Explaining Criminal Justice Reform to a Six-Year Old

KKM's drawing depicting R2C

For young kids, learning about careers usually means learning about teachers, doctors, nurses, firemen, police officers, etc. So, a couple of years ago, when my then six-year-old son asked me to describe what I do, I really had to think about it. As well as being the project director of the National Drug Court Resource Center, my work at the Justice Programs Office (JPO) encompasses other areas of the criminal justice policy field.

This is how I answered him:

When you do something you are not supposed to do at home or break any rules in school, you get placed in time-out, correct? What happens when you are done with your time-out? You get all your privileges back. We never stop loving you, and you promise not to do what got you in time out in the first place again. Mommy works on helping those who may or may not have done something against the rules (law) and makes sure that they get their privileges back and get another chance.

With the 55th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright coming up on March 18, my work with the Right to Counsel (R2C) National Campaign has been on my mind, and I don’t think my answer back then quite covered all that I do.

R2C is based on the belief that a fair and equitable criminal justice system requires representation by skilled defense counsel with adequate resources at every stage of the process. The campaign is spearheaded by a consortium of national, state, and local criminal justice stakeholders, community advocates, and policymakers who are committed to ensuring the fulfillment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the effective delivery of public defense services. For the last three years, JPO has led this reform effort and focused on using value-based communication tactics to raise public awareness about the importance of carrying out the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, the ways in which this right is not being implemented, and the roles everyone can play in ensuring that the constitutional right to counsel is upheld.

As the senior associate director at JPO, I have a unique opportunity to advocate for the fair administration of justice and to connect the importance of counsel at every stage of the justice system with all the justice players as well as state and local policymakers. Our R2C model stresses the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to working on criminal justice reform, with us serving as the coordinator between criminal justice stakeholders and state and local policymakers. From my perspective, right to counsel reform efforts and overall criminal justice reform cannot effectively occur in silos, and addressing effective, skilled, well-resourced counsel for all is one of the key answers to reducing this nation’s mass incarceration.

Reform efforts also cannot work when those within the justice system are not seen as human beings and treated with respect. With this in mind, I believe it is important to raise public awareness long before people become criminal justice stakeholders. The education of our community begins with children, and I believe the grade school level is the right time to start teaching students about human dignity and second chances, the importance of collaboration, and give them an understanding of the justice system. So, today, to my eight-year-old son, I would tweak the answer I gave him a few years ago and say:

When you do something you are not supposed to do at home or break any rules in school, you get placed in time-out, correct? And I work with other adults, such as your teachers or dad or grandparents, to help you with any challenges so that you can do your best.

What happens when you are done with your time-out? You get all your privileges back, and we continue to be your champions. We never stop loving you, and you promise not to do what got you in time out in the first place again.

Mommy works with people like police, judges, county officials, and others on helping those who may or may not have done something against the rules (law) and makes sure that they get their privileges back and get another chance.

If you are new to the Right to Counsel National Campaign, I encourage you to visit the R2C website, follow R2C on Facebook and Twitter, and join the conversation online using #right2counsel. You’ll find me on twitter at @PreetiPMenon.

Preeti Menon is the Justice Programs Office’s senior associate director.

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