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The Power of Prosecutors

The Power of Prosecutors

We loathe mass incarceration. We loathe police brutality. But most of us have absolutely no idea how to address the critical flaws in our justice system.

What this brilliant short film called “Prosecutorial Accountability” breaks down is the fact that no single individual has more power and more influence in the criminal justice system than the district attorney.

Prosecutorial Accountability

This 4 minute and 20 second animated video, produced by RogueMark Studios of Berkeley and the Alameda County Public Defender's Office, features a narrator discussing the role of prosecutors in the criminal legal system. The video was entirely funded by a grant from the Vital Projects Fund.

Every year in this country, millions upon millions of cases go through their offices. They make sweeping decisions on who to prosecute and who to protect.

“Prosecutors have more power than most us realize,” says the film’s narrator, Bryonn Bain. “Prosecutors alone decide whether or not to charge a crime. They get to decide who is prosecuted — and who gets a pass.”

Sadly, they don’t look or think or feel like the majority of Americans. They are 95 percent white, 81 percent male, and overwhelmingly conservative. We must do better.

FOSTA Backers to Sex Workers: Your Work Can Never Be Safe

Tweets by Marian Hatcher, Senior Project Manager and Human Trafficking Coordinator at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office

FOSTA Backers to Sex Workers: Your Work Can Never Be Safe

On April 11, President Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), legislation that would make it possible to hold the operators of websites criminally and civilly liable if third parties were found to have posted advertisements for prostitution.

Days before the legislation was enacted, however, federal authorities seized, essentially locking sex workers out of the website. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona indicted seven Backpage staffers, including co-founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey, on charges including money laundering and facilitating prostitution. Then, on April 12, the Department of Justice announced that Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded to federal charges related to money laundering and violating the Travel Act to facilitate prostitution, contingent on pleading to state trafficking charges.

FOSTA and the Backpage indictment have rapidly transformed trafficking into a matter of national politics. On April 19 Trump declared in characteristic overstatement that “human trafficking is worse than it’s ever been in the history of the world.” The very same day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is thought to be considering a run for president in 2020, announced plans to change the state’s trafficking laws by “eliminating proof of the elements of force, fraud or coercion in cases of children under 18.” Trafficking, Cuomo said, “is nothing short of a modern day slave trade that preys on children and the most vulnerable among us, and it must be shut down once and for all in New York and beyond.”

Prior to FOSTA’s passage, sex workers and survivors of trafficking, as well as advocates for both communities, warned that the legislation and crackdowns on websites that could come in its wake would be dangerous for sex workers and survivors of trafficking alike. They argued that closing low-cost online ad sites like Backpage would drive sex workers out of indoor work spaces that allowed for discreet advertising and client screening and into the streets.

Sex workers also said that low-income sex workers, sex workers of color, and trans sex workers — already facing high levels of arrest and violence — would be disproportionately affected by the loss of sites like Backpage. Indeed, within 48 hours of the feds’ seizure of the website, sex workers reported a drastic loss of income, the threat of homelessness, and the opportunistic return of abusive customers.

Since FOSTA was enacted, the groups that pushed for its passage — among them law enforcement, anti-sex work groups, and religious right groups — have acknowledged the vocal opposition to the legislation from sex workers themselves. Marian Hatcher, the senior project manager and human trafficking coordinator at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, who lobbied in favor of the legislation, tweeted on April 13, “#SEXWORKERS … SESTA had NOTHING to do with SW.”

Hatcher and other high-profile FOSTA supporters continue to maintain, however, that there are no safe places for sex workers. Republican Senator for Ohio Rob Portman, who drafted the original bill on which FOSTA was based, was asked about sex workers’ safety; a spokesperson responded, “Tell that to the mothers and fathers of daughters who’ve been murdered after being trafficked on Backpage.” Similarly, in an April 5 interview meant to “set the record straight” on a “new anti-trafficking bill in the US [that] has gotten a lot of bad press,” Hatcher said, “screening for potentially violent sex buyers and assurances of safe places do not exist in prostitution.”

But Hatcher and Portman’s rejection of the idea that online ads can be a form of harm reduction is disputed by sex workers and researchers alike. A 2017 University of Leicester study of online sex workers showed that 85 percent of respondents who advertised online said this allowed them to screen customers. When asked about violence they had faced in the previous 12 months, just under eight percent had experienced sexual assault, and five percent had experienced physical assault. Research from University of Baylor suggests that the Craigslist Erotic Services’ section led to a 17 percent drop in female homicide rates.

By denying the existence of “safe places” for sex workers on sites like Backpage, Hatcher maintains that sex work can never be safe. Hatcher has also attacked women’s rights groups, like the Women’s March, for stating that sex workers had relied on Backpage to safely contact customers. “Utter NONSENSE!!! Why does @womensmarch continue to perpetuate lies!!!” she tweeted on April 8. “ITS [sic] NOT SAFE!!”

Hatcher’s stance stems in part from her unusual personal history: After a career in corporate America, she says was trafficked on Chicago’s streets while in her 40s. Her path out of the sex trade began with a 2004 arrest for violating probation on a drug charge. “I never expected that jail would be my saving grace,” she wrote in a first-person essay for Vox in 2017. “Now I hope to make it the same for more victims like me.” She has worked for 14 years now in Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff’s Office, at first joining the same program that she credits with saving her from the sex trade. In 2016, she received a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteer Service from former President Barack Obama.

Since joining the sheriff’s office, Hatcher’s work has turned toward policy, she has said, as well as “efforts to bring down pimps, traffickers, and johns.” With Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Hatcher coordinates the National Johns Suppression Initiative, claiming more than 600 arrests since its inception. She is also a paid coordinator for Demand Abolition, which has supported public awareness of Cook County’s efforts to disrupt “sex buying,” which the organization believes is the solution to trafficking. And along with Dart and Demand Abolition, Hatcher has also campaigned against Backpage and for FOSTA.

As a leading FOSTA proponent, Hatcher not only supports continued police crackdowns on sex work, but she also advances a political agenda: that consensual sex work does not actually exist. “Prostitution is ugly,” as she put it in 2015. “Most of it is sex trafficking.” After FOSTA was enacted in April, Hatcher said, “To argue that this bill will harm ‘sex workers’ is to ignore the fact that most women and girls being sold on these websites are not doing so by choice.” When websites serving sex workers began to go offline, Hatcher said, those shutdowns were evidence of “the power SESTA-FOSTA has to hold them [websites] legally responsible for facilitating these criminal activities.”

While celebrating the closure of websites proven to provide sex workers with more safety and power at work, Hatcher also dismisses sex workers’ fears — already borne out — that FOSTA would harm them. Such demands for safety are invalid, Hatcher and other FOSTA proponents argue, because sex work itself is illegitimate. “As a survivor of the sex trade and someone who works closely with other women globally, who are either surviving or who have survived it, I unequivocally maintain that prostitution is an inherently violent industry in both illegal and legal environments,” Hatcher told The Appeal. “Websites will never provide safety in prostitution…. The ability to screen sex buyers online is an illusion that must be debunked.”

What is needed, Hatcher has said, is “robust exit services for those who sell sex.” That’s what Hatcher and the Cook County sheriff’s program provide sex workers — along with a criminal record.

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Did Gov. Cuomo Grant New York Parolees the Right to Vote? Not Exactly.

Governor Cuomo at the National Action Network conference on Wednesday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo / Flickr

Did Gov. Cuomo Grant New York Parolees the Right to Vote? Not Exactly.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that he would restore voting rights to New Yorkers on parole, he won instant praise from organizers who had long pushed for criminal justice reform.

“This executive order will mean thousands more will be welcomed back into our democracy and assured that in 21st century America, the right to vote is inviolable,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, in a press statement.

People on parole, including those who have long pressed for reform, also lauded the announcement. “It’s about time,” said David Schermerhorn, a community leader with VOCAL-NY (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders-New York), a grassroots organization of low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS and mass incarceration. “Politicians have always ignored people like me on parole because we couldn’t do anything for them. Now we have a voice.”

Cuomo himself used the announcement at the National Action Network conference to bolster his reputation as a criminal justice reformer, which is particularly significant now that Cynthia Nixon is posing a challenge from the left in the Democratic primary. “It is unconscionable to deny voting rights to New Yorkers who have paid their debt and have re-entered society,” Cuomo stated at the conference, noting that 71 percent of the approximately 35,000 people on parole are Black or Latinx. “This reform will reduce disenfranchisement and will help restore justice and fairness to our democratic process.”

His announcement garnered headlines like “Cuomo restores voting rights to all 35,000 parolees in New York” and “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs executive order giving parolees in his state the right to vote.”

But did Cuomo deserve them? A closer read of the executive order shows that it doesn’t actually guarantee people on parole the right to vote. Instead, it requires the commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), the state agency responsible for prisons and parole, to send his office a monthly list of everyone currently under parole supervision for consideration. “Each individual on the eligible list will be reviewed to determine whether he or she will be granted a pardon that will restore voting rights,” states the order. In other words, what looked like a sweeping restoration appears to be more of a case-by-case decision.

The governor’s office did not respond to The Appeal’s query regarding how the executive order was worded and whether Cuomo plans to individually evaluate parolees. The wording could be an attempt to avoid the fate of Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, where state law disenfranchises people with felony convictions. McAuliffe’s executive order restoring their voting rights was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that he could only restore rights on a case-by-case basis. He did, restoring voting rights to approximately 168,000 people with felonies.

The pardon Cuomo would use is different from the power of the pardon that the governor already has — to set aside a person’s conviction so that it no longer shows up on a background check or subjects them to deportation. (Since 2011, Cuomo has granted over 100 of these pardons to people convicted of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies when they were 16 or 17 years old and 18 to immigrants whose convictions made them at risk for deportation.)

In New York, people on parole already have a pathway to the ballot box, but it’s cumbersome. Those who have been convicted of misdemeanors, violations, or no more than one felony can apply for a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities. Those with two or more felony convictions can apply for a Certificate of Good Conduct. Both allow a person on parole to vote. If the person successfully completes parole, their ability to vote is permanently restored. People on probation are eligible to vote at any time.

While the media and many advocates, including formerly incarcerated people and people on parole, praised Cuomo’s action, others were skeptical. Some pointed out that similar promises from New York officials — not to prosecute low-level marijuana possession, for instance — haven’t always panned out. And Cuomo’s own bail reform plan was shelved during budget negotiations in Albany last month.

“We need to be clear that no one’s right to vote was restored this week,” pointed out Nick Encalada-Malinowski, VOCAL-NY’s civil rights campaign director. “We still need to see how Cuomo will actually operationalize this executive order … In all likelihood we will still need to pass legislation to secure a clear and permanent right to vote for people on parole.”

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