When Jon Zulauf met with me 7 years ago to share about the establishment of the Seattle Clemency Project, I was extremely excited. One of the greatest regrets expressed by public defenders has been their inability to continue to represent their clients once they have been sentenced. Some have been able to stay involved in their client’s subsequent legal activities through pro bono work or specialized appointments, but, overall, public defenders have had to quickly turn their attention to new clients, and to just hope for the best for those they formerly represented.
I still get angry when I think of the battles we fought in the 1990s to push back on the tsunami of fear-based sentencing and prison legislation. Despite our opposition, those changes were implemented – to great detriment, not only to the individuals affected, but to our legal system and society as a whole. The demonization of youth and, especially youth of color, became an accepted norm for the criminal legal system as a whole, and it is a battle we are still fighting to reverse.
Race equity demands that we look at our criminal legal system with new eyes and to even return to an earlier time when rehabilitation was valued as a primary goal of incarceration, not punishment. This relook is crucial. Our current problems can’t be addressed just by tinkering with the length of sentences, but need to be tackled by a clear-eyed acknowledgment that our criminal legal system is in dire need of accountability and rehabilitation itself.
This project is an important touchstone that shines a light on past and present injustices.
It’s hard to believe that it was just a little over a year ago that Jen Smith and I met to explore the needs of the communities we both serve, and to discuss ways we could collaborate to help those serving long sentences. Little did I know that an opportunity would arise so quickly for us to put our vision into action. We are grateful that our proposal to establish a pilot project was selected to receive federal Bureau of Justice Assistance Byrne grant funding.
Unfortunately, that funding ends in a year, so we are turning our attention to advocating before the 2023 Legislature to ensure this pilot project becomes a standing budget item in the State Office of Public Defense budget.
The support for this project, and for those who are serving time in our prisons, by State OPD under the leadership of Larry Jefferson has been inspirational. His vision of a public defense system that is equipped to redress past and current inequities is critical to our long-term reform efforts.
This project would not be in existence without the support of the Washington Defender Association board and, especially, the outstanding work done by WDA staff. Their enthusiasm for the project has been heartwarming.
- Unfortunately, Ali Hohman is not able to join us tonight, but was integral in getting the project off the ground and in our ongoing work.
- Percy Levy is our Community Outreach Specialist, and his experience as a formerly incarcerated person will be foundational to our work.
- Cindy Arends Elsberry brings decades of experience working in public defense and provides case consultation and training support.
- Last, but not least, Sarah Hudson brings a unique background in both public defense and immigration law and is leading our work on post-conviction immigration cases.
In closing, this collaboration is only the beginning of our exciting work to help restore lives, reform inequities, and to re-define public safety and how we achieve it. True public safety is for all in our society. We welcome everyone’s efforts as we work to sustain this momentum for change.
Once again, thank you so much for this opportunity to celebrate the work we’ve done so far. I look forward to the great things we will achieve together moving forward!