Former N.J. attorney general Anne Milgram on using algorithms to fight crime and being the only woman in the room

This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell MarketWatch how they broke down professional barriers.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, people address the attorney general as “General.” But Anne Milgram, who served as the Garden State’s chief law enforcement officer from June 2007 to January 2010, says she was never much for titles. “Please, call me Anne,” she’d say.

A few days into the job, a longtime state employee advised that Milgram let the law-enforcement folks call her General. After all, he pointed out, she sat at the top of their hierarchy, and she shouldn’t undersell that. Plus, she would sometimes need that authority when she disagreed with people.

“I was always a little uncomfortable with it, but I thought it was really interesting advice,” Milgram, 48, told MarketWatch in an interview. “And I did wonder later if it was particularly true because I was a young woman.”

Milgram, nominated by former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to be the state’s top cop and top lawyer, took office at age 36 to become New Jersey’s second-youngest attorney general and the third woman to hold the job.

She was one of just six female attorneys general in the nation during her tenure, according to data provided to MarketWatch by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

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The guest list for an annual dinner Milgram now attends with current and former female attorneys general is “getting bigger,” she said, but “it’s still really small.” Indeed, the number hasn’t budged too much over the past decade: The current number of women elected or appointed to be state AG sits at just nine.

“I was used to being the only woman in the room, which is a terrible thing to get used to,” Milgram recalled of her time as AG. “I don’t think any of us should accept that in today’s world.”

Anne Milgram

Courtesy of Anne Milgram

Milgram now teaches full-time at New York University and lives nearby with her husband and nearly 5-year-old son. She grew up in East Brunswick, N.J. with an engineer dad, a Rutgers University professor mom and a sister. With teachers and police officers in her family, Milgram developed an interest in government, working as a congressional page in Washington, D.C., during her junior year of high school.

She graduated from Rutgers in 1992 with a degree in English and political science, earned a one-year master’s of philosophy in social and political theory from the University of Cambridge, and eventually attended NYU’s law school. But while Milgram always imagined she’d work in government, she never really thought she’d practice criminal law — even taking a criminal procedure class in law school pass-fail. (She passed.)

Milgram would also grow aware of women’s scarcity in senior legal jobs. While women enrolled in law schools have outnumbered men for the past few years, they made up just 38% of lawyers in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just shy of 25% of law-firm partners and about 22% of equity partners are women, according to Law360.

“It’s when you get to the higher levels that there are significantly more men than women,” said Milgram, who is also special counsel to the Manhattan law firm Lowenstein Sandler and was a co-lead investigator on the Dallas Mavericks’ independent sexual-harassment probe.

Throughout high school, college and law school, Milgram had also fostered a passion for cooking. She took classes during law school through the New School’s culinary program, meeting visiting chefs along the way, and eventually staged — French for working as an unpaid kitchen intern — for chocolatier and pastry chef Jacques Torres at Le Cirque. Though she loved the work, Milgram chose not to make a career out of it.

“People who work in kitchens and restaurants … [have] one of the hardest jobs in America,” she said. “I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to wake up every single day and go chop scallions for five hours. And I think you have to really want that.” These days, she cooks pernil (slow-roasted pork), fish recipes by French chef Eric Ripert and “a lot of chicken fingers.”

Milgram clerked between 1996 and 1997 for U.S. District Court Judge Anne Thompson, New Jersey’s first African-American federal judge, who Milgram described as a “total trailblazer” who became her mentor and role model. From there, she worked as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan DA’s office and as a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s civil rights division before serving as New Jersey’s first assistant attorney general for 17 months.

As attorney general, Milgram ran one of the state government’s largest agencies and led probes into government corruption, gang violence, mortgage fraud and a number of other areas. She oversaw a drop in the murder rate, announcing a decline in homicides for the third year straight during her penultimate month as AG, with the largest decline in Camden. She credits her data-driven overhaul of Camden’s police department, which was then overseen by the state, with reducing the city’s violent crime and murder rates.

“Today, Camden is the safest it has been in more than 50 years,” she said. “So much of the credit belongs to the chief we appointed when we left and to the men and women who have worked tirelessly in Camden.”

Milgram encountered her share of sexism as well. Early on, she recalled, a senior member of state police leadership came into her office and said, “We’ve been looking for you all over to see if we could get any dirt on you.”

“I was like, ‘Well, I’m not on
 , but thank you for telling me,’” she said. “You think: Would they have done that to a man? And was it because I was young, was it because I was a woman, was it because they felt threatened that I was going to change things? I don’t know.”

Then, at an all-AG event in Utah, a man at an after-dinner drinks event informed her that she was “by far the most attractive attorney general here.” While she cracked wise in response — “I’m also the youngest by like 45 years, so thanks?” — she recognized in hindsight that she should have told him the remark was inappropriate. “At the time, it was just incredibly stunning to me, and also such a silly thing,” she said.

Milgram can admit her time as AG wasn’t perfect. She has since reversed course on her 2007 directive that local police ask about the immigration status of people charged with serious crimes and notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they believed the suspect was undocumented, an order spurred by the arrest of an undocumented triple-homicide suspect who was out on bail. Milgram says her directive aimed to arm judges with more information as they set dollar amounts for bail.

Police and immigration advocates had criticized the guidelines’ clarity and said they opened themselves to varying interpretations, according to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal overrode Milgram’s directive in November, limiting when law-enforcement officials can inquire about immigration status and alert federal authorities — and Milgram herself gave her blessing in an op-ed.

“More than 10 years later, I now believe that this directive is no longer needed both because bail reform has made it unnecessary and because it has strained the relationships between local police and the communities they serve,” she wrote.

Another regret is one of omission. Milgram’s team focused so deeply on remaking Camden’s police department, she said, that it didn’t blueprint much of that process for cities like Trenton and Newark.

Today, Milgram says her unifying mission is to make communities safe and create paths and opportunities for less crime and less incarceration. But that requires rethinking how we approach public safety, she said. “There’s no system that is more old-school and broken and problematic than the criminal justice system,” she said. “There are plenty of good things about it, and there are amazing people in it, but as a system it doesn’t run the way it should run.”

To that end, Milgram headed up a criminal-justice initiative between 2011 and 2015 for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, where she and her team developed a risk-assessment tool to help judges decide whether a pre-trial defendant should be detained due to the risk they pose to public safety or released on bail.

The algorithmic tool, built from a dataset of 1.5 million cases, uses several risk factors like prior violent convictions and prior failures to appear in court to predict a person’s likelihood of committing a new crime and of failing to return to court if released pre-trial. In other words, as Milgram put it in 2013 TED Talk, it uses statistics to “moneyball criminal justice.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned in 2014 that such data-driven tools could negatively impact minorities and poor people if they factored in characteristics like education level or socioeconomic background. Milgram at the time agreed that “no risk assessment should have a racial bias,” and said her tool didn’t incorporate demographics or education level.

Milgram now works as a professor of practice at the NYU School of Law and runs the school’s criminal-justice innovation lab, which works with states, cities and communities to reform criminal justice through a data- and tech-oriented approach. The lab recently partnered with Indianapolis and another yet-to-be-announced community to build a screening tool, she said, that will help police identify people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness and divert them to other services before they enter the criminal-justice system.

She also co-hosts the law and politics podcast “Cafe Insider” alongside former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. “It’s a terrific opportunity,” she said. “I get to talk about issues that I care about deeply with someone whom I respect a great deal.”

Women interested in a law-enforcement career should talk to women who are already in the profession, get to know their local police and prosecutors, and try to shadow someone on the job, Milgram said. “It’s meaningful and rewarding work, and I would love to see 100 times more women in law enforcement,” she said.

In fact, Milgram and her co-investigator’s very first recommendation in the Mavericks sexual-harassment report was to boost the number of women throughout the organization. Researchers have linked having more women at a company with less sexual harassment and greater profitability.

“I’m very happy to see women pushing back on #MeToo issues and also just demanding a seat at the table,” Milgram said. “I think people don’t give you power — you have to demand that you be a part of that.”

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