights to attend trial. Massachusetts enacted the legislation in 1984, establishing Victim Witness Assistance Programs in every District Attorney’s Office in the state. The VWA Program is a source of legal and emotional support for the victims and witnesses of crimes and their families and ensures that their legal rights are not forgotten during the criminal prosecution process.
As an intern, I work directly with the two full time advocates. In my first week as an intern, I have come to learn how the small VWA office—easy to miss in the corner of the bustling Boston Municipal Courthouse—plays a fundamental role in maintaining the morality and justice of many proceedings. The advocates are primarily charged with contacting and meeting witnesses and victims of crimes to ensure that these individuals remain aware of the status of their case, know their participatory and compensatory rights, and feel comfortable during and after the trial. The job of the advocates is not only important for the well-being of the victims and witnesses, but is also essential to the legal process as a whole. Often these vulnerable individuals provide material testimony and, without the support of the advocates, would be unwilling or unable to come to trial.
In my first week, I was primarily tasked with writing letters to victims of crimes to updates of proceedings so they know when they can or should appear in court. I also spent time editing case files to ensure Assistant District Attorneys had updated information during arraignments and trial. My biggest task was to learn the workings of the office and gain my footing in the courthouse. I learned how to use the internal management software to find past crime records, which courtroom to go to depending on the stage of the proceeding, and have accumulated a lengthy list of the important legal jargon.
I also shadowed the advocates and spent time in the courtroom during different stages of the criminal proceedings. This included observing trials and arraignments and participating in advocate-victim meetings. I hope to utilize this internship to clarify my future career options and interests. The knowledge and exposure to the courtroom this internship is affording will make this goal not only achievable, but nearly inevitable.
It is easy to forget that criminal justice serves a purpose beyond punishment. We want law to reflect a code of fairness and equality and to protect the inherent moral worth of both the criminal and the victim. Ensuring that our penal code maintains a standard of justice is certainly not a simple goal, but it is undoubtedly one towards which we must constantly strive.
This summer, I am excited to contribute to that goal.
Dustin Fire, ’17