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Criminal Justice Reform Series [Part III]: An Interview with Vincent Southerland

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In this installment of our criminal justice reform series, we meet Vincent Southerland, a board member at the Bail Project since its inception in 2017. The Bail Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to combating racial and socioeconomic disparities in the pretrial detention system through a revolving bail fund. To date, the Bail Project has provided bail assistance to over 16,000 people. 

Southerland is an assistant professor of clinical law at NYU Law and the Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law. He joined NYU Law after working as a public defender for a number of years. For much of his career, Southerland has been devoted to  advocating for advancements in racial justice. 

Alexandra Vitkin: Before we talk about your position on the board of the Bail Project, I’d like to ask you about your time as a public defender. What was that like? 

Vincent Southerland: I was a public defender for a few years in the Bronx and in DC. It’s one of the best legal jobs you can have because you’re using the range of skills you acquire in law school and a whole host of other skills you cultivate on the job to guide people through a criminal legal system designed to destroy their lives. Being able to stand with and represent clients who are grappling with some of the most difficult points of their lives was incredibly rewarding. It was also incredibly frustrating because you see the unfairness and injustice of the system constantly. You’re redefining what victory looks like. When you watch shows like Law and Order on television, it seems like winning is getting an acquittal at trial, and the reality often is that you’re trying to stave off as much harm as possible for someone, whatever that may take. It’s a job that I found incredible personal reward in, but it’s also one that is deeply undervalued by the way our criminal legal system operates. 

As a public defender, you’re generally working in opposition to all actors in the system. 

You’re working to stand alongside your client and translate the legal jargon into more understandable information. My experience as a public defender has taught me that the system is not broken—it is working exactly as designed. The criminal legal system was born to perpetuate the racial caste system we have in our country, and it’s been doing that work consistently since its inception. Walking up to the courthouse everyday and seeing the lines of Black and Brown people who either have an opencase, have a loved one who is caught up in a case, or are witnesses to a case is truly jarring. This job fueled my drive to address the way the system operates. Ultimately, we have to figure out a way to dismantle the system piece by piece and replace it with a constellation of things that are actually going to provide people with a real sense of public safety. 

AV: Can you tell me how you got involved in bail reform work? 

VS: When I was a public defender in the Bronx, I worked at the Bronx Defenders, where Robin Steinberg, the founder of that organization and the Bail Project, was the executive director. There was an early form of the Bail Project at the Bronx Defenders called the Bronx Freedom Fund; it operated in almost the same way the current Bail Project operates—a revolving bail fund where you’re able to post bail for particular clients who are not able to afford the cash bail that is imposed on them. As a public defender at the Bronx Defenders, I had a few cases where I referred my clients to the fund, and I had clients who were bailed out as a result of it. 

Robin reached out to me when she was starting the Bail Project to see if I’d be interested in joining the board. It was a no-brainer for me.  Her vision of shifting the paradigm by ending cash bail and replacing it with a system of community support is a movement that I wanted to be involved in. 

AV: How does the Bail Project fit into your vision of a more just system? How do you feel about other forms of pretrial monitoring like risk assessment algorithms that have been criticized for being inherently biased? 

VS: A better vision is one that releases as many people as possible from pre-trial detention. The central purpose of bail is to ensure that people return to court. Instead, we should be releasing people and making sure they have the support they need to appear in court for their court dates. This support can be as simple as rides to and from the courthouse, text reminders, and phone calls. I agree with the concerns people hold about alternative forms of pretrial monitoring like risk assessments and algorithmic tools. Because they make predictions based on data that is tainted by the racism infecting the world around us, the forecasts that these tools produce are going to reflect those biases. 

For the vast majority of people, experience tells us you can release most people without any concerns regarding public safety or their ability to return to court. Most people want to live up to their responsibilities and resolve the criminal cases pending against them. If we’re going to take the presumption of innocence and the purpose of bail seriously, then we need a system that allows us to release people and provide them with the support they need to resolve their cases. 

AV:  How do you think the Bail Project fits into the general landscape of criminal justice reform? 

VS: The Bail Project is exposing a different way of doing things that doesn’t align with how the criminal legal system currently operates. It is ending the myth that holding people in pretrial detention makes us safer or is somehow better for the system. It has demonstrated that people return to court even when they don’t have a personal financial stake in the game. 

In terms of the future, I’m particularly excited about our Bail Out the South campaign, which is incredibly important when thinking about the sizable population of people of color incarcerated in the South and the history of Southern justice. The Bail Project will have a real influence on criminal justice policy and practice in the region. Ultimately, the Bail Project’s goal is to work itself out of business. In an ideal world, wealth will not determine whether you can go home or  must stay in jail to fight your case. 

AV: More on the Bail Out the South initiative, I know there are some laws in Southern states that make it more difficult for your “revolving door” model to operate. How are you going to get sites set up? 

VS: A lot of it is working in places where we already have sites like Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Augusta, Charlotte, and Austin. To your point about laws that will make it more difficult for us to operate, there may be workarounds in terms of partnering with local organizations or it’s just a matter of advocating to change the laws. The argument that I make is that when the Bail Project enters a jurisdiction, the entire ecosystem benefits from our work—cases are resolved, people are reunited with their families, there is more employment. We help address the problems that might make people more susceptible to ending up back in the clutches of the criminal legal system. So there are positive benefits to the community even if not all community members are invested in protecting people who have been arrested on criminal charges. 

AV: Speaking from your experience as the Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU, how do you think we can create momentum towards the mass release of incarcerated people? 

VS: That’s a really great question. The momentum that existed at the beginning of the pandemic to release incarcerated people fizzled, and now, we’re starting to see jail populations on the rise again. The reason why there was such a movement towards releasing people was because people understood how much of a danger the pandemic posed to incarcerated people. Mass incarceration has become a fact of life, and I think to some degree, we can’t imagine a world where things are different. One thing we need to do to address incarceration is to confront the fear-mongering concerning incarcerated people. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about crime rising across the country, and people need to understand that crime fluctuates; a rise in crime cannot solely be attributed to releasing people or to pre-trial justice or to decarceration. Another facet towards shifting the public’s mentality around incarceration is helping people understand that mass incarceration is harmful to society as a whole. This goal can be achieved through telling individual stories about how people have been impacted by the criminal legal system and how a different path could have been taken to yield a better path for the individual and for society. 

From a policy perspective, you have to convince legislators to shorten sentences, figure out alternative ways to release people, and open up more opportunities for parole and release after you’ve served a particular sentence. It also comes down to being more thoughtful about electing prosecutors who are going to be more judicious about how they use their discretion. Ultimately, steps towards decarceration are going to be made through an amalgamation of all of these things. But for change to occur, people need to understand that the system is not serving any purpose beyond harming people and making us less safe. It does not provide accountability. It’s steeped in racial injustice. We need to be willing to seek out a wholly different way of operating. 

AV: You mentioned opening up more opportunities for parole as a way to move towards decarceration. This seems counterintuitive to me, as the surveillance inherent in probation and parole can all too often lead to recidivism. How can we aid people in reintegration? 

VS: When I was representing people in court as a public defender, what shocked me the most was how pervasive a presence the criminal legal system plays in people’s daily lives. After someone has been convicted of a crime and been incarcerated, upon the individual’s release, he has paid his dues. But the criminal legal system is still present in his life on a daily basis. It’s not only paternalistic—it’s completely unnecessary. The system is serving as a means of constant oppression; Issa Kohler-Hausmann wrote this book called Misdemeanorland where she talks about misdemeanor court as a process of marking people who are disfavored by society, sorting them into groups of good and bad people, and then putting them through procedural hassle in surveilling them post incarceration with the sole intention of catching them in the criminal legal system again. 

We need to start to disentangle the criminal legal system from people’s lives. People don’t need a parole or probation officer telling them when they can leave their houses or giving them a curfew. If you’re a grown adult, why do you need this overreaching force in your life for years on end? We need to invest more resources in people, communities, and reentry programs. This means expanding job opportunities and eliminating check-the-box questions about whether you’ve had contact with the criminal legal system. It means ensuring that people have housing and eliminating barriers to housing after you’ve been incarcerated. It means providing people with educational opportunities. We need to shift away from this massive system of oversight and supervision, so people can take the steps necessary to reintegrate into society. 

AV: How do you think students can get involved in criminal justice reform work? 

VS: There are plenty of opportunities for students to get involved. If you have a local public defender’s office, you could certainly reach out to them to volunteer. I know offices are often looking for student volunteers to work on criminal cases and help support the work happening in those offices. Working with judges is also a useful way to gain insight into the system from a different perspective. But it really comes down to remaining conscious of the ways the criminal legal system operates in this country. Do as much reading as you can; everything from The New Jim Crow, to Locking Up Our Own, to Misdemeanorland—the range of seminal texts that focus on the proliferation of the criminal legal system and the racial justice implications attached to it. 

AV: What gives you hope? 

VS: Over the last couple of decades, we’ve definitely seen a slow, but steady shift in a number of people’s attitudes toward the criminal legal system. There was a time when being tough on crime and talking about law and order was the tune of the day.  But in recent years, I’ve been made hopeful by the number of not only lawyers who I’ve known for years, but also by young people who are conscious of the brutality and injustice of the criminal legal system and striving to change it. I’m not under any illusion that the system is going to end soon, or within my lifetime even, but I’m heartened by the number of people eager to engage in this work. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.