Welcome to our first installment featuring badass women who are working hard to improve their communities and enact positive change in the lives of those around them. Through this series, I hope to spotlight the important work being done by some amazing women, the paths they took to get to where they are now, and the ways in which they practice self-care and avoid burn-out.
First up: Bahar, a clinical fellow and supervising attorney for the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY Law School.
Welcome, Bahar! Can you tell us what you're currently working on?
Right now, I'm a Clinical Fellow and supervising attorney at the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY Law School. Our mission is to train social justice lawyers and in the Criminal Defense Clinic, we teach our students to think broadly about the criminal legal system. It was precisely this thinking that led us to clemency and parole work, so I am currently working on helping incarcerated individuals obtain clemency from Governor Cuomo.
How did you get into this area of criminal justice?
Prior to teaching, I was a public defender for 11 years.
Can you tell us more about clemency and why it is so important?
Our society punishes people at rates that are unparalleled by any other industrialized nation in the world. We have 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. More than 51,000 of those folks are here in New York. Most of the commonly talked about reforms right now, like bail, discovery and speedy trial, won't help those currently incarcerated. I applaud those reforms, but if we are serious about confronting America's mass incarceration problem, we have to also seriously look at release through parole and clemency.
I represent remarkable men and women who are ready to reenter society and pose no danger to the public, yet they are serving virtual life sentences because they will be eligible to see the parole board when they are 80, 90 and 100 years old.
Our clients have obtained an education in prison, including bachelors and masters degrees (one is currently working on his Ph.D.), received few disciplinary infractions, completed numerous rehabilitative programs, and have demonstrated genuine remorse for their crimes. Yet despite all this, the only way they are guaranteed to leave prison is in a casket. Clemency is their only shot.
Clemency is this extraordinary and unrestricted power that all 50 governors and the President have to commute someone's prison sentence. It involves looking at someone as the person they are today and recognizing that they have evolved and changed. Simply said, it's an act of mercy.
What are some of the challenges you've faced doing this work?
The biggest challenge is how few of these applications for clemency Governor Cuomo has granted. The Governor created an Executive Clemency Bureau in 2015 and partnered with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to provide pro bono clemency petition services to those incarcerated in New York. It seemed like he was serious about exercising his clemency power and it sparked a lot of hope for those inside and for their families. However, in 2016, the Governor commuted only six sentences. In 2017, he commuted only two. None so far in 2018. My clients will tell you that false hope is crueler than no hope at all.
What are some of the highlights of your work? What keeps you going?
The work itself and the amazing people I have met. It's completely new work and it's important to continue to challenge yourself in life. As a public defender, I represented people at the front end of the system. It is a high volume practice and you generally lose touch with your clients after they are sentenced. I have fewer clients now and my practice is different. My current clients have spent decades in jail, and my goal is no longer to keep them from going upstate; it's getting them out. This new type of work and my clients have definitely enriched my life and made me a better lawyer.
Can you name any role models who've helped shape your practice and inspired you along the way?
The greatest role models have been those who, despite many many grueling years as public defenders and criminal justice advocates, continue to do the work at a high quality. When I was a student in the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY Law School back in 2005, those role models were my clinic professors, Gail Gray and Steve Zeidman, who forced us to think outside the box and to never accept the status quo. As a trial lawyer at The Legal Aid Society, it was the remarkable senior lawyers and my supervisors, Susanna De La Pava and Marty Gorfinkel, whose legal brilliance and empathy sustained me. I've been very lucky to have been taught and mentored by many incredible and compassionate people.
What do you do to recharge?
I have found a lot of comfort in Yoga. It relaxes and energizes me at the same time. So much of my work day depends on helping other people, so I enjoy the solitary nature of Yoga. Even though I am in a class with others, I feel alone - in a good way. For an hour, all that matters is what is happening to me on my mat.
Where can people go if they want to learn more or support the work you're doing?
Lawyers interested in pro bono clemency work should check out www.stateclemency.org. Even though the number of Governor Cuomo's commutations has been so small, we should continue to flood him with applications and tell the stories of the many men and women in New York prisons who are deserving of mercy.
If you are not a lawyer, you can volunteer with the Parole Prep Project and help prepare an incarcerated individual for their parole hearing.
And please, write to the governor in your state and encourage them to use their clemency powers!
Thank you so much for sharing with us, Bahar!