A new year provides the opportunity to reflect on the past and set goals for the future. Each year, a central theme emerges in my New Year’s resolution: be present. Show up; assume the best of each other; focus on where you are; remember the dignity of every person.
I first learned about the concept of procedural fairness within justice systems in the early 2000s while working at the Department of Justice. The concept seems quite intuitive to me yet when observing court practices, I was struck by how many courts don’t naturally incorporate the elements of procedural fairness into their daily work.
This month marks 45 years since the passing of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who is remembered for promoting fairness in the justice system, including the Gideon v. Wainwright decision in 1963 requiring states to provide counsel for those who could not afford it. This decision bolstered the importance of effective counsel as part of our Sixth Amendment right to representation. Today, legal representation remains inadequate due to attorney shortages, a lack of funding, and no workload limits. The quality of public defense often suffers, forcing public defenders to decide between caseload efficiency and meaningful representation (see a recent blog post on this subject here).
Last month, California congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris introduced the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act. If passed, the bill would create a $250 million grant program aiming to establish workload limits for public defenders and pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors. The bill would also authorize $5 million to provide training to public defenders.
Last week, in partnership with the National Association for Court Management and supported by the State Justice Institute, the Justice Programs Office, Right to Counsel team held a meeting with judges and court administrators on how to enhance caseflow management to ensure effective assistance of counsel. I was excited to convene this passionate group of court leaders and hear what they had to say on the topics of caseflow management and effective assistance of counsel, yet was unsure how the conversation would go. I wasn’t completely convinced that enough people would find enough to talk about and stay engaged in over the two days, or if everyone would buy into this exploration of the tension between processing cases quickly while simultaneously allowing for and encouraging effective assistance of counsel. Well, let me tell you—I was proved wrong—the sustained energy, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking that manifested during the meeting and extended into an evening reception was beyond my highest expectations.
Last week SPA co-sponsored Leadership in Action: Criminal Justice Reform, an event hosted by The Hill. I participated in the event, representing SPA, and gave remarks highlighting the overwhelming bipartisan support we saw last year when Congress passed the First Step Act. I followed the conversation when Congress was working on criminal justice reform, and while I’m glad all the talk on the Hill resulted in the passage of new legislations, I hope that the First Step Act is just that, a first step.
Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”
February is Black History Month. It’s a time for everyone to reflect on the legacy of progress that black leaders have left throughout history in the fight for liberation, equitable treatment, and empowerment. It is also a time for white allies to examine what they could be doing better to interrupt their own racism and that of others, what it means to support black leadership, and how our nation’s policies continue to oppress black lives. And indeed, it is a time for white allies to heed Alexander’s call to re-examine the role of the criminal legal system in society.
This past Fall, The Marshall Project launched, “What’s the Story?”, a monthly speaker series that highlights how narratives and media impact criminal justice policies and practices. The latest event on January 23, 2019 featured Tayari Jones, Piper Kerman, and David Simon. All three spoke powerfully about how broadcast and print media can shape perceptions and drive the narrative around criminal justice.
In 2017, I was pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree at American University and needed a job. When I entered the university’s administration staff recruiting program, I did not have much in mind beyond editing Excel spreadsheets. However, when an email told me that the Justice Programs Office (JPO) was hiring, I was excited to interview for a center within the School of Public Affairs, where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have always had a passion for public policy and working for the Justice Programs Office turned out to be an excellent complement to my studies. I’d like to share some of my favorite memories from working here. Continue reading “A Culture of Community and Dignity”