Almost a year ago now,
on January 7, 2003, Stephen Passalacqua took the office of Sonoma
County District Attorney on a wave of hope. Elected in a landslide
of voter protest against the eight years of abuses of incumbent
Mike Mullins, women and Latinos were especially hopeful that Passalacqua
would fulfill his campaign promises to improve response to violence
against women and to remedy the offices absence of Spanish
The 58 to 43% electoral
ousting of incumbent Mike Mullins was an unambiguous mandate for
change. Yet, now, almost a year after Passalacqua has taken office,
questions loom as to whether he is willing to use his powers to
make the needed changes. And whether he has the fortitude to confront
the sizeable reactionary forces still entrenched in his office.
No doubt, Passalacqua
has made some changes on behalf of victims. Since taking office
- Hired Sandra Cardenas,
a capable and dedicated bilingual domestic violence counselor,
- Established a homicide
- Sustained open communication
and accessibility to his office for both victim advocates and
- Ended the retaliatory
and repressive response to victim advocates that was a constant
feature of Mullin's reign,
- Put the office's
top-heavy administration back to work in the courtroom prosecuting
- Hired a new head
of victim assistance services.
- Established a professional
victim advisory committee.
Despite the general
positive direction of these changes, they don't go near far enough
to correct the abusive practices of mishandling violence against
women that took firm root in our DAs office over the years.
As an ominous sign of future inaction, consider this:
On March 6th we had
our first meeting with Passalacqua. At the top of our list of
many changes we felt essential, we asked that when sex crimes
cases came into the office, a copy of the police report be given
immediately to the sex crimes advocate in the office in the same
way that a copy of all domestic violence cases are immediately
given to the domestic violence counselors in the office.
In the months that
followed we reiterated the importance of this change with examples
to Passalaqua of sex crimes victims whose re-victimization by
his office could have been prevented if the victim had been connected
to an advocate. We reiterated the request in emails, phone calls,
and in an hour presentation to his victim committee. And still,
despite the obvious benefit to victims, despite that this was
a no cost-minimal effort change, there was no action.
October 15, the Spanish-speaking
parents of a 14- year-old rape victim called us in desperation.
They had been searching for two months for help, they said, as
the trauma of their daughter's rape was ripping the family apart.
On looking into the case we found that the family had cooperated
fully with police, that the perpetrator had, in fact, confessed
to police, that the detective had sent the case to the DA's office
on August 27th, and that on August 29th the prosecutor read the
case and filled out paperwork indicating that the case merited
prosecution as a rape.
But from August 29th
to October 16th when we intervened on the familys behalf,
the prosecutor had allowed this case to sit dormant on his desk
with no action taken. And he allowed the family to twist in the
wind without any contact from him, or without any contact from
an advocate. Clearly, if a copy of the case had been given to
the sex crimes advocate, the advocate would have contacted the
family and connected them to help all the way back in late August,
and the family would have been spared the unforgivable weeks of
torment they suffered. The advocate also most certainly would
have protested the prosecutors inaction to a superior.
One of the most frequent
questions were asked is Why?, Why would
a prosecutor leave a perfectly prosecutable rape case sitting
on his desk? The short answer is that some prosecutors shelve
rape cases in the hopes that the victim wont figure out
how to protest the inaction, and that the victim will disappear,
and along with her, the case, the work, and the hassle will also
rape cases is a very effective means of permanently burying rape
cases. This is exactly the kind of abuse Passalacqua was elected
to stop, as theres more than one attorney in his office
who have practiced this kind of abuse for years. Giving a copy
of all sex crimes reports to the sex crimes advocate is not a
cure-all, but it is a relatively easy, inexpensive check on this
In response to our
protest over this latest case, Passalacqua has taken a step sideways.
Copies of sex crimes cases are being made, but instead of being
given to the experienced sex crimes advocate in the office, they
are being sent to an inexperienced victim assitance staff across
town, just another place where cases are as likely to be buried
The question isnt
whether Passalacqua wants to do right by victims. We believe he
does. The question is whether he has the fortitude to use the
power hes been given to buck the resistance and abuses of
the old guard.