By Jennifer Grecco

I have, through academic and work settings, seen firsthand the positive outcomes that pro-bono I have, through academic and work settings, seen firsthand the positive outcomes that pro-bono work has done for the criminal justice system. And, I was first confronted with this realization as a young girl, inquisitive and curious to learn. I had long thought about who lived behind the barbed wire fencing at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison less than five miles from my childhood home. I wondered what life was like on the inside and imagined the crimes committed to justify such confinement. I believed that if I could get through those gates, I could begin to understand the choices and circumstances that led to lifetimes of incarceration and somehow spare others the devastating isolation that resulted.

The image of this prison pushed me to learn more about the criminal justice system, as well as work in a field where I could make a difference. I began to work with at-risk children to help break the familial cycle of incarceration. I was moved to make resources available to inmates across the country – information to plan their defense, to envision their future, or to simply make their present more meaningful. And, I felt motivated me to seek public interest internships to understand the practices and philosophies that lead to incarceration. Yet, it was not until I passed through the first checkpoint at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, my senior year of college, that I began to develop an understanding of how complicated the law can be, and how necessary helping underserved communities was for society at large.  Anxious, but determined, I entered the prison classroom and joined inmates to study Psychology and the Law.

My heart pounded as Beaty explained that she had killed a man when she was a teenager. Yet, as her story unfolded, I learned that the victim was her mother’s boyfriend and that Beauty struck out to end a beating that left her mother hospitalized. Suddenly, I found myself setting aside the crime and imagining Beaty’s anguish as her mother cried out for help. I was saddened and angry that Beaty, like others in her community, was afraid to call 911 because of her mistrust in law enforcement. I grew concerned about a criminal justice system that did not seem to distinguish between a frantic child protecting her mother, and a threat to society.

Through Twana, I came to see the misguidedness and consequences of our drug sentencing policies. The law was clear: selling crack cocaine will lead to harsh punishment. Less clear was how Twana, with only a tenth-grade education, should have supplemented her minimum wage job to support her three children as a single mother. It was troubling that Twana’s predicament was disregarded in the sentencing decision, if fairness was truly the aim.

Though their stories were quite different, the unifying factor was that these women felt powerless because they were abandoned by systems that were supposed to protect them. I couldn’t help but wonder: how did we let this happen? Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to disparities at every level of the criminal justice system. And, disturbing indifference is culpable in each crime, as well as in the harsh and uneven sentencing that follows.

My experiences with this often clumsy and overworked criminal justice system and staggering mass incarceration statistics are a call to action. In the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, many of the women spoke about how facts were omitted and investigations fell short, resulting in women sentenced to life in prison. When I asked how this had happened, I was told that these inmates were not getting sufficient representation. I was told that public defenders defended these inmates, and I was told that these women felt their voices and stories were not being heard. Alarmed by this information, I did some research and realized that public defense organizations are overworked and understaffed. And, as a result, details go missing, and a case is never fully formed. Their attorneys are not able to put the care into each case that is needed to win cases. And, these women’s stories are not unique. Socioeconomic status of a defendant should never be the determining factor in a case. As a result of many inmates’ inability to pay for representation, their cases were only partially realized, they were sent to prison, their families were displaced, and their children grew up without mothers.

It is important that we all acknowledge the disparities at every level of the criminal justice system before, during, and after a case is brought to court. The ability of those representing defendants in court can severely help or hurt a case, and that is why pro-bono work is so important.  Through law school, and with this scholarship, I am certain that I will collect the tools and experiences necessary to help reconstruct our imperfect criminal justice system so that it reflects our values and our commitment to achieving justice for all, and in doing so, undertake many hours of pro-bono work.

About the Author

Jennifer Grecco has been admitted to the University of Michigan Law School for the Fall of 2019.

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