November 01, 2019 Women in Criminal Justice

Listening Session Participants Express Feelings of Isolation—and Demonstrate Resilience

Maryam Ahranjani

Cindy Aragon’s voice kept getting cut off because of the spotty cell phone service in the rural area of northwest New Mexico from which she was calling. The listeners were most of the 15 members of the ABA’s Women in Criminal Justice Task Force, as well as a room full of women criminal law attorneys from around the state, all of whom convened at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque on March 1, 2019, to investigate women’s experiences in hiring, promotion, and retention. The Task Force members at the event included co-chairs Carla Laroche and Tina Luongo, April Frazier Camara, Barbara Creel, Judge Bernice Donald, Daniela Donoso Garcia, Maria Carmen Hinayon, Judge Denise Langford Morris, Gloria Ochoa-Bruck, Judge Rachel Pickering, Sarah Redfield, and Major Susan Upward.

Women like Cindy testified with the permission and understanding that the Task Force would use their experiences to shine some light on their experiences. Some felt comfortable using their names and others requested anonymity.

Cindy Aragon serves as the managing attorney of New Mexico Legal Aid’s Native American Program. She wanted to attend in person but was unable to do so because of work travel. However, she did not want to pass up the opportunity to share her perspective. Despite an administrative error on my part in setting up the call and a poor connection once I corrected my error, her message was heard loud and clear: Her work with Legal Aid representing criminal defendants across the state makes her feel isolated. She spends many hours in the car on dusty roads just to go see her clients, usually while traveling alone. Traveling back can be especially isolating because she has to sit alone with the struggles faced by her clients. As a contract public defender, she described that she has no colleague support, no co-counsel opportunity, and essentially no network.

Isolation was a theme echoed by Kathleen Bowman, director, Office of the Navajo Public Defender, who described how she singlehandedly built up an office of a whopping seven attorneys that is tasked with representing all qualifying Navajo defendants. She is 72 and worries who will take on her work when she retires.

One Native American tribal court judge who has spent her entire career working in and around tribal communities (first as a Legal Aid attorney, then as a domestic violence prosecutor, and for more than a decade as a judge) described that she hopes she is making a difference in tribal communities. However, she reflected, “As a Native woman, I have faced the challenge that my actions, decisions, and authority in the role as a tribal court judge have been more closely scrutinized compared to the scrutiny that is given to a white, male judge.”

Jen Birmingham (Las Cruces) and Deirdre Ewing (Carsbad/Roswell), both supervising attorneys in their respective, rural outposts of the state’s Law Office of the Public Defender, talked about how hard it is to recruit great attorneys for their offices because very few people want to live in small towns.

These experiences could cause some people to question their own choices. For example, Deirdre is single and queer, and the dating pool is limited where she lives. Resources—particularly any kind of rehabilitation for their clients—are incredibly limited, if they exist at all.

The women who work in Albuquerque (population 558,000—the largest city in the state) described different unique challenges for women in criminal law. Many of them—particularly those who were more advanced in their careers—explained that because most senior attorneys in management were, and to a lesser extent still are, men, and men with partners who could handle home life so that they could focus on work, simply do not understand the challenges with work/life balance and balancing unique challenges that women face. For example, even women in Albuquerque and Santa Fe described how hard it can be to find adequate space for pumping and storing breastmilk in work spaces.

Women like Tonie Abeyta who are single and have no children feel a burden to take on more responsibilities to support others who have children and aging parents, and this burden seems to fall more heavily on women than similarly situated men. Women shared how humiliating it is to face harassment from guards, clients, and even co-counsel. In litigation, one woman reported how “chest-thumping in the courtroom” often seems the expected norm. They articulated sometimes being demeaned or talked down to by male judges and opposing counsel. Unfortunately, for women all over the state, there exists a lack of support for secondary trauma. Almost all the women from whom we have heard face hurdles that are unique to women.

Because of rigid rules, the women who testified have not been able to achieve flexibility in ways that would allow them to achieve better balance. Attendees reported that most employers—particularly the federal government—do not permit teleworking or part-time schedules. They say flexibility and more resources to decrease caseloads and increase support for their clients and them would go a long way in improving their retention.

Most of the participants reported finding their work incredibly rewarding. They may not be well compensated, but they feel well respected in their communities, and they know that their clients appreciate them. The women who have been working for 30 years or more in the field report that some things have gotten better with time. There are more women in leadership and supervisory positions. There is less tolerance for sexist remarks and behavior.

But there is still room for improvement. Participants appreciated the Task Force creating an opportunity for them to share their experiences and for us to amplify their experiences with the goal of creating more awareness. The opportunity to be heard cannot be underestimated. As the great Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi pointed out, a wound begins to heal when light shines on it.

The listening session would not have been possible without the efforts of a group of fantastic organizers and volunteers—including TF member Barbara Creel, Emily Johnson at the ABA, Sila Manahane at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and several law students (Kristen Edwards, Lena Kephardt, Meagan Muñoz, Anne Bruno, and Erin Phillips).

With several formal listening sessions remaining as of the writing of this column, our focus is turning to “what next?” How can we reverse the feelings of isolation and frustration? How can we better track what is happening at various points in the pipeline of a career in criminal law, from entry into law school through retirement?

Having heard from women in Washington, DC; Las Vegas; and Albuquerque, the Task Force has begun to envision some ways to connect listening session participants with one another, to create platforms for ongoing support and dialogue, and to create online toolkits and trainings for women interested in elected and leadership positions in criminal law. The Task Force also has planned sessions in Washington state (Spokane and Seattle), San Francisco, and New York City that will further inform its work.

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Maryam Ahranjani

Maryam Ahranjani is reporter for the Women in Criminal Justice Task Force. She is an associate professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law, where she adopts a socio-legal approach to teaching criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional rights, and education policy.