Here's a horrific miscarriage of justice: Tony Simmons, a former counselor in the New York City juvenile justice system, pleaded guilty to raping a handcuffed 15-year-old girl in the elevator of the Manhattan Family Courthouse, and sexually assaulting two other teenagers in his custody. He was sentenced last month to 10 years' probation. He also has to register as sex offender.
To give you a sense of perspective, the 15-year-old whom Simmons raped in the elevator got 12 months in prison for filing a false police report. She says she was prosecuted for falsely denying that she knew who jumped her on her way to school.
The judge who approved the plea deal tried to excuse the extraordinarily lenient sentence by saying that the prosecutor didn't object to probation. No objection appears in the transcript, but the prosecutor insists he objected during an off-the-record sidebar conversation with the judge.
The prosecutor, Amir Vonsover, says he held out for a one- to three-year prison term in exchange for a guilty plea. Even a three-year sentence would be a slap on the wrist for a confessed serial sexual predator who targeted helpless minors in his care.
That said, we shouldn't rush to blame the Vonsover for the light sentence. He probably didn't let Simmons off easy because of any secret fondness for rapists. The victim from the elevator admired Vonsover enough to name her son after him, so it's safe to assume she felt he was on her side.
Vonsover faced a strategic dilemma. If he offered a plea deal that carried serious jail time, Simmons and his lawyer might have preferred to take their chances in court. Vonsover probably agreed to a watered-down punishment because he wasn't sure he could get a conviction of the case went to trial.
That might have been a good call on Vonsover's part. Realistically, a jury might not have believed a black teen prisoner accusing a white court officer of rape with no witnesses and (as far as I can tell from media reports) no physical evidence. Simmons could easily have walked. He might even have gotten his job back. If Vonsover hadn't struck some kind of plea deal, Simmons could still be out there raping girls.
So, we're faced with a systemic problem. We can't shift all the blame to a rogue prosecutor or a lax judge. Prisoners are easy prey for unscrupulous officials because they're physically controlled and unlikely to be believed. The power dynamics are such that prison officials can rape inmates with near impunity. Predators like Simmons know it.
Maybe there's some way to retroactively stiffen Simmons' sentence.
Better yet, maybe the public outcry will motivate authorities to investigate him for other sex crimes. Simmons is suspected of victimizing many other girls over the course of his 16-year career. The guy allegedly kept a special stash of condoms and cookies at courthouse.
Unfortunately, it might just as difficult to get a conviction next time around. Sexual predators tend to have long histories of abuse. Maybe they'll need to try him for several crimes before a jury is finally willing to convict. It's not a foregone conclusion that a jury will reject the allegations of a prisoner, it's just that the odds are worse than they would be if the victim fit into a more readily sympathetic category. And it's tough to get a rape conviction based on the victim's uncorroborated testimony at the best of times.
It sucks that society has to spend so much money and time to get one dirtbag behind bars. But just going to that much trouble would send a message to prison officials who think they're untouchable.
It's possible that there are stronger cases against Simmons waiting to be uncovered. Maybe more victims will come forward now that they have some reason to hope they will be taken seriously. Maybe Simmons had accomplices or enablers. Rapists often do. Maybe these helpers could be unmasked and pressured into testifying against Simmons. Maybe he abused women on the outside, too. They authorities won't know until they look.
Hopefully, the outrage will motivate the City of New York to reexamine its policies and procedures to ensure that officials have the least possible opportunity to abuse prisoners. Are there enough surveillance cameras inside the courthouse? Is there a strong whistle blower program in place to encourage other officials to turn in their abusive colleagues? Are we screening and supervising juvenile counselors closely enough? Did Simmons' supervisors miss warning signs? An official inquest could help answer these questions.
One thing is certain, public outrage over prisoner rape is the first step towards ending the abuse. NOW-NYC is circulating a petition demanding justice for Simmons' three victims. Sign it.
[Photo credit: Bronze Age scale, by Dan Diffendale, Creative Commons.]