Middlesex District Atty. Marian Ryan’s office covers 54 cities and towns with a population of some 1.8 million, larger than the population of 11 different states. She oversees a staff of more than 100, including almost 50 assistant district attorneys.
On Saturday afternoon, however, Ryan spent almost an hour and a half hanging out in Bedford with some 80 community college students as the keynote speaker for a two-day career exploration symposium.
She not only delivered career advice but also shared details of her personal story, issues and priorities facing her office, plus cold cases, and answered students’ questions. And it seemed that, but for the arrival of the sheriff’s Ballistic Engineered Armored Response (BEAR) vehicle on the Middlesex Community College quad, she could have continued indefinitely.
Ryan advised the students to ask themselves not only what they want to be doing for work and where, but also what issues are personally important, and “How do you want to leave your mark?”
She painted a picture of a prosecutor’s office that can improve society, and based that on her personal trajectory, growing up in Dorchester and earning degrees from Emmanuel College and Boston College Law School. Part of her family’s ethos, she said, was “you should give back in some way.”
As a law school intern representing indigent clients, Ryan said the experience “made me think about the ways I could use my education to help people.” She noted, “The number of people who have access to higher education is declining. That gives you a greater responsibility to do good.”
Continuing her talk, Ryan said that during a subsequent internship with the district attorney’s office, she identified a distinction: “As a defense lawyer, your job is to do the best for your client, even if it is not the best for everybody else.” The prosecutor, however, is acting in the name of the commonwealth, which means he or she can consider, “What did I learn from these cases, and how can I use that to change policy?”
For example, she said, she filed legislation establishing a trust fund that, when fully funded by drug companies, makes available to all, for a nominal price, drugs that neutralize or negate the effects of opioids on the body. “As the DA, you get to do these broader things.”
“Our first mission is to protect public safety – then, to make it less burdensome,” she affirmed.
Ryan has served as Middlesex district attorney since 2013, and she has spent her entire professional career in that agency, serving in divisional supervisory positions like child protection and working closely with support staff. “I’m as happy to go to work as I was when I started,” she testified, advising the students, “You should do work that you really love.”
It’s a “storied” office, Ryan said, the departure point for many successful attorneys, including former U.S. Sen. John Kerry. “We are fortunate to attract incredibly talented people, and we want them to grow professionally,” through training, mentoring, and innovation.
“In our office today, 60 percent of the prosecutors are women,” Ryan said, adding, “There is still work to be done,” as she is the only female district attorney in the Commonwealth.
Ryan outlined the demographics of her office’s coverage: 54 cities and
towns, 21 college campuses, 250,000 public school students.
“We are diverse in every possible way,” Ryan told the students, differentiating among the urban, suburban, and rural areas. “We are sort of a social laboratory.” She added, “Those differences are important to the region,” in areas such as attracting college students as well as grants.
“Sometimes you need different solutions in different places,” she explained. Zoom has facilitated access to diversion programs in sparsely-populated areas. In Lowell, the new Justice Center features an English-only information option. “We are going to install translation machines” just to help people get to the right place.
Ryan also explained how issues can have interlocking consequences. She cited a study that demonstrated a common denominator between young people disciplined in school and inadequate dental care.
There are some 250,000 college students in the county, and “we have all kinds of issues,” ranging from mental health and sexual identity to substance abuse and racial justice, Ryan reported.
Massachusetts, Ryan noted, has the nation’s strictest gun laws – and ranks 50th among the states in death from firearms. “But we don’t live with a wall around us,” she said, pointing out the threat raised by “ghost guns,” which are untraceable firearms that can be bought online and assembled at home.