On Friday, August 16, I attended the Abby Foundation’s Women Together annual luncheon in Tinley Park. The foundation is named after Abigail Adams, and the luncheon was such a nice event. The speaker this year was Anita Alvarez, the Cook County States Attorney. For those not familiar with the title, that means she’s the boss of all of the State’s attorneys (ie, prosecutors) in Cook County.
My boss, Raymond Wigell, mentioned this luncheon because his wife, Mrs. Barbara Wigell, works for the Clerk’s office and often attends this event. They were nice enough to invite me to join their table, which is why I was attending. I met up outside the convention center with our paralegal, Nicole, who is awesome and who I love and who is totally as inappropriate as I am.
So Nicole and I wandered around and did some stuff and talked to people and then it was time for lunch. After lunch, Anita Alvarez took the podium. And the thing is, I have some feelings about Ms. Anita Alvarez.
So while I was looking forward to her speech, I was also kind of cautious about it.
But I was glad to be there nonetheless, and glad to have the opportunity to see her live, and close up. (Kind of like when I went to a luncheon where Scalia spoke, and I sat at the table next to his and listened to him noisily eat soup and talked to him for a few minutes, after which I wanted to throw myself out the window because he’s so fucking horrible.)
But this is not about how Antonin Scalia is the literal worst, you guys. This is actually about my Women Together luncheon experience watching Anita Alvarez talk about things. It’s also about whatever other nonsense pops into my head, so, you know, business as usual.
Anyway, Anita Alvarez is petite, and wore a rich pink skirt suit with half-sleeves and little zippers halfway up to the shoulders. Seriously, her suit was adorable and she looked lovely in it, and I spent a few minutes wondering if I could pull off such a suit during my own court calls.
Nicole said I totally could, and that I overthink my choice of court clothes. I think that’s kind of funny, since I’ve been known to stroll into court wearing a bright yellow lace pencil skirt and a neon coral blazer. (Which I’ve been complimented on over and over, so I keep doing it, because I am the worst. Also, I get a perverse pleasure out of wearing bright colors in a courtroom where the female prosecutors all dress rather shabbily, and in boring greys, blacks, and browns, to boot. I kind of enjoy turning heads and being a little unusual.)
Anita Alvarez gave maybe a fifteen minute speech, and I can see how she was so successful on the campaign trail. Her stories are endearing, and she speaks with power and grace. It’s difficult not to be pulled in by her caring, compassionate sort of charisma (tinged with bad-assery).
She started off talking about over-achievers. Then she started talking about prostitutes and pimps. Maybe her transition between the two was more artful than I’m remembering – it’s entirely possible, because I was texting my boss pictures of Helen Lovejoy.
Because that’s basically what her speech was. Don’t get me wrong, it was powerful and effective and chosen well, considering that it was being delivered by a powerful woman to a roomful of mostly well educated, privileged, well-off women.
But as a defense attorney, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for rolling my eyes a bit.
I’m no fan of Anita Alvarez. I abhor many of her policies. When she spoke today about how successful her office has been in terms of prosecuting gun offenses, for example, all I heard was how her prosecutors are now ordered to ask for maximum jail time for any gun offense that gets charged – and often enough, they get it.
We’ve been lucky. We had a UUW – reckless discharge case last year. The prosecutor was asking for, I think, four years in IDOC. For firing a weapon at a Kevlar panel in a garage. My boss argued for paper, and thankfully, the judge got it. He got that our client wasn’t some dangerous street criminal that offended notions of public safety. The judge understood that, instead, our client was guilty of being a little stupid. We got probation, but it was a hard fight – and it shouldn’t have been. It wouldn’t have been, but for Anita Alvarez’s disastrous, destructive policies.
I was in another Cook County courthouse maybe a week or two ago. My client was a no-show, but the Court was kind and I was just kind of waiting to see if she’d show up, and trying not to call any attention to myself while I did that.
Whenever I have to cool my heels in court, which is often, I pay close attention to the rest of the call. I usually learn a lot – even if it’s a lesson in what NOT to do. That morning, in a misdemeanor courtroom, I watched a little old Italian man come to the podium when his case was called. He was 61 years old, with no criminal background. His crime was possession of a firearm with no FOID card.
Apparently, and I don’t know all the facts in the case but this seemed to be the gist of it that I got while the judge interrogated the little old man, there was some kind of disturbance and this man pulled out the handgun he keeps in his home and went to investigate. The cops were arriving at the scene. They saw him with the weapon, ordered him to relinquish it, and moved in. He surrendered the weapon, cooperated in the arrest, and was booked, and that was how he found himself in court. Both officers were present, and both told the Court that the man was “a gentleman” throughout the whole ordeal and cooperated fully with them.
The State was asking for 364 days in jail.
(It was a misdemeanor, so it was punishable by a fine, jail time not exceeding one year, or both. That’s why the State asked for 364 days.)
And anyone in the courtroom that didn’t know Anita Alvarez’s policy about asking for time on all gun cases looked at the prosecutors like they were fucking insane. Almost a year in prison for having a gun without the valid ID card? Yeah, it’s illegal, and for good reason, but at the same time there’s something about a little old man who dropped his gun as soon as he saw the cops and cooperated fully that is discordant with the idea of a year in jail.
And the thing is, I know the State’s attorney that was asking for jail time. He’s actually a friend from law school, and is a great guy. I’d be shocked if he really felt a serious conviction, in his heart, in his soul, that this man was deserving of jail time. In fact, before the call got started, I heard him say almost gently to another CDL, shrugging, that, “our policy is to ask for the most jail time available.” And the CDL knew that and shrugged back, and they separated, knowing that they’d each argue for their position and it was up to the judge.
Because, really, as a CDL, how do you even negotiate with that? “Sorry, but our boss says we have to ask for jail time.”
Well, okay, then as a prosecutor, you’re useless to me. Because your hands are tied. I’m not wasting my time or energy on you in negotiations – I’ll do a blind plea and argue my heart out and leave it to the judge. And that sucks, not only from a CDL’s point of view, but it has to suck for prosecutors who are basically told to rubber stamp this shit instead of using their own judgment and being effective negotiators and advocates for the state because, hey, Anita Alvarez wants to front like she’s tough on crime.
Which, fine, that’s absolutely her prerogative.
(And I have wayyyyy more complaints about Anita Alvarez, but I’m not going to waste time bitching about it right now.)
So, anyway, when she was talking about how her office was so successful in gun cases, I was rolling my eyes and texting my boss.
Then she started talking about pimps and prostitutes. Her anecdotes were the kinds you’d hear about on 20/20 – the teen prostitutes who refused to press charges against their pimp because “he bought me a Subway sandwich whenever I wanted one;” the prostitute who was forced to become hooked on drugs so she’d stay in the life, that sort of thing.
Please don’t get me wrong – I think forced prostitution is abominable and we need to create safe places for these women to go to.
I just don’t trust Anita Alvarez when she talks about saving these women.
Because her office has a history of asking for jail time for these prostitutes that she’s waxing poetically about on the podium. So pardon me if I’m a little skeptical about anything that comes out of her mouth, especially when she turns around and starts talking about saving these women. Yeah, she’ll say that to a room full of women at a Women Together luncheon, but get her back in her office and she advocates jail time for the same women found guilty of prostitution.
Speaking of which, that reminds me of the stories my boss tells me about his days as a public defender. As a young PD, he handled a lot of prostitution cases. He hated it after a while, he said, because it was the most depressing thing ever, and there was no escape for these women.
He’d say to me, “It was the worst. I hated coming into work when I handled that shit. Because you’d come in and every week or so, you’d see the same women. It was a vicious cycle. They’d hook to feed themselves and keep their pimps from beating them, the cops would roust them, they’d wind up in court, they’d spend a few days in jail, they’d go back out, they’d hook some more, and they’d be back. The same women. Over and over.”
He told me how he dealt with it. “I’d go to the State and they’d hand me a rap sheet. It was, like, four pages. Just conviction after conviction for the same thing – prostitution, prostitution, prostitution. I’d read through it, all of it, sigh, and go back to the State. They’d take one look at the sheet and say, ‘yeah, I want a conviction and 10 days.’ And I was so sick of it. I’d say-”
He held up his hand and furrowed his brows in that What the Fuck Is Wrong With You look I’ve seen directed at others so many times.
“‘Nah, I’m not giving you ten days.’ And they’d look at me and pause and finally say, ‘yeah, okay, fine.’ And that was a victory. Because the women didn’t have to do time. But they got another conviction on their record, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. There was no easy fix to that problem. I hated it.”
He sounded really tired when he related this story. I bug him about his PD days all the time, and he often indulges me with stories from his days in the trenches with the worst of the worst, as he says. And he gets that twinkle in his eyes or a little smirk when he tells me stories he knows I’ll get a kick out of.
But when he told me about the prostitutes, there was no twinkle, no smirk, not even any real fondness for that time in his life. He just sounded tired. Like that experience, that time spent handling cases like that, still weighed heavily on him decades later.
So I don’t doubt the sincerity of Anita Alvarez’s stories. I don’t cast any doubt on the message. Forcing people into prostitution is abominable.
But I don’t particularly trust those words when coming out of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s mouth, for reasons I’ve stated above. (Well, some of the reasons.)
Still, the room ate it up. And I don’t blame them. Like I said, she’s a great speaker and she comes off really well. The room was totally with her.
(Aaaaaand that is the jury pool. Yay.)
Anyway, when Anita was done, I texted my boss and we snarked a little. And when I slipped my phone back in my purse, our paralegal Nicole leaned toward me and whispered, “I just told Ray I have a new one for my wishlist.”
Ray is obviously Raymond G. Wigell, my boss. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned his name here before. Anyway, if you see Ray or Raymond, you know who I’m talking about.
As far as wishlists, we all have one at the office. The Wishlist refers to a very short list of criminal charges that we each realllllly want to defend against. Basically, we want to catch a case involving those charges. Nicole has always really wanted an AggCSA of a minor involving a female defendant. That is, she wants an Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault/Abuse (ie, rape) case involving a male student and a female teacher. Nicole is holding out for some Mary Kay Letourneau action.
As for me, my Wishlist is basically two items: (1) an Agg Cruelty, which means Aggravated Cruelty to an Animal, which we already had that involved neglect and physical abuse. But what I want is an Agg Cruelty that refers to sexual contact. Yep, I want a bona fide bestiality case. And (2) I want a possession/distribution of child pornography case, where the defendant is a female. Because that is almost unheard of.
And to be clear, we do not have some perverse desire that people commit these crimes just so we can represent them. We are not wishing for some young male to be assaulted by his teacher, or an animal assaulted by a person. Not at all. We’re not wishing for any of that shit – we never do. The idea of the Wishlist is that just if there are people already accused of these crimes, if they could hire us, that’d be great, because the case would be something that we haven’t done before and we’d love the opportunity to grow professionally and advocate for people who are accused of horrible things, as the Constitution demands.
Great, just so we’re clear on that. No one at the office is wishing for anyone to commit or be a victim of any crime, whatsoever.
But anyway, Nicole said that she had another one for her Wishlist. When I asked what, she said, “I think it would be great if we got hired for a human trafficking case!”
I admit it – I cackled.
It’s a really good thing Anita Alvarez wasn’t within earshot, because if she’d heard that, and if looks could kill, Nicole and I would not have walked out of that convention center.
Yeah, somehow I reallllllly don’t think psychopaths like me and Nicole are the ones that Anita Alvarez is trying to reach out to.
(And for those of you who are still shocked and offended and scandalized by some of the things I said above … well, you asked for the whole ‘honest portrayal of a young CDL’s misadventures’ perspective. So. You know.)