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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Remarks at the Black Public Defender Association Conference


Baltimore, MD
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Heather. I want to extend my appreciation to you, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Black Public Defender Association and Alaina Bloodworth and April Frazier Camara for your hospitality and leadership.

It really is an honor to be here. I am excited to celebrate the public defenders, mitigation specialists, executives, administrators and other professionals in this room, who have dedicated their careers to affirming the dignity and humanity of the people they represent.

This Monday, our nation will collectively commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth.  This holiday, which recognizes the end of enslavement for Black Americans, also marks the beginning of a long and continuing struggle for equality, equity and justice.  

We cannot celebrate Juneteenth without acknowledging the continued and pervasive injustices that continue to impact Black communities in this country. From Jim Crow, to disenfranchisement, to redlining, to disparate health outcomes, to mass incarceration – Black Americans, among other people of color, have shouldered a disproportionate burden of inequity.

And public defenders, and the professionals who support them, bravely remain at the front lines in this contemporary struggle for equality and civil rights.  Those here in this room advance the movement forward each day, with commitment and vigor, and usually without accolades or awards.

The reason I chose to join the legal profession was because I wanted to join this very fight. From the first day I set foot in a jail lockup in college, to the first day I entered misdemeanor arraignment court as a public defender, what continued to drive me forward every day was seeing mostly, some days only, communities of color, and specifically Black fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters cycling through the justice system.

You never had to cite statistics or numbers to me.

You didn’t need to tell me that Black Americans make up 38% of America’s incarcerated population despite representing only twelve percent of the population.

You didn’t need to tell me that Black litigants receive, on average, 4% higher court fines and lower rates of charge reductions in civil-infraction proceedings.

And you didn’t need to tell me that according to some studies, Black people receive sentences that are almost 10% longer than those of comparable white people arrested for the same crimes.

I saw it in the faces of my clients.

I know that many in this room have had this same experience and endured the unique toll of both belonging to and serving communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system. How do we endure that contrast, that racial trauma and move forward in our work for social and racial justice?  

We must first recognize that Black defenders occupy a unique position in the movement for transformational and systemic change.

Second, we must rely on community, collaboration and strong collective organizations like BPDA for training, mentorship, and most critically – refuge. 

And third, we simply must fund public defense.

As we evaluate where we are, 60 years after Gideon, I am inspired by how public defenders have answered the call, responding directly to the needs of their communities. You’ve expanded your services beyond traditional criminal representation, adapted, and leveraged innovative client-centered programs to serve your communities.  You’ve done this despite incredible challenges and with limited resources.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Indeed, this is why your fight matters.  Your perspectives, strategies, and expertise are critical not only within the confines of the criminal legal system, but within the broader struggle for equality, equity and justice.

So as I conclude, I charge you all as I charge myself, to continue to be bold and stand firm in an unapologetic demand for systemic change and equity.  Because if we abandon hope — for fear, exhaustion or apathy — the truest ideal of equal justice won’t ever be within reach.

Thank you for your service, and Happy Juneteenth.

Access to Justice
Updated June 15, 2023