Bringing My Whole Self to a Prosecutor’s Office
By Monica Naranjo
2021 FJP Summer Fellow
Boston University School of Law, Class of 2023
As I write this, it is my last day as an FJP Summer Fellow at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office (SCDAO). It seems like it was only yesterday when DA Rachael Rollins had all her interns swear an oath during orientation to treat every person we encountered with compassion, dignity, and respect. Just as it seems like only yesterday I was trying to figure out if being a student prosecutor was the right summer experience for a woman of color, for an immigrant like myself. Thanks to the encouragement and wisdom of DA Rollins and other DAs around the country, as well as the support and mentorship of the prosecutors at SCDAO and the staff at Fair and Just Prosecution, I leave this internship with the conviction that it was in fact my background and experiences that made the fellowship meaningful.
SCDAO is one of the largest and busiest district attorney’s offices in New England. With over 300 employees, it handles thousands of new criminal cases each year in the cities and towns of Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop, Mass. SCDAO has multiple bureaus, such as the Family Protection and Sexual Assault Bureau, the Crimes Strategies Bureau, and the Major Felonies Bureau, which investigate and prosecute some of the most complicated cases. To ensure that victims and their families are treated with compassion and respect, the office works with victim advocates who assist throughout the duration of the criminal case. At SCDAO, I worked under the Family Protection and Sexual Assault Bureau for the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Unit. Having always been interested in the intricacies of human trafficking, I was eager to provide support during the investigation and prosecution of some of the most heinous crimes handled at the office.
As part of my fellowship, I assisted prosecutors with legal research and writing and the translation and transcription of interviews, while also conducting a summer-long research project on the best practices in investigating and prosecuting labor trafficking. Like most jurisdictions, SCDAO struggles in identifying and assisting victims of labor trafficking. My goal for the project was to highlight some steps that may be taken to increase trust in the community, so that victims feel safer in bringing a complaint forward.
To learn about best practices in the prosecution of labor trafficking, I interviewed sixteen people: eight prosecutors, a victim witness advocate, two community partnership coordinators, a detective, and three community advocates. I also interviewed the co-author of the annual Federal Human Trafficking Report and surveyed multiple DA’s office websites. By conducting this research project, I gained better insight into the strengths and the weaknesses of the office and of prosecution in general. For example, I learned that community members have greater trust in prosecutorial offices that have strong partnerships with well-rooted nonprofit organizations; that community advocates trust offices that show presence and interest in community events and training; and that for reactive prosecution to be effective, proactive prosecution strategies must be implemented.
Through my fellowship at SCDAO, I also learned of the meaningful role that diversity plays in a prosecutorial office. According to a study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, over 95% of prosecutors around the country are white. When over half of the jail and prison population is Black and Latinx men, the lack of diversity in a prosecutorial office translates into a lack of understanding of the life experiences of those who end up behind bars.
At SCDAO, most attorneys are white, but the person who oversees the entire office is a woman of color, District Attorney Rachael Rollins. DA Rollins was the first woman ever elected as District Attorney in Suffolk County and the first woman of color ever elected District Attorney in Massachusetts. The diversity she brings into the office is felt from the moment she walks into a room. DA Rollins is firm, frank, and outspoken. She is not afraid of calling you out when you are wrong, congratulating you when you deserve it, or offering you her support and apology when you need it. She does not shy away from speaking against injustices or showing her commitment to change. During our conversations, DA Rollins was empowering and demonstrated with her words and actions that minorities are desperately needed as leaders and advocates in reforming the criminal legal system.
Working at SCDAO showed me that even though minorities may prefer to work for the defense side to prevent injustices that, too often, we see in the criminal justice system, diverse attorneys may have a greater impact working in a prosecutorial office where they can push for policy changes and bring diverse experiences and beliefs to the offices they work in. While diversity may not inherently bring about change, our communities will benefit from having people who see safety and justice from our same lens.
Even though I am only in the early stages of my legal career, and I have much to learn, I left my first law school internship believing that leaders like DA Rachael Rollins are paving the way for us, women of color, so that we can fight for justice without having to renounce our beliefs, values, and identities.
For more information about the FJP Summer Fellows Program, visit the FJP website.