Say it Louder If you’re not close to the problem, don’t offer a solution
Bianca Sierra Wolff is a lawyer and Deputy Director at ChangeLawyers℠.
I’ve worked in philanthropy for almost four years at ChangeLawyers, a foundation that funds the next generation of social justice lawyers. I’m proud of the initiatives and programs we’ve launched; the bold resolve of my colleagues; and the fearlessness of the communities we fund.
I am not proud of the fact that those in positions of power in the legal field continue to look the same — and think the same. Those in positions of power look eerily similar to the way they did in 2004, when I graduated from law school.
Close to 40% of Californians are Latinx, but only 7% of lawyers are; womxn are now the majority of law school students, yet most big law firms still have only a handful of womxn equity partners. Black law firm partners are almost non-existent.
So why is power still concentrated in the hands of mostly white, mostly male, and mostly straight lawyers? Because those who hold power have a real fear of challenging the status quo. Rather than empowering those closest to the problem to find solutions, we still rely on current law firm leadership to come up with the answers. These answers often consist of quick fixes and safe messaging designed to not offend. Instead of talking about racial justice and the legacy of slavery, we talk about “diversity”. Instead of talking about racism as something that is deeply embedded in our institutions, we talk about it as an abstract idea.
It’s time to have challenging conversations.
First, if you are one of those lawyers in a position of power and leadership, you need to take a long hard look at what you bring to the table in terms of solutions. Being an expert in your particular area of the law does not make you an expert on equity.
Second, understand that diversity isn’t enough and will never be enough. True equity requires redistributing power from the hands of a few to the many. It means promoting lawyers of color, queer lawyers, nonbinary lawyers, and womxn lawyers into positions of power and influence. This also means getting comfortable with the idea of giving up your power and your privilege. Clinging to outdated views about “increasing diversity” just won’t work.
Third, rather than becoming defensive, lawyers with power need to listen — I mean really listen — to those closest to the problem. If you don’t come from historically neglected communities and if you haven’t spent time in community with those who have experienced systemic injustice, then you need to listen rather than push back when you feel uncomfortable.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve advocated for ChangeLawyers to step outside of our comfort zone, to speak up, to be bold — only to receive strong opposition and pushback. Imagine my shock and horror when I’ve been shut down by the status quo, but also when other potential allies in the room have not spoken up for fear of angering the outspoken status quo.
Community lawyers, activists, and organizers possess knowledge and qualities that those from privileged backgrounds probably don’t have because they’ve never had to do without. These qualities should be valued just as much as knowing how to speak with confidence and authority or writing a good legal brief.
Are we serious about calling ourselves Changelawyers? If the answer is yes, then we need to be bold.
The time for old outdated ideas is over. If we truly want to harness the power of the next generation of lawyers, we need to commit to a world of bold and passionate ideas. If not, we are bound to remain in exactly the same place that we are today — a homogenous, timid profession too afraid to challenge the status quo.
Follow ChangeLawyers on Medium
#ChangeLawyers A day in the life of a voting rights lawyer
Allison Riggs isn't intimidated by much. As the head of the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, she has argued cases in federal courthouses throughout the southern United States — and even before the Supreme Court. Riggs' heavy workload requires her to criss-cross the country, fielding calls from reporters and listening to oral-argument recordings as she hops between hotels and airport waiting rooms. This hectic schedule can be draining and keeps her apart from her puppy, but she's motivated by the fight to stop voter suppression and fix our "broken" government. Here, Riggs shows us what a day as a voting rights attorney is really like.
4:30 a.m.: Wake up! I always get up early the morning of argument to review cases I might be asked about, refine my argument notes, and practice pithy answers to expected questions. This early start is a little easier since I’m still on Greece time (48 hours ago, I was in Athens — beam me back, Scotty!). I got back to Raleigh-Durham, where I’m based, at 8 p.m. on Monday, and left for Houston at 7 a.m. on Tuesday.
5:00 a.m.: Hotel room coffee-maker fail. I ripped the bag with the coffee and broke the prepackaged filter holding the coffee. I’m down in the lobby prowling for complimentary coffee (gotta love nonprofit life!). The receptionist is very kind, and probably feels sorry for me, so she hooks me up.
7:00 a.m. : I’ve been on planes a lot in the last few days, so I head to the very small hotel gym. I listen to audio from a moot I did last month (moots are practice arguments — they help you anticipate questions and crystallize good answers to expected questions). I always record moots on my phone so I can listen to them later. If I listen to myself, I can think about how to tighten up answers or avoid tics in speech patterns. Plus, I have to multitask to stay sane. I’ve argued two United States Supreme Court cases in the last year or so, and I’ve probably listened to hundreds of oral-argument recordings on an elliptical.
9:30 a.m.: My colleague Jaci comes to my hotel room to go over a few unsettled questions. It’s amazing sometimes how hard it can be to decide on the right answer to an expected question, but I’m frequently arguing about unsettled questions of law, so there’s not always an easy answer. We talk for about an hour, and I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be!
11:30 a.m.: I head down to the lobby to check out, stash my bags behind the desk, and get one last caffeine fix. The same kind receptionist tells me I look nice; I tell her this is my boring courtroom look — navy skirt suit, cream shell, conservative heels, and pantyhose. I have suits every color of the rainbow, and I love wearing bright colors to speaking events. But I’m a young-ish looking woman in a field dominated by old white men. If I wear any color in a courtroom, I get snide comments about lacking gravitas (I swear — this has happened!). Also, pantyhose are an invention of the devil!
12:15 p.m.: Jaci and I are at the federal courthouse now. I like to be very early for arguments, as being rushed throws me off. We’re the second argument of the afternoon, and the first argument doesn’t start until 1 p.m. I’ll be arguing that all voters in Texas should each have an equally powerful vote; right now, voters in rural areas have in excess of 20 times the voting strength of voters in urban San Antonio.
1:30 p.m.: The first argument is wrapping up. The three-appeals court panel has been asking a lot of questions. I don’t get nervous before appearing in court, but I do feel the enormity of the faith my clients have placed in me, and how important it is that they be afforded a fair and equal say in elections.
Read the story on Teen Vogue
More of This This lawyer wants to recruit more progressive prosecutors and sheriffs
Tiffany Cabán, a former candidate for Queens County, New York, district attorney, has joined the Working Families Party as a national political organizer to help elect progressive prosecutors and sheriffs across the country.
Cabán will work in the senior role to recruit candidates who align with the reformist principles—such as decriminalizing drug possession and treating it like a substance use disorder—that helped her emerge from relative obscurity as a public defender in New York City to become a rising star in the progressive prosecutor movement. Her organizing job is planned to last at least through February, said Rob Duffey, national communications director for the party.
In an interview with The Appeal, Cabán said that her goal is to build out the party’s participation in DA and sheriff elections set for 2020, with a focus on finding candidates who are redefining public safety and who want to divest from the business of incarceration.
“I see an opportunity to continue to build off of the work that we did on the campaign, which was, in so many ways, an extension of the work that I did in the courtroom,” Cabán said. “Coming into this space is really about how can we be as successful as possible in getting our communities the kind of criminal justice reforms that they deserve—that they demand,” she said, “and that we are electing not just so-called progressive prosecutors but decarceral prosecutors around the country.”
This is the first news of Cabán’s next steps since she conceded the Queens DA Democratic primary race to borough president Melinda Katz in August. Katz won the July race by a narrow margin, triggering a nailbiter manual recount; she emerged the victor, just 55 votes ahead of Cabán. Katz, whose platform moved left over the course of the race on issues like decriminalizing sex work and ending money bail, is the overwhelming favorite to win in the general election on Nov. 5.
The new job also means Cabán has resigned as a lawyer at New York County Defender Services in Manhattan, she confirmed in the interview. She has worked there for the past four years and, before that, worked for the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice in New York City.
Maurice Mitchell, the Working Family Party’s national director, said Cabán’s candidacy “has created a sort of groundswell of grassroots candidates that are interested in these types of races,” Mitchell said in a phone interview. The party backed Cabán’s run for DA.
“Tiffany has been tried by fire,” he said. “So she has the hard skills and practice of understanding what the challenges are and also what the possibilities are and running these types of insurgent DA races.”
The criminal justice reform movement is increasingly focused on elevating district attorneys nationwide for the role they can play in transforming the criminal legal system. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Boston DA Rachael Rollins, and St. Louis DA Wesley Bell, among others, all won election in the last two years after campaigning on substantial reforms, including diverting people from jails and into treatment programs.
Read the story on The Appeal
Less of This Prosecutors tried to disqualify a Black judge who called out racism
Two Louisiana judges will begin hearing arguments tomorrow about whether a Black judge should be recused from more than 300 criminal cases after she criticized prosecutors for the disproportionate rate of incarceration among Black Louisianans. According to a motion filed by prosecutors, Iberia Parish Judge Lori Landry has accused the district attorney’s office of incarcerating Black people more harshly and at a higher rate than white people, and has suggested prosecutors have improper motivations and engage in “trickery.” In response, prosecutors in District Attorney Bo Duhé’s office have filed motions for the judge to be recused because she is “biased or prejudiced against (the DA’s office) such that she cannot be fair or impartial.”
Prosecutors have filed this motion in virtually every criminal case assigned to her. In the motion, prosecutors list over 30 instances they argue indicate that Landry is biased. But many do not indicate anything of the sort. In one example from 2017, prosecutors claim that Landry implied that members of the district attorney’s office “knew or should have known” that former Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputies were involved in misbehavior. In a 2018 example, Landry is accused of calling the district attorney’s pretrial diversion program “highway robbery.” These comments do not demonstrate bias so much as conclusions that prosecutors disagreed with.
The criminal system, and the criminal system in Louisiana, have always been biased against Black people, and prosecutors engage in what might be called “trickery” all the time. I have made a podcast documenting one particularly egregious case, out of New Orleans, that almost resulted in an innocent man’s execution. Until recently, split juries could convict people of felonies in Louisiana, the result of an explicitly racist attempt to silence Black jurors. Louisiana judges routinely allow prosecutors to engage in illegal jury discrimination. Louisiana is 33 percent Black, but a survey sampling half the prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses found that 91 percent were Black.
“A 2016 study found that in Louisiana, killers of white victims were 14 times more likely to be executed than killers of Black victims,” writes Radley Balko in an exhaustive compilation of studies showing evidence of discrimination in the criminal system. “Black men who killed white women were 30 times more likely to get the death penalty than Black men who killed Black men. Those convicted of killing white people were also less likely to have their sentences overturned on appeal, and Louisiana hasn’t executed a white person for killing a Black person since 1752.” The Supreme Court will not intervene: It allows the death penalty to be carried out even in the face of proof that it is meted out disproportionately based on the race of the accused and the race of the victim.
Read the story on The Appeal
Less of This Too We’ve normalized prison, and it’s killing our democracy
Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” She served 13 months in federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.
When I was 22, in the early 1990s, I committed a crime. More than a decade later, I was sent to federal prison for 13 months for that crime — a first-time drug offense. In 2010, I published a book about my experience, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” The title is not only a sarcastic joke about orange jumpsuits, but also a reference to the fact that the population of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people in the United States has exploded: We lock up more of our own people than any other nation in history, and beyond the 2.3 million people confined on any given day, more than 73 million American adults have some sort of criminal record.
The reach of the American criminal punishment systems stretches to clutch far more people than many imagine. I know this not only from being incarcerated, but also from teaching nonfiction writing classes in state prisons. My students’ stories bravely reveal difficult personal truths and bring to light much wider realities in a way that only lived experience really can. What incarcerated writers’ voices illustrate is that the American criminal justice system does not solve the problems — violence, mental illness, addiction — that it claims to address.
If prison curbed drug addiction or the ills that surround it, we would not be in the grip of an overdose crisis, having locked up unprecedented millions of people for drugs for more than four decades. If the threat of criminal punishment were effective against violence, then we would not see persistent and unequal rates of harm concentrated in some communities, or against women, or LGBTQ people. If we considered our failure to help children who witness or are targeted by violence alongside our unique willingness to sentence children to die in prison, perhaps more people would see our criminal punishment system for the vicious ouroboros that it is.
Indeed, far from solving our problems, the carceral state is causing a massive one: A nation that locks up so many people and creates an expansive apparatus that relies on violence and confinement is a nation in which democracy, over the long term, cannot thrive. For centuries, the U.S. political economy has relied on millions being sidelined from democratic participation, most notably African Americans and, before 1920, women. Violence, in the form of lynching, was always important to limit democracy in this country (and agents of law enforcement were often complicit). As we near 2020, civic exclusion is still a critical tool for those invested in preserving an inequitable status quo, and the policies surrounding mass incarceration are invaluable for continuing to deny participation to millions of Americans.
Last year, the citizens of Florida voted to amend the state constitution to allow people like me, with felony convictions, to regain the right to vote after returning home. Quickly and shamelessly, the Florida legislature and governor responded by passing a poll tax to prevent those voters — disproportionately people of color and poor people — from having a voice. Many other states also restrict voting rights of prisoners or ex-prisoners, especially states with large African American populations — not a coincidence, as they remain overly targeted and punished by the criminal justice system. As a result, we have not only normalized prison but normalized the exclusion of large groups of people from participating in our democracy.
It’s important to remember that law is made and administered by those in power — and the less democratic we are, the less just the legal system will be. That’s why police officers or Stanford athletes who rape get sentences of six months or probation, while some of my students have served two decades for similar crimes and are still in prison. Prisons and jails do not serve feminist goals — few institutions are more hierarchical, more dominance-oriented, more patriarchal, and totally reliant on the threat and promise of violence. Being subject to violence does not make you less likely to enact it. We are at a moment in time when state violence — whether it’s violence perpetrated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents against children and families, police violence documented on smartphones, or a woman paralyzed in a beating by prison workers — is coming into sharper relief for all Americans, even those who have not been targets of the state. If you’re outraged by what you see the government doing with federal courts and detention facilities, look closely at what your local sheriff, prosecutors and judges are doing, too.
Read the story on Washington Post
Speaking Of… Prisons were built for men. What would a prison designed for women look like?
Lauren Johnson walked into the aging Travis County jail just outside Austin on a sunny Friday in July 2018 and steeled herself. Every time she passed through the door and the smell hit her, it all came rushing back: the humiliation of being shackled while nine months pregnant. The pang of seeing her children from behind a glass barrier. How she’d had to improvise with what little she had, crafting makeshift bras out of the disposable mesh underwear the jail provided. Between 2001 and 2010, she’d been in and out of the facility six times. Altogether, she’d spent about 3½ years of her life incarcerated.
Now she was returning to the jail, eight years after the last time she’d been released. But this time, it was to ask the incarcerated women questions that would’ve been unfathomable to her during her time there: What did they want? How could their experience be improved?
Johnson wore bold prints and her best jewelry that morning, and purposefully doused herself in perfume. She remembered how deprived she’d felt when she was inside; she wanted the women to see and smell the vibrancy of life beyond the razor wire. She sat in a dank jail classroom, surrounded by a dozen or so women wearing dingy uniforms. She told them about her past, then asked about their futures, and the future of the jail that housed them.
“Could we work for deodorant?” one woman asked. Like shampoo, conditioner and other basic hygiene supplies, deodorant cost money at the commissary, and the women had no income. There were other problems: They weren’t given bras or tampons (a possible security concern, according to the facility’s medical director). They wanted access to education, and to fresh vegetables. They wanted to see the sunlight more. “Basic f---ing needs,” Johnson told me.
As a criminal justice outreach coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Johnson is part of a committee of six women formed by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in early 2018 to plan a new building, one that aims to set a higher standard for a women’s jail. The current structure is made up of 12 rundown housing units at the correctional complex in Del Valle, a suburb just over seven miles southeast of the pink capitol dome. The buildings on the suburban campus date to the 1980s and are starting to show signs of age, with peeling paint and recurring electrical and plumbing problems. Officials want better space for programs, and the facility isn’t set up to house all the women together. Instead, they’re spread out across five buildings, making it harder to foster a sense of community.
These were all problems Johnson remembered well, and she walked out the door feeling relieved that she could leave. But she was also brooding about what she’d heard, and how to incorporate the women’s wishes into the sheriff’s office’s reform effort. What would a state-of-the-art women’s jail — one focused on rehabilitation and second chances instead of punishment and retribution, with an eye to women’s specific needs — look like?
The American prison system was built with men in mind. The uniforms are made to fit male bodies. About 70 percent of the guards are men. The rules are made to control male social structures and male violence. It’s an outgrowth of necessity: Even though the female prison population has grown twice as fast as the male prison population over the past 35 years, about 90 percent of incarcerated adults are men. Pop culture reflected this invisibility, too, until 2013, when the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” brought the struggles of women in prison to millions of viewers.
Men and women have similarly abysmal recidivism rates — five out of six prisoners released from state lockups are arrested again within nine years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — but women are incarcerated for different reasons and bring with them different histories. They’re more likely to commit nonviolent crimes, involving theft, fraud and drugs. They have slightly higher rates of substance abuse than men, are more likely to be the primary caregiver of a young child, and typically earn less money than their male counterparts before getting locked up.
The system does little to account for such differences. Women tend to pose a lower risk of violence, but they’re still subject to the same classifications as men — so they’re often ranked at a higher security level than necessary, and, as a result, can be blocked from educational and treatment programs. And when violations do happen, they’re often nonviolent offenses, like talking back to a guard. Whereas men might alter their clothes to show gang affiliation, women might do the same for style or fit, yet both could result in disciplinary action. On top of that, women often have fewer programming options, such as education, job training and 12-step programs. This is, in part, a matter of economy of scale. Because there are fewer women in prison, there are fewer rehabilitative and training programs for them.
Read the story on Washington Post
What does the future of the judiciary look like?
How do we build a judiciary that reflects the people and values of California? To help shine light on how the process actually works, our panelists will share their stories of how they were elevated to their judgeships. We will also discuss how we can build the necessary structures for law students and lawyers from all backgrounds, including public interest, to become successful candidates for the state and federal bench.
November 20. Register here >
Celebrate 25 years of CAIR-SFBA
What began as a group of volunteers mobilizing to serve the community has become the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. We’re expecting upwards of 1,300 people to participate in this year’s celebration event, making it one of the largest Muslim galas in the country.
Register here >
Decrminalizing Mental Illness
A panel discussion at Loyola Law School on November 7
Register here >