Launchpad Report: Women in the Criminal Justice System

Molly Fox was driving to a family Christmas dinner when she got a work call. With her two kids sleeping in the back and having promised her family a work-free vacation, she answered the phone reluctantly. 

“It was because they got the guy,” Fox said. “And I had to say, ‘I can’t come in.’ I had to prioritize my family.” 

The “guy” Fox referenced is the man convicted of the two murders Fox had been working on for the last two days. This doesn’t mean that Fox had been working off and on for two days; rather Fox hadn’t slept a wink in 43 hours. Even in college and law school, Fox was never the person to pull all-nighters, but in her job as the Deputy State Attorney of Dorchester County, Maryland, Fox has had to stay up for over 40 hours twice in one month.

“It’s intense, you know, that I have to be on call or available all the time,” Fox said. “And even on the average day, my day starts at about 7:45 in the morning and doesn’t end until I go to sleep.”

Other women working in the criminal legal system share this experience of working arduous hours.

Former King County public defender Rose Duffy relates to the feeling of constantly working.

“It’s a pretty busy job, so while sometimes there’s time to eat something for lunch, oftentimes there’s no time at all,” Duffy said.

On top of the long work hours necessary fo the job, women working in the criminal legal system, like Fox and Duffy, say that they have to work even harder to fight barriers and assumptions made about them because of their gender.

“There is an expectation that women are weaker and that we have less of an ability to capture an audience and jury,” Fox said. “That is something we have to overcome and show that we are just as strong and able to advocate.”

Because Fox always works to disprove this expectation, she’s gained a reputation as a pitbull in her work environment.

“It’s because I’m strong and I don’t back down,” Fox said. “I don’t get intimidated by things.”

Similarly, Kristine Nisco always has to prove her professionalism as a female probation officer in Pierce County, Washington. Nisco worked as an officer for the Department of Corrections where she dealt with “high-violent” felons as one of her first jobs.

“I just don’t think they expected to see me sitting there across the table from them as their community corrections officer,” Nisco said.

Nisco also noticed that her clients tended to objectify her when meeting her. She often left many meetings feeling slightly repulsed by their behavior. 

One time, when checking out someone’s sexual violence case before going to meet them, she noticed that the description of his victim’s features matched hers to a T. She then had to spend the next hour sitting alone with him in his house.

“You just get that slimy feeling so immediately you have to address them in a professional way that’s going to stop any weird behavior and try and develop rapport at the same time,” Nisco said.

Former public defender Duffy had a different experience in her work in the criminal legal system. She found that because she most often represented men accused of serious crimes, people often assumed that she got harassed and heckled by them far more than in reality. 

“I can’t say that that never happened, but it’s never been a big issue for me. Once you’ve established yourself, my clients are more interested in talking to me about their case,” Duffy said. “They have more pressing things to do than to give you a hard time.”

This doesn’t mean Duffy didn’t experience the sexism that comes with being a woman in the workplace; it just often came from other people working in the system.

“It’s unfortunate that me walking into a room means I might not be treated the same way as if I were a 6-foot-tall white man,” Duffy said.

Another former public defender, founder of the non-profit The Innocence Project, and UW professor, Jackie McMurtrie experienced people treating her and her work differently simply because she’s a woman.

“It’s a disadvantage if you’re not taken seriously or if you’re patronized. As a defender, you have to keep things in check, so I couldn’t always call people out because that would maybe work to the detriment of my client,” McMurtrie said. “Meanwhile, guys didn’t have limitations. They could yell at you and get in your face and face no consequence.”

McMurtrie has experienced sexism in the workplace for a long time, starting with her law school education when there weren’t many women working in the field.

“There were two women professors out of a faculty of 60 people,” McMurtrie said. “So to come to the law school in 1989 and watch as it became more diversified has been a great thing.”

While the number of women working in the criminal legal field is growing, it is still not equal to the number of men in the field, meaning there are still barriers and expectations that women like McMurtie and Duffy work to fight.

For many of these women, their passion for their work makes the job worth all the challenges that come with it. While Pierce County Jail Captain Patti Jackson has a very difficult job dealing with people at the lowest points of their life, she finds it important because of how much she cares for people.

“I love my job, and I love, love, love to communicate with people, and I will talk and give people as much dignity and respect as they allow me to give them,” Jackson said.

Duffy also loved working with people and really enjoyed getting to know her clients. While she constantly worked with people accused of crimes, she genuinely liked and enjoyed the company of most of them.

“I’m not saying that nobody ever does bad things, but I like people and I like learning about people,” Duffy said. “So the more that you learn about people and their circumstances and what’s happened to them, the more compassion you tend to have.”

Duffy felt so passionate about her work because she was helping people during their lowest points.

“It was a pleasure getting to know them and sort of an honor to help people in a time where they really really need help,” Duffy said. “That always felt like kind of a privilege.”

While Molly Fox works on the opposite side of the legal system as Duffy, she shares similar feelings about her clients.

“By far, the best part about my job, no question about it, is getting justice for victims and their families,” Fox said. “These people are going through some of the worst times in their life. And I get to help them through that.”