Inequities in the legal system took center stage at Liberty and Justice: Moving from Some to All, a Feb. 8 conference and CLE organized by law students from Drexel, Temple, Penn, Villanova, Rutgers-Camden and Widener universities and co-hosted by the Philadelphia Bar Association.
The second annual conference, held at the Thomas R. Kline Institute of Trial Advocacy, featured panel discussions and workshops as well as an exhibit including artwork created by incarcerated individuals. The event featured perspectives from attorneys, activists, law professors and individuals and families directly affected by the criminal justice system on how to promote positive change.
Cassie Grainge, a 3L and lead organizer of the event, said it’s critical for law students to recognize the privilege that separates them from those adversely affected by governmental and legal systems that arose out of a colonization strategy governed by white supremacy.
During a panel exploring the impact of U.S. immigration polices, Ayodele Gansallo, the senior staff attorney at HIAS PA, Professor Jennifer J. Lee of Temple’s Beasley School of Law and activist and DACA recipient Marissa Piña Rodriguez discussed the series of executive orders that have multiplied the struggles of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Beyond the executive orders, Lee noted that millions of dollars were diverted from the federal emergency management budget towards immigration enforcement, Gansallo observed that refugees fleeing domestic violence and gangs have falsely been labeled “economic migrants.” Rodriguez said local law enforcement agencies have actively and needlessly shared databases with immigration officials.
Michael Froehlich, the managing attorney of Community Legal Service’s Homeownership and Consumer Rights Unit and of the Intake Unit at CLS’s North Philadelphia Law Center, explored the racial wealth divide with Shani Akilah, the co-founder of Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and Kempis “Ghani” Songster, an organizer at the Amistad Law Project and founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration. Redlining practices that were actively pursued by banks and permitted by government agencies starting in the 1930s produced “hyper-segregation” in Philadelphia neighborhoods, Froehlich said, noting that black families average 1/12thof the resources of white families. Nonprofit organizations have embraced roles that enable and enforce xpolicies that harm racial minorities as well as LGBTQ+ people, Akilah said. Minority-rich neighborhoods face higher rates of mortality, psychiatric hospitalizations, disorders like diabetes and incarceration, Songster added.
Bill Cobb, the former national deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice and founder of Redeemed PA, delivered a rousing keynote observing that injustices such as the system of mass incarceration were produced by attorneys. Cobb, who designed and co-led the largest campaign in ACLU history, aimed at reducing the prison population, his own experience in prison and subsequent success as an organizer despite the lack of a college degree. Lawyers, Cobb said, have tremendous power but should work to ensure that all human beings are able to live as productively as they do themselves.
“Leverage your power to create change,” Cobb said. “I’m not passionate. I’m fighting for my life.”
Mike Lee, '09, an assistant district attorney and the director of legislation and government affairs in the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia, Liz Schultz, assistant defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, an organizer for the Abolitionist Law Center and LaTonya Myers, a bail navigator at the Defenders Association discussed the ongoing challenge of reforming criminal justice in Philadelphia, despite the election of a progressive district attorney. Schultz noted that some defendants continue to be held in jail for low-level offenses because they can’t afford bail and Holbrook called for the decriminalization of drug use, while Myers said citizens should run programs that serve ex-offenders because they have greater insights about issues in the community.
Kee Tobar, an attorney and Stoneleigh emerging leader fellow of Community Legal Services’ Youth Justice Project, Marcía Hopkins, a social worker at the Juvenile Law Center and Shy Hill, a youth advocacy intern at the center, discussed the pipeline from justice-involved youth to homelessness and the myriad obstacles to serving homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are more heavily represented than their heterosexual peers in the criminal justice system, Tobar said, while Hopkins observed that homelessness is less obvious among youth, who may “couch surf” or make other arrangements that mask their circumstances.
Kris Henderson, legal director of Amistad Law Project, Professor David S. Cohen of the Kline School of Law, Karen Hoffmann, an attorney with Aldea, the People’s Justice Center and Karla Cruel, ’13, Philadelphia City Council District 4 candidate and founder of the Legal Empowerment Group, discussed the diverse pathways that attorneys can use as activists. Henderson has begun building an organization provides legal services to people in prison while advocating for policies that would permit parole eligibility for individuals who received life sentences. Cohen, a former attorney and current board member at the Women’s Law Center, has worked on impact litigation such as a recently filed lawsuit on behalf of women’s health clinics that would permit Medicaid coverage for abortions in Pennsylvania. Hoffmann recounted small victories that can aid asylum seekers and other underserved clients she represents. Cruel focuses on strategies for empowering citizens by teaching them to advocate for themselves, if their circumstances do not require a licensed attorney.
Concurrent workshops focused on a range of emerging strategies for advocacy that benefits those who struggle for just outcomes
- A workshop on Hero v. Partnershipexploring the strategies for engaging and empowering citizens was led by Karla Cruel.
- A workshop on Participatory Defense, a process that engages family and friends to obtain better outcomes for loved ones who face criminal charges and incarceration was led by Heather Lewis, a mother who was able to help a public defender negotiate favorable terms for her son.
- A workshop on Destigmatizing and Decriminalizing Sex Work and Drug Use that focused on harm reduction strategies was led by Nina Marsoopian of Project Safe and the Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance.
A workshop on Restorative Justice and the efforts to extend forgiveness, love and hope to incarcerated individuals was led by the mothers of people serving sentences: Julie Barnett, Yvonne Newkirk and Lorraine Haw. Correctional institutions erect barriers for the families who wish to support their loved ones in the most basic ways, Haw said, noting that officials at Smithfield Correctional Institution refuse to give her son the birthday cards she sends, providing him instead with black-and-white photocopies.