*The Brown Political Review conducted this interview in partnership with the Black Pre-Law Association [BPLA]. During the interview, BPLA and its members were represented by Haley Joyce ’23.
Haley Joyce is a rising sophomore at Brown University from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania considering a B.A. in International Public Affairs. She hopes to pursue law school after graduation and become a prosecutor. At Brown, she is Community Outreach Director for the Black Pre-Law Association and a member of the Model UN Travel Team, Women in Politics, and the UCS Campus Life and Dining Council groups. Haley can often be found running or talking into a microphone to make episodes for her podcast UNFILTERED.
Erika Gilliam-Booker is a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney in Chicago and appointed Special Assistant United States Attorney who has been admitted to both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts. She is President of the National Black Prosecutors Association [NBPA], an organization dedicated to the retention and advancement of Black prosecutors with a membership of over 500 federal and state prosecutors, law enforcement workers, law students, and judges. Since 2008, she has held various leadership positions at the NBPA, including Vice-President of Planning, Secretary, Vice-President of Membership, Treasurer, Great Lakes Regional Director, and Co-Chair of the 2021 NBPA Conference and Job Fair. She also serves the community as a minority legal education resources group leader, Lawyers in the Classroom instructor, and St. John Missionary Baptist Church Legal Ministry Coordinator. Mrs. Gilliam-Booker is a member of the Black Women Lawyers Association and Cook County Bar Association. She graduated from the University of Chicago and received her law degree from the University of Baltimore.
Haley Joyce: BPLA member Zanagee Artis has asked: would you attribute the lack of Black lawyers seeking to become prosecutors primarily to a lack of information about what prosecutors do, or are there more institutionalized barriers discouraging the pursuit?
Erika Gilliam-Booker: The lack of Black lawyers is due to the misperception about what we do. We are problem solvers. We safeguard the rights of both the accused and the accusers. We have an ethical obligation not to overcharge and not to prosecute a frivolous matter. When standing before a judge it is common to state our name and say, “On behalf of the people,” of whatever state, county, or jurisdiction that we’re representing. That is important, because being able to appear on behalf of the people means that you are a voice of the voiceless.
It’s also important to know that being a prosecutor is a rewarding job. There have been times when individuals are able to safely come outside on their porch and just do those types of things that a person who owns a home should be able to, because of the work we do. You can bring about change being a prosecutor, because we work with public defenders or private attorneys as problem solvers, to reach a just resolution.
Amelia Spalter: What inspired you to institute a yearly theme for the direction of NBPA’s work?
EGB: The yearly theme gives our membership a preview of the year. When we come back from the conference, we’re rejuvenated and ready to effectuate change. I wanted to be more of service for NBPA members. Our theme for this year was “moving forward, while reaching back,” We are strengthening our current and past partnerships. Specifically, we partnered with the Conference of Western Attorneys General and the Alliance for African Partnership and facilitated numerous trainings across Africa on subjects such as oral advocacy, human trafficking and anti-money laundering. We are also engaging in idea sharing with our African partners.
We also seek to be more visible and serve as a resource. We are in regions all across the United States with regional directors who seek to expose everyone to the NBPA. We seek a visible presence in both the prosecutorial and community realm. For example, Real Talk [a youth outreach initiative] is a program we started in 2014 that is relevant to this year’s theme. With Real Talk, we speak to students about situational awareness, the impact of community involvement and the impact of committing crimes. We’ve also had some panels dealing with mental health and COVID-19 because a lot of prosecutors are now working remotely from home due to the pandemic. We are now taking on the role of daycare provider or virtual schoolteacher, in addition to being attorneys at home. It’s important to address the impact of these current events on our mental health as professionals.
HJ: When reviewing your biography, I noticed you volunteer as an ACT tutor for high school students. What role does that experience, and participation in NBPA’s Real Talk outreach program, play in impacting the community?
EGB: Addressing that twofold, from a personal aspect, I’ve always been engaged in community work involving children since college. It’s a rewarding experience. Community involvement included teaching children about the importance of recycling and environmental science in the Robert Taylor Homes while in college to do after school homework help. I cherish being able to reach kids in some of the communities similar to the one I grew up in. Exposing kids to the idea that you can dream to do anything that you want to do is rewarding.
From an educational perspective, the National Black Prosecutors Association hosts the Real Talk program, a youth program we started back in 2014. In addition to that, we’re in schools talking about situational awareness, the impact of community involvement and the impact of committing crimes, and just being visible in the communities that we serve. We also have our annual conference with an accompanying Youth piece where we host local students from high schools and similar pre-college programs. The Youth Conference includes a Real Talk session but sometimes also includes a mini mock trial, federal, local, and inspirational Socratic method format panel discussions or the opportunity to go into a courtroom and see what it looks like to think critically about a case from our perspective as prosecutors. It’s more or less showing kids, “This is the role of a lawyer, and it is something that you can do.”
AS: BPLA member Josh Thorpe has asked, how is the role of prosecutors adapting to our changing societal views on draconian laws and greater efforts towards rehabilitation?
EGB: Prosecutors have the ultimate authority to prosecute, to negotiate, and to resolve cases, so that does not always have to result in incarceration. This reflects the changing societal views towards rehabilitation. Sometimes rehabilitation is best done in a drug treatment or mental health facility, or a resolution can mean proposing community service, or expungable probation. We have ethical obligations to address those types of issues with unique, fitting resolutions.
HJ: I think it’s very important to talk about implicit biases, especially right now. I’ve been struggling to address implicit bias with my white friends when they say something like, “Oh, I’m not racist,” and I have to respond with, “Well, you could still have implicit biases.” How do you approach these conversations from your position as a Black prosecutor?
EGB: As Black prosecutors, it is very important that we address what we’re seeing today. We have a couple of press releases on how to acknowledge these issues in light of Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. NBPA extends its heartfelt condolences to those families. It is disheartening that we are still experiencing the same injustices from decades ago. To address these issues, we need to first recognize that we all have implicit biases. These must be open but frank conversations. There must also be a distinction between being racist and having an implicit bias and the reason behind that implicit bias. It’s almost like a therapy session in discovering the root of the problem. Furthermore, continuous implicit bias trainings or classes, de-escalation training, and sensitivity training enables us to not only address implicit bias but keep a constant check on our own biases. For example, Mark W. Bennett, U.S. District Court Judge in the Northern District of Iowa, has even used an implicit bias jury instruction.
For student members of NBPA, we have a network of both local and federal attorneys that you can reach out to discuss this with. Because not only is implicit bias going on in the schools, it’s going on in our offices, our courtrooms, and in our everyday lives. It’s an age-old problem that, as African Americans, we are all faced with.
AS: What opportunities to affect systemic change are available to prosecutors but difficult to access from the private sector?
EGB: There are alternative programs that people can go to such as mental health treatment or drug treatment to address the reason for the crime. Other remedies include community service through neighborhood nonprofit agencieswhere the people who are in leadership can actually instill values. This means actually getting to the root of a problem with a resolution other than prison. Even if someone does go to prison, there are also privately funded non profit agencies we reach out to who can provide services such as job training or interview skills or even a job on site once that person is released. We have access to a lot of programs out there so that we can steer them in that new direction.
AS: Are there any upcoming events for students who are interested in becoming involved with the NBPA?
EGB: Unfortunately our 37th 2020 Annual Conference and Job Fair was postponed due to the pandemic. The 37th Annual Conference and Job Fair at the Hyatt Centric Chicago Magnificent Mile will now be held August 15-21, 2021. The theme of the conference is Homecoming: Agents of Change in the Courtroom and Community. It’s a homecoming because NBPA was started in Chicago. We’ve hosted the conference in a different state for the past 36 years.
Not only do we have a conference, we also have a job fair with both local and federal agencies across the country, Attending students not only leave the conference with a mentor, but sometimes even a job offer. So it’s important for students to be aware of the conference that is happening next year in in Chicago. We also have a foundation, that’s the other arm of the association, that gives scholarships every year to deserving law students. The scholarship application is still available—just because the conference is postponed doesn’t mean we won’t award the scholarship—so students can still apply for it on our website.
HJ: Do you have any words of advice for Black female pre-law students who are interested in entering the prosecutorial field but are hesitant to join a profession with so few individuals in power who share our identity?
EGB: It’s the best job in the world. I’m not saying that as an advertisement to work as a prosecutor, but because it really is. Sometimes you have people that will leave the profession, and they come back pretty quickly, because you have that camaraderie among your partners. And it’s also very, very rewarding to know that you’re representing people who sometimes don’t have a voice. It is rewarding to be able to speak to victims and their families, and let them know that I’m empathetic and I’m doing the best I can to fight on their behalf. Sometimes a family member experienced something traumatic and it completely turned their lives upside down. And it’s rewarding when they come back and say, “Thank you very much for calling and checking up on me.” Our caseloads are heavy, but most people are very happy for you taking the time out just to check in and give a case update.
There have been times where, if I lost the case, and, I’ll meet the accused outside the courtroom and say, “Hey, look, I don’t want to see you here anymore. I want you to do better.” And they’re completely surprised that as a prosecutor, I spoke to them to let them know, “I don’t want to see you here again.” And that may have something to do with my upbringing, me wanting to instill in some of these younger kids that doing wrong is not the way to go. These are rewarding experiences. But being a voice of the voiceless and being able to effectuate change, that’s what makes being a prosecutor the best job in the world. Because you’re fighting for something that’s right.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.