Discussing Racism and Injustice in the Criminal Justice System

Law Professor Renée Hutchins (far right) speaking to students at the Leadership in Law seminar.

By Mairin Cahill

Renée Hutchins, a criminal defense expert and professor of law, and prison reform advocate Akeem Browder delivered a powerful analysis of the American judicial system from an urban point of view before a room full of students on Monday afternoon. The talk was part of the Herbert H. Lehman Leadership (HHL) program’s spring seminar series, titled “Leadership in Law,” and it focused on the role the average citizen can play in the justice reform movement.

Akeem Browder is the brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held at Rikers Island for three years before his case was dismissed by a judge. Browder has become a tireless advocate of his brother’s and of prison reform in New York. He has been involved in the making of a docu-series based on his brother’s incarceration and abuse, called Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which premiered on Spike TV on March 1.

Browder is also pressing for a new law in his brother’s name that would ensure a person’s right to a speedy trial in New York. Although the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees an individual the right to an expedited trial, it is not executed consistently in all fifty states. In New York State for example, the “Ready Rule,” passed in 1972, allows trials to be delayed indefinitely by tying mandated speedy trial deadlines to trial “readiness.” The Kalief Law would reform this rule and overall process by making prosecutors prove that they have adequate reason to stall proceedings.

Professor Renée Hutchins of the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, followed Browder with a poignant story about her family’s history of facing down evil for generations. Her story began in rural South Carolina, where her great-grandfather was actively opposing segregation in schools prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) decision. As a result of his activism, the KKK targeted him—the group orchestrated a drive-by caravan to terrorize him one evening. As Hutchins described it, her great-grandfather sat on his front porch, shotgun in hand, and waited for them.

Just as her ancestors bravely stood up against injustice and evil, Hutchins’ has worked as a lawyer in the criminal justice system to ensure that the jury judging the accused heard evidence they should’ve heard, and didn’t hear evidence that was inadmissible in court. “The work I’m doing now is making a system that exerts incredible power, work better,” she explained.

Hutchins urged her listeners to persevere in the face of adversity. She shared this anecdote with them: “When I went to Yale my freshman year, I knew it was not a warm and welcoming place based on how the school handled racial incidents on campus that year…but then I decided, so what! Be aware of the challenges, but don’t stop fighting.”

In addition to teaching and serving as co-director of the Clinical Law Program at Maryland’s School of Law, Hutchins works in a legal capacity with incarcerated individuals serving lengthy sentences.

Next up in the HHL’s spring seminar series is Leadership in Business with Lehman alumna Katina Joy Rojas and Noëlle Santos on Tuesday, March 7, at 3 p.m. in the Faculty Dining Room.

—Mairin Cahill