LD Blog: Making the Justice System More Just

by Stephen Green, Office of the Federal Public Defender

The Leadership Dallas Class of 2018 recently hosted its Criminal Justice Day at Dallas Police Department Headquarters. The day was full of engaging speakers that educated the class on a complex system, filled with many opportunities for improvement. The planning committee constructed the content around the trial process, from pre-trial to trial to life after prison. The storyline aimed to shine light on some of the more challenging aspects of the criminal justice system and concluded the day with a personal story.

The morning commenced by recognizing a sometimes overlooked truth: every single person in our community plays a role in our criminal justice system. While some LD class members have tragically been the victims of crime, others have sat in courtrooms as their loved ones were sentenced to time in prison. Some LD class members have been selected for jury service, and others are in charge of hiring at their firms where they must determine the extent to which an applicant’s criminal history should play a role in hiring decisions. At a minimum, LD class members vote, and by doing so, they elect representatives who create the system we have in place today. In short, our collective experiences with the criminal justice system gives everyone a voice, and LD class members were encouraged to make their voices heard.

Paul Genender and Glenn West started our leadership discussion with the importance of diversity in the workplace — a theme that would continue to arise during discussions about our criminal justice system. Chief U. Renee Hall, the first woman to be named Chief of the Dallas Police Department (DPD) in its 120-year history, explained how she seeks to create stronger ties between the DPD and the community, despite working with a force that is down 400 officers.

Before transitioning into panels, the criminal justice committee had class members walk around the room and record their impressions about different statistics regarding the criminal justice system. The difficult questions and conversations that flowed from those statistics laid a factual foundation for discussions to come.

The day’s first panel included three law enforcement officers, FBI Special Agent Miguel ClarkeDPD Corporal Ruben Lozano, and Jason Rodriguez, Assistant Chief of Police with the Dallas ISD Police Department. Rebecca Lopez, the Senior Crime and Justice Reporter for WFAA, moderated the day’s panels. The panelists discussed the challenges of modern police work, and each speaker highlighted the importance of forming relationships with the community to create a culture of mutual trust. Officer Lozano shared his perspective of the tragic events of July 7, 2017, when three members of his unit were killed in the line of duty.

The class discussion then shifted from pre-trial investigations to trial work, and a second panel included Judge Amber Givens-Davis of the 282nd District Court in Dallas County, Assistant Federal Public Defender Lauren Woods, and Aaron Wiley, a former Assistant United States Attorney in the Northern District of Texas. Judge Givens underscored how she tries to keep the community safe by incorporating wrap-around services into her sentences so that offenders are given the resources needed to reduce recidivism. Woods shared that she defends indigent defendants accused of federal crimes because she wants to be a voice for individuals who rarely have a voice. Wiley talked about the extraordinary power that prosecutors wield in our system, and he described how excellent prosecutors exercise that power with great responsibility.

Judge Givens’ emphasis on rehabilitation programs segued nicely into Christina Melton Crain’s presentation about Unlocking DOORS, a Dallas-based reentry organization that aims to advance public safety by reducing repeat crime. The day culminated with a powerful presentation by Jason Hernandez — a man who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 21 for committing a non-violent drug offense, and whose sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment by President Obama in 2015.

Hernandez’s experience brought the day’s themes full circle. His story challenged LD members to consider the valuable perspectives of all the voices in the criminal justice system, including those of both victims and offenders. It also challenged LD members to consider some of the weighty systemic issues underlying our system, including the degree to which race, class, and access to power have the potential to create disparate outcomes.

The Criminal Justice Committee doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. But making Dallas’ leaders aware of major issues facing the criminal justice system, and then having difficult conversations about those issues, is perhaps a good start.