President Donald Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, resigned Friday amid growing questions about his handling of the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the rich and well-connected financier who pleaded guilty to prostitution charges a decade ago. As the U.S. attorney in Miami, Acosta agreed to a watered-down plea deal, and his office did not notify Epstein’s victims of the agreement.
Questions have lingered about why a prosecutor would cooperate so much with a criminal like Epstein. And then new sex trafficking charges were brought against Epstein last Monday by federal prosecutors in New York. They allege that dozens of girls, some as young as 14, were brought to Epstein’s homes in New York and Florida where they provided massages that progressed to sexual abuse, including rape. The girls were paid to recruit more girls to come to Epstein’s houses.
“In this way, Epstein created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit, often on a daily basis,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said in a news release.
Faced with a similar indictment in Florida in 2007, Epstein accepted a plea agreement that kept the extent of his alleged crimes secret and mostly kept him out of prison. He was allowed to serve his sentence in a private wing of the county jail and even then was allowed to leave jail up to 12 hours a day, six days at week to work at his office, a violation of sheriff’s department rules that prohibited work release for sex offenders like Epstein.
This is the deal that Acosta defended and then resigned over.
It is also a deal that highlights how the legal system too often fails victims of sex crimes.
Acosta’s office wasn’t alone in failing to ensure that Epstein met the full consequences for his crimes.
In 2011, a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office argued — against the recommendation of the New York Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders — that Epstein should not have to register as a top-level sex offender. The prosecutor, Jennifer Gaffney, asked a judge to reduce Epstein’s sex-offender status to the lowest possible classification, The New York Times reported. This would have stopped him from being listed as a sex offender for life and would have limited publicly available information about him. The request was denied.
As a registered sex offender, Epstein was required by law to report in person to the New York Police Department once a year and to notify the department of his address every 90 days. Failure to do so can result in jail time. Epstein did neither and the NYPD did not enforce the requirements, the New York Post reported.
In fact, Epstein largely escaped scrutiny until the Miami Herald published a series of stories about his crimes last year. Investigative reporter Julie K. Brown doggedly pursued his victims and law enforcement officials to build a detailed timeline of Epstein’s actions and how he avoided stronger legal penalties.
“This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them,” Brown wrote in the first story in the series called “Perversion of Justice.”
“I don’t think anyone has been told the truth about what Jeffrey Epstein did,’’ one of those accusers, Michelle Licata, now 30, said in the story. “He ruined my life and a lot of girls’ lives. People need to know what he did and why he wasn’t prosecuted so it never happens again.”
Licata’s plea resonates well beyond the Epstein case.
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. There are myriad reasons that victims don’t come forward. Fear of not being believed is a significant one, but so too is a belief that nothing will be done about it.
Out of every 1,000 rapes, only 310 are reported to police, and of these, only 57 lead to arrests, according to Department of Justice figures. Of those arrests, only 11 of the cases will be referred to prosecutors, with only seven resulting felony convictions, and only six perpetrators go on to serve time in jail.
In the face of these numbers, it is even more distressing that prosecutors, like Acosta, would cooperate with an abuser like Epstein to so minimize the consequences of his crime. Our justice system must put the lives of victims ahead of those of perpetrators, no matter how well-connected they are.
This editorial mentions sexual assault, which may be hard for some readers. If you need support, call 800-871-7741 to talk with an advocate. This service is free, private and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.