In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was in what should have been a fatal car crash caused by a driver operating under the influence of alcohol (OUI). Between 2016 and 2019, I made seven court appearances to testify in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ prosecution of the driver. During this time, I worked with Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs), Victim-Witness Advocates (VWAs), and support staff in the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office (MDAO). A jury ultimately found the defendant guilty. The entire experience was a major source of physical and emotional trauma. Though being asked to relive the event and its aftermath in front of a room full of strangers was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, I also saw how the criminal justice system can aid in victims’ healing. It was through this experience that I learned firsthand the impact those working in it can have on individuals’ lives.
Less than a year later, I applied for and was offered a summer internship with the very same agency. I first learned of the program my sophomore year in a conversation with one of their ADAs. This fall I spoke with a representative/Brandeis alumni at Hiatt’s Government & Public Service Fair.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office prosecutes over 34,000 cases a year in the 54 cities and towns that make up the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ largest county. Its staff investigates and prosecutes each case to the fullest extent, and tirelessly advocates for the victims impacted by crime. However, the office is equally focused on crime prevention and intervention, partnering with social service agencies, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials to promote community safety. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that my role in meeting these goals will be entirely done remotely, I am confident that I will continue to get valuable insight and experience.
I began doing work a month earlier than the official program began. This proved a fantastic opportunity to (virtually) meet a variety of different people within the office. I have been working with the IT department doing data entry and receiving training in disposition paperwork. I have been helping one of the district courts, submitting evidence discovery requests to police departments and distributing the files to the defense. I did research for how to best implement High-Risk Domestic Violence trainings virtually for police departments. I am still in the process of reviewing thousands of minutes of audio evidence for a trial court case and compiling logs and notes on the files. I was able to gain all of this experience remotely in less than a month.
Criminal justice reform is extremely important to me. The degree to which our nation’s legal system disproportionately involves and incarcerates people of color is a social injustice I am committed to helping correct. This social injustice begins to affect members of vulnerable populations during childhood. This summer I will primarily be working with the Juvenile and Young Adult Diversion Program and Community Partnerships division. One of my primary responsibilities will be following up by phone with the young people participating in the diversion program on how they are doing complying with the terms of their plan during the COVID-19 pandemic. Diversion programs are completely voluntary alternatives to prosecution for young offenders. Successful completion will leave the participant with no criminal record.
Data has shown that while some young people do commit crimes that warrant a secure setting, most of the cases involving juveniles are for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Early involvement in the justice system can be devastating to an individual’s life outcomes, labelling them a “delinquent” before they even set foot in the real world. Conviction can jeopardize someone’s ability to go to college by making them ineligible for financial aid and can make it difficult for them to get a job when the time comes. It also does nothing to improve the young person’s situation; they likely ended up involved due to circumstances beyond their control, including under-treatment for mental health conditions.
In addition, I have been working with Middlesex County’s nine Domestic Violence High-Risk Assessment and Rapid Response Teams (HRTs), virtually “sitting in” on meetings. An HRT uses risk-assessment tools to identify cases where evidence points to an increased likelihood of victim lethality. After identifying these situations, a team composed of District and Superior Court ADAs, VWAs, community partners, and law enforcement officials collaborate to monitor the situations, share case information, and implement specific intervention plans designed to decrease danger to the victim. It is important to note that while the office recognizes that “survivor” has increasingly been used in place of victim to recognize the courage and strength of those impacted, using this term in relation to criminal law would minimize the potential future risk the abuser poses that the system is working to mitigate.
I am also currently finishing up a memo on cultural competency. Cultural competency is the ability to connect effectively in cross-cultural situations where one encounters another person who has different life experiences, identities, beliefs, and values. The point is not to ignore the differences between ourselves and others, but rather to recognize and appreciate that these differences exist and consider how they might affect interactions with that person.
The process of correcting injustice within our criminal justice system will not happen overnight. However, intervening and engaging youth with programming designed to prevent future offenses and help them start adult life with a clean record is a significant step in the right direction. Domestic violence also disproportionately affects our most marginalized populations, and the criminal justice system has a history of failing many of these victims. The system is meant to protect all members of its community. I am encouraged by the office’s commitment to realizing this goal. One thing that has stuck with me throughout this process is the degree to which one never hears successful prosecution referred to as “winning.” The office’s job is not to “win” cases; those that work in it do not take potentially depriving someone of their liberty lightly. Everyone I have encountered views the office’s only goal as achieving the most just possible outcome in each case, which often is not a guilty finding.
Here is a link to some of the MDAO’s Domestic Violence programming.