The Power of the Prosecutor: A Personal Account

Have you ever watched an episode of “Law & Order”? The creators do an amazing job of dramatizing the court process. The characters playing the prosecutors are always eloquent and passionate as they go toe-to-toe with an indignant defense attorney who is quick to counter every point. We see this version of the trial process all the time in mainstream media. The real life, everyday version is much different. My real-life experience was much different.

Like millions of others in this country, my experience didn’t involve expensive defense lawyers, just overworked and underpaid public defenders. There were no passionate arguments from the prosecutors because over 90 percent of all cases end in a plea agreement, as mine did. I was convicted in 2015 for two felonies and a few subsequent misdemeanors. My felonies were fraud-based charges for cashing checks that weren’t mine. My misdemeanors included things like attempted retail theft, trespassing, and a couple other minor things.

I did not walk into that courtroom a hardened criminal, and I had never been to jail. My real crime was addiction. Like many others, I was a heroin addict and committed these low-level crimes to support my daily use. My addiction, as that of many women, spurred from serious trauma, including sexual and domestic violence.

The agreement between my public defender and the prosecutor was to be a one- to three-year sentence. My time before the judge came, and the prosecutor informed him that we did not have an agreement: They were asking for a two- to six-year sentence. The emotions I felt in that chair, shackled by the waist and ankles, are difficult to put into words. I was at the complete mercy of that prosecutor. Luckily for me, the judge thought the plea agreement was unreasonable. My final plea: 14 months to four years.

The word “agreement” makes it sound like you agree to a plea deal, but that is not exactly the case. While I was informed I had the right to a trial, I was strongly dissuaded from exercising that right. While I could have waited to bring my case before a judge and jury, I would have faced the maximum sentence available, which would have been 10 years in prison. In my case, the plea deal was presented as my only hope of seeing my children, getting treatment for my addiction, and moving forward. This is the weight of the prosecutors’ power that I experienced first-hand — the leveraging of my life, my children, and loved ones against me.

The prosecutor is the most powerful person in the world of anyone facing criminal proceedings. They have the power to impose a wide array of sentences on individuals facing conviction, and those sentences are often just the start of a life-long navigation of collateral consequences, not just for the person who is convicted, but for anyone connected to them.

I have served my sentence and become a responsible, tax-paying, and positive member of my community. I returned to college to pursue a degree in behavioral science. I volunteer with a transitional housing program, and I have become an advocate for criminal justice reform. I am an active mom and partner.

But regardless of any achievement or level of recognition I acquire, I am a convicted felon. When I apply for jobs, I am flagged as a “high-risk” employee due to my theft convictions and have had difficulty finding even minimum-wage employment. When my own children have school field trips, I am barred from being a chaperone.

Those are just a couple examples of the long-lasting collateral damage caused by incarceration, and things could have gone differently. The prosecutor in charge of my case could have used a diversion option, like treatment court, or a different form of supervision that would have allowed me to address my addiction, options which would have minimized the impacts I still feel on my life today. I have since been told my sentence was extreme and that the prosecutor could have easily diverted me to a treatment court program or community supervision to address the underlying reasons for my addiction and subsequent crimes.

Around the country, voters are beginning to realize that the old “tough on crime” model does not promote safer or healthier communities. My own life has proven this. Prison should not be the automatic answer. The community is not “safer” today because I went to jail. I’m successful today because of support, treatment, and opportunity — none of which I found in jail.           

Prosecutors have immense power and use that power, with little public accountability, to make choices that change the lives of real people, like me. This is why it is so important for voters to know who their local prosecutor is and where they stand on criminal justice reform issues. The ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign is putting a focus on prosecutors. You have the power to change our culture of mass incarceration by electing prosecutors that care more about people than conviction rates.

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Anonymous

Or maybe we can explain without necessarily excusing? She paid her debt.

Anonymous

That’s your take away? It speaks more of you, than she.

Dr. Timothy Leary

The only thing I "take away" is a pizza when I leave Papa John's.

Dr. Timothy Leary

The only thing I "take away" is a pizza when I leave Papa John's.

Alan Wheeler

Said the coward who hides behind someone else’s name and has no idea of the circumstances of this person’s life.

Carla Wells

The ACLU has never been needed as much as it is now for all people.
Justice may be blind but should always be fair to all. Unfortunately, it is the amount of money you have for a good lawyer that seems to count, Thank goodness for the ACLU, court appointed attorneys and all other justice seeking organizations for their hardwork. All are definitely overworked. Plea deals are a short cut and cheaper for the system. They can also run fear in a defendant to get them to make a plea deal.
Like all things, plea deals that a defendant agrees to, can be a good thing sometimes for everyone.
Prison is not always the place to help the defendant or society.
We all have to stand for the rule of law, justice, fairness and sometimes mercy.
We need to VOTE!

John M. Rinaldi

Although I feel for you and I’m very sorry, you chose to do the drugs, and you chose to commit the crimes as a result.

I do however understand addiction and that you lose your life as a result and you become not yourself.

I fully support that you should have been given treatment, and therefore your record should be expunged, or at least sealed.

If it makes you feel any better, my Prosecutor has become the actual criminal by Suborning Perjury. She has since lost her $220,000 starting job. When they’re not held accountable, they will WIN at any cost and the under-worked, over-staffed, under-funded public defender is useless.

Anonymous

Wow. Public defenders are some of the hardest working attorneys out there and their compassion is unmatched. It’s a hard job with little thanks and a lot of disappointment.

Barry Kade

This sounds like what I hear all the time in advocating for prisoners in Vermont. There can be a progressive State Attorney, but one who does not adequately supervise underlings.
Ashley does not say which County this took place in or whether the prosecutor was the elected States Attorney or a deputy or assistant.

Anonymous

All the people talking about "choices" don't know what it's like to be abused...maybe they should try and see what it feels like sometime. Free will is a myth, when you are suffering you will do anything to end it. And no one is doing anything to stop the epidemic of abuse, domestic/child/sexual/etc, nothing at all. Everyone would rather just blame the victim for the abuse. It's more convenient than actually helping.

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