POSITION PAPER 3: PROTECTING WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND GENDER EQUALITY

The American criminal justice system has historically failed to adequately protect the rights and wellbeing of women across the country. From criminalizing reproductive health choices to lax enforcement of nondiscrimination laws, sexism and misogyny have infected decisions made at every level of the justice system. Marital rape was not even illegal in New York until almost 1985, and even then it was a court ruling, not legislation, that established it as a crime. A profession in the law itself was long closed to women, and even today there are stark gender disparities in positions of power. Just nine states have female Attorneys General and only 13 of New York’s 62 District Attorneys are women. Queens has never had a female District Attorney.

Crimes against women have been minimized, ignored, and pushed aside, denying women the equal protection of the law to which they are entitled. As recently as the 1980s, criminal prosecution of domestic violence was rare, with studies showing just five percent of cases involving women with injuries reaching a guilty verdict. In 2018, the shackling of pregnant women in prison remained in place, and many states have not explicitly banned police officers from having sex with those in custody. And based on CompStat data from the NYPD, rape is the only crime that has actually increased in the past 20 years in Queens.

A system that fails to respond to the needs of women – especially poor women, trans women, and women of color – is a broken one. With blatant attacks on women’s health and rights emanating out of Washington, the need for structural change and a raft of new policies protecting women’s rights in Queens is clear. Women’s groups have been galvanized to push for deep changes in the ways certain crimes are treated and the District Attorney’s office should be an ally in this fight.

Melinda has a long history of being a champion for women's rights and women's safety: from her 100% voting record in support of a woman’s right to choose; to writing and passing Keindl’s Law which protects victims of child sexual abuse; to cosponsoring New York’s Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1994; to authoring the law that let women see an OBGYN without requiring a referral. As our next DA (and Queens’ first-ever woman District Attorney), Melinda will continue her lifelong advocacy for women and make our borough safer, fairer and more equal for everyone.

Combatting Sexual Assault and Ensuring Justice for Survivors 

Survivors of sexual assault frequently face a second wave of victimization when they try to see their attackers brought to justice, only to find themselves treated like criminals and have their own lives dragged through the mud. This stigmatization is pervasive and influences the way our justice system treats witnesses and survivors after an attack. The next Queens District Attorney must have a comprehensive plan to ensure victims are believed and treated with dignity, and not subject to attacks merely for coming forward to report abuse.

Expand training for staff

Survivors of sexual assault can have difficulty recounting their trauma and relaying helpful information to law enforcement under stressful circumstances, and it is vital that when a survivor is seeking justice, the DA’s office and law enforcement respect that person’s voice. Questioning from law enforcement immediately after an attack can also exacerbate trauma if done incorrectly. New office-wide policy will mandate that all District Attorney staff, not just those in the Special Victims Unit, undergo training from psychologists, social workers, and doctors to best prepare them to interact with victims. Encouraging women to come forward after an attack starts with creating a permissive environment for them to tell their story. No one should fear interacting with law enforcement after they’ve been victimized, and Melinda will implement new rules to make sure survivors have access to translators, social workers, and a law enforcement staff that acknowledges their trauma when they report a crime. 

Lobby for changes in New York’s rape shield law to better protect victims from intimidation 

Rape shield laws in New York and across the country are designed to give survivors of sexual assault a fair and dignified trial by preventing their personal lives from being exposed and used as evidence against them in court. But the recent case against Harvey Weinstein has revealed a hole in New York’s rape shield law, which allowed Weinstein to attack and attempt to discredit his accusers before the trial. In pre-trial filings, Weinstein’s legal team made the same kinds of sex-charged accusations meant to shame witnesses that wouldn’t be admissible during a trial. This loophole in the rape shield law could serve to dissuade other survivors from coming forward in the future. 

This kind of loophole is often exploited by rich and powerful men, who use the interest surrounding their case to draw media attention to smears made in pre-trial filings. After Kobe Bryant employed a similar strategy in Colorado, the state changed its rape shield law to seal all pre-trial proceedings that mention sex-related conduct of a survivor. New York should pass a similar fix to its laws in order to prevent further intimidation. As Queens District Attorney, Melinda will work with other stakeholders to bring this problem to the attention of lawmakers in Albany. 

Protect children online 

Children today are much less likely to be contacted online by a stranger soliciting sex than they were in the past, and surveys show that requests for offline meetings from strangers have also declined. Today, children are much more likely to face sexual coercion online from their peers rather than from unknown adults. As a mother of two, Melinda knows how difficult it can be for parents to keep up with what their children are doing online. She will partner with parents, advocacy organizations, and law enforcement from all communities in Queens to develop new educational programs and tools to assist parents in monitoring online activity. She will also partner with educators and nonprofits to make sure young people know the risks and consequences of sharing sexually explicit media online. 

Addressing Domestic Violence 

Removing barriers to reporting abuse 

Often one of the most effective strategies to combat domestic violence involves removing the barriers that prevent women from coming forward and reporting abuse. The District Attorney’s office will devote more resources towards partnerships with borough-wide advocacy groups on education campaigns to make sure women know their rights and know how to effectively report abuse. 

With a diverse multilingual population, Queens presents a unique challenge for education and awareness campaigns. The DA’s office will address this problem on two fronts: with a specific focus on translating education materials and targeted outreach to those most likely to come in contact with victims, such as workers in schools, libraries, and the beauty/hospitality industries, who have close relationships with their clients and may be better equipped to notice signs of abuse. The DA’s office will devote significant resources to disseminating materials in a variety of languages to educate workers and community members, as well as partnering with religious and community groups to ensure materials are reaching a wide audience. 

In addition, Melinda will work with immigration advocates to help educate those who may be reluctant to come forward because of their or their abuser’s immigration status, providing support and housing options for undocumented victims seeking safety.

Influence statewide policy

Immigrant women are particularly susceptible to repeat abuse because their abusers may hold their immigration status over them as coercion. Deportation threats currently do not qualify as illegal blackmail under state law. As Queens DA, Melinda will partner with immigrant justice groups to pass legislation, already introduced in the Senate and Assembly, to change this policy. Another bill, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, would give judges more flexibility to sentence domestic violence survivors convicted of offenses related to their abuse to shorter sentences or to alternative programs. Melinda would advocate on behalf of this bill and take a survivor’s history into account when making decisions about whether to prosecute an individual who fought back against an abuser. 

Maintain and foster a network of community groups to aid survivors 

Currently as Borough President, Melinda has been deeply engaged with community groups that provide aid to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She helped secure a $900,000 grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women that went towards the District Attorney’s and Borough President’s efforts to prosecute cases of domestic violence, prevent abuse, and help victims. She has also organized workshops with community groups and government agencies to educate women about their rights and connect them with legal resources. As District Attorney, Melinda will continue to partner with the Borough President and nonprofit organizations to implement programs to prosecute offenders and protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

Fighting sex trafficking and ensuring the safety of sex workers 

Anyone coerced into trading sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they were done so by intimidation, threats, force, or other means. The Department of Health and Human Services has classified human trafficking as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, and New York State has the fifth highest level of human trafficking in the country, with sex trafficking making up a majority of that activity. Sex trafficking victims face a variety of dangers and threats. Many are lured in with false promises of a job or romantic relationship. Others are forced to sell sex by relatives. Victims may be involved for as little as a few weeks to as long as multiple years. 

As District Attorney, Melinda will prioritize efforts to crack down on traffickers and make sure their victims get help.  To that end, she will decline to prosecute prostitution arrests that do not carry any higher charges with the goal of shifting the office’s prosecutorial focus away from sex workers and towards abusers and traffickers. She will advocate for a repeal of New York's law on loitering for the purpose of prostitution, which is often used by police to target those suspected of sex work. This law, regardless of intention, is overwhelmingly used to arrest women of color and trans women who may or may not be engaged in sex work. Helping those who want and need assistance breaking free from trafficking, addiction, or economic coercion demands building relationships of trust between law enforcement and the community, and this law undermines efforts to build that trust.

As District Attorney, Melinda will support and advocate for bills in Albany that create a fairer environment for sex workers in our criminal justice system, such as an end to using the possession of condoms or other reproductive health devices as evidence in prostitution-related offenses. Melinda will prioritize prosecuting traffickers and pimps in sex trafficking enforcement, instead of targeting the victims, and create more pathways for sex workers to be sent to diversionary programs instead of prison. 

Melinda will also allow victims of human trafficking to keep all information confidential when vacating prostitution convictions tied to their trafficking victimization. New York State law allows victims of human trafficking to vacate prostitution-related criminal convictions that were directly tied to their victimization. All information shared during this process will be kept confidential to ensure the safety and privacy of victims. There is an Assembly bill to make this statewide law but it can start by being the policy in Queens. 

Equal pay and fair treatment in the workplace 

Studies have found that women face significantly higher rates of minimum wage and overtime violations than men and also lose more of their earnings to wage theft. Immigration status has also been shown to be a major factor in minimum wage violations, with immigrant women being the most susceptible. 

To combat wage theft, Melinda will work with labor unions and other organizations to create a multi-lingual outreach program informing workers of their rights. She will also establish free and anonymous means for workers to report wage theft and overtime violations, and aggressively prosecute those employers who refuse to follow the law. 

Melinda will also follow the Manhattan DA’s lead and establish a Workplace Sexual Violence team that works with the Special Victims unit to prosecute sex crimes in the workplace. The team will also forward cases of sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York State Commission on Human Rights to make sure victims get justice and any counseling they may need. 

Protecting a woman’s right to choose 

New York has one of the strongest set of laws protecting abortion rights in the nation. Yet women who choose to have an abortion as well as their providers still face the risk of intimidation. As District Attorney, Melinda will work with law enforcement to ensure abortion providers and their clients are kept safe and protected from all forms of intimidation, threats, and violence.

Sources: 

https://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/23/weekinreview/new-york-joins-17-states-that-deny-wives-are-property-rape-marriage-no-longer.html

https://www.nypti.org/new-york-district-attorneys/

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/crimdom.pdf

https://www1.nyc.gov/site/nypd/stats/crime-statistics/borough-and-precinct-crime-stats.page#queens

http://gothamist.com/2018/12/19/harvey_weinstein_rape_shield_law.php

https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/03/health/online-predators-parents-partner/index.html

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Lawmakers-push-to-add-threatening-to-deport-13667129.php

https://www.wnypapers.com/news/article/current/2019/03/05/136194/assembly-passes-domestic-violence-survivors-justice-act

https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=23329

https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/2017/12/20/sex-trafficking-new-york-state-5th-nation/969122001/

http://sexworkersproject.org/downloads/2016/20160930-loitering-prostitution-new-york-state.pdf

https://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?bn=A00937&term=2019

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0730888416661019

Marc Lapidus