Con la Unidad Llegara la Fuerza
It is no secret that the legal profession is one of the least racially diverse fields in the United States. That being said, it is difficult to conceptualize what the systematic impact of that reality looks like. What does it actually mean to have predominantly white prosecutors, but defendants of color? This issue surpasses any unconscious bias or full-fledged racism that pervades the criminal justice system. At its core, the lack of diversity molds the paradigm of how we, the public, view and interpret the system because it guides our conversation on the topic, such as the concerns that are raised, the ideas that are challenged, and the assumptions that are brought in.
As part of my internship at the Federal Defender’s Office, I was able to participate in a tour of both the Sacramento County Jail and the Folsom State Prison. To say the least, both experiences greatly impacted my perception of the criminal justice system. The former tour was guided by a polite yet problematic deputy sheriff who unknowingly gave way to many of the prejudices that he brought into his work, such as the notion that people of color, people of low economic status, and the mentally ill are somehow predisposed to a life of crime and violence.
I left this experience troubled by the reality of how we treat incarcerated individuals, especially after having familiarized myself with the types of crimes that result in individuals being put behind bars in the first place. The level of dehumanization was appalling, and I couldn’t stop from feeling as if I was part of the problem for casually walking around this system of abuse and peeking into the cells as if I were at a zoo, all while in a suit. The more and more I reflected on the experience, the angrier I became, as I had been complicit by never before having truly questioned the system. I had never questioned the arbitrary sentencing guidelines, never asked why exactly it was that our jails and prisons are overflowing with people of color, never asked if the prosecutors have the social consciousness needed to understand what it means to put someone in jail. Have they ever even been inside a jail? Are our judges open-minded enough to truly take into consideration a defendant's circumstances, and their lack of opportunity that perhaps perpetuated their actions in the first place? What about the probation department -- do they have the cultural competence to work with this community?
While most of my colleagues were displeased with the situation we had just witnessed, others couldn’t quite understand why I suddenly felt so passionately about these issues. They would say to me, “it’s not our fault that people commit crimes and are punished accordingly.” Following this conversation, what I was left with was a deeper understanding of the importance of diversity in the legal field -- we need diversity of thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds. This instance made me realize the value that I can bring into a legal space, where I am more likely to reflect an inmate rather than an attorney. These spaces need to be occupied with minorities, because the perspectives that we can bring to the table can shift the conversation and can work to move society forward.
This fall I will return to Berkeley as the new Executive Director of the Latino Pre-Law Society. This is a student organization dedicated to the empowerment of Latinx students, specifically to provide them with the adequate resources and opportunities to pursue a legal career and/or education. I will take on my new position with a fresh reminder of the significance behind our mission, and will ensure that we uphold it to the best of our abilities.