Based on what you know from the media or your personal, work, or volunteer experiences, think about the following questions as you read the vignette. When you finish the vignette, answer the questions below.
How do you think the criminal justice system should respond to Larissa’s offending behavior, and why? In considering your answer to these responses, think of who you are considering (Larissa, her neighborhood, the broader community) and your goals for the response.What do you think would be the most effective response?
What do you think would the fairest (most just) response?
Is the fairest response necessarily the most effective one?
What are some of the hopes and concerns that you might have if you were the social worker visiting Larissa with the public defender?
What steps might you take to try to resolve any ethical conflicts that might arise for you as a social worker in this role?
What role might race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity play in this vignette?
Larissa grew up in a low-income neighborhood where her family was just able to make ends meet. When she entered high school, her father was unemployed and her family could not afford to buy her new clothes or school supplies. They were unable to pay for any extra activities, which included field trips and, later, her junior prom. Larissa complained to a friend, who told her that one of the teachers “likes younger women” and suggested that she offer to date him in exchange for prom tickets. Larissa figured that older men (and her teenage peers) often “hit” on her anyway, so why not get something out of it? Ten years later, Larissa struggles with substance abuse and health problems including Hepatitis C. She sometimes sells sex to purchase drugs and to keep a roof over her head. She has trouble getting or keeping a legal job due to her bouts of ill health, criminal record, and housing instability. Her daughter Kendra lives with Larissa’s parents. They only allow Larissa to see Kendra if she is not actively using drugs and only in their home where they can supervise. Larissa has sought addiction treatment several times, but Medicaid covers only inpatient stays. She is successful during treatment, but when she returns to her friends and the neighborhood where she has support, she is also surrounded by opportunities to buy and use drugs. The drugs help her cope with some of the trauma that she experienced while selling sex on the streets.
Larissa was recently arrested for prostitution. She told her public defender that although she has sold sex in the past, this time she was out on the streets because she had nowhere else to go. While some police officers have helped her by trying to connect her to outreach services or warning her when they learn about violent customers, in this case she told her public defender that the officer arrested her when she refused to provide him with free sexual services. A lawyer and social worker from the public defender’s office meet with Larissa, who is incarcerated because she cannot post bail. Based on her experience with similar cases, the public defender is skeptical that Larissa will be believed and offers her entry into a diversion program. To access the diversion program, Larissa will have to plead guilty to the charges, but she will not be punished with fines or jail time if she successfully completes the 1-year program. Larissa is exhausted and wants help. Regardless of her innocence, she knows that participating in the program will get her longer-term services than she can access outside of the criminal justice system. The public defender also explains that if she “takes the program” she will get out of jail faster. Not only is Larissa eager to get out of jail soon for her own sake, but she knows that her parents will not bring Kendra to visit her in jail and she is eager to get out quickly to see Kendra. After Larissa hears this, she tunes out the rest of the explanation offered by the public defender. This includes what can happen to her if she fails to complete the program, in which case her guilty plea is officially entered, and she will be sentenced with no opportunity to go to trial to share her version of events.