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November 13, 2023 Criminal Justice Fall Institute

Equitable criminal legal system requires leadership

Creating sustainable reforms in the criminal legal system will require courageous leaders who are willing to “stand and take risks,” said April Camara during the 16th Annual Fall Institute convened by the ABA Criminal Justice Section.

The ABA Criminal Justice 16th Annual Fall Institute's theme highlighted "Advancing Justice and Equity in the Criminal Legal System and Profession."

The ABA Criminal Justice 16th Annual Fall Institute's theme highlighted "Advancing Justice and Equity in the Criminal Legal System and Profession."

“In the legal field, we have credible power and privilege, and we have the opportunity to drive the country to where we should be — a more equitable system,” said Camara. “In each of us, in our distinct roles, we have influence, and we have to use that courage to play a role in creating the world that we want to see.” Camara is president and CEO of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and moderated the panel, “Courageous Leadership: A Key Ingredient to Creating a Fair and Equitable Criminal Legal System.”

Also on the panel: Alvin Bragg, New York County district attorney; retired Judge Bernice Donald from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit; and Jessica Yeary, public defender from the 2nd Judicial Circuit.

Bragg addressed challenges he faces as an elected prosecutor who ran on a reform agenda to advance felony diversion programs and police accountability units in a political and media environment where a lot of opposition exists. “We’ve certainly had some pushback from a lot of quarters against the national conversation of what does safety look like,” he said.

But he added that results from the diversion model have been encouraging. The diversion program “is a public safety model as well that is going to reduce recidivism and make people in neighborhoods stronger, and that has helped with some of the pushback,” Bragg said.

Yeary said courageous leadership is “showing up every single day … against practices and policies that have been ingrained in the system.”

“Courage is learned and modeled,” Bragg said. “It is good practice.”

During the Keynote Awards Luncheon, Monique H. Worrell, former state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit Court for Florida, received the 2023 Curtin-Maleng Minister of Justice Award. Worrell was removed from office Aug. 9, 2023, the second time Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended a state attorney by executive order. Worrell said the options are limited when democracy is on the line. “We can’t decide to opt out,” she said. “We will have to decide if we want to be part of the effort that moves us forward or that moves us backwards. It’s about defending our democracy.”

Derwyn Bunton, who received the 2023 Albert J. Krieger Champion of Liberty Award, said lawyers must maintain hope despite the challenges and inequities in the criminal legal system. “The power we have collectively and individually is hope,” he said. “Do not lose your humanity. Lean into your community … and help build it and your constituency.”

The theme of the conference was “Partnering Across the Aisle and Out of the Box: Advancing Justice and Equity in the Criminal Legal System and Profession.”

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