“A generalist sees the entire person”: In Conversation with Nicole Jeong

Pictured: Nicole Jeong, Root & Rebound

In 2018, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and Root and Rebound (R&R) launched the Southern California Reentry & Advocacy Project, a partnership pairing comprehensive reentry support with high-quality legal services to ensure that individuals returning home from incarceration to Los Angeles County are able to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Root & Rebound is an organization that works to restore and protect the rights, dignity, and opportunities of formerly incarcerated people and people affected by the criminal justice system.

Nicole Jeong is Root & Rebound’s Reentry Attorney and Manager of Southern California Partnerships. As a result of this partnership, it is our pleasure to have Nicole in our office to provide legal aid to ARC members as they navigate the many barriers they face post-incarceration. Shaka Senghor, Executive Director of ARC, spoke with Nicole about her work.

Shaka: Hey Nicole, how are you?

Nicole: Hi Shaka, I’m great. How are you?

I’m great. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because I see daily your dedication to supporting ARC members. I’d love to learn more about your background as a lawyer. What has your experience been like and what was your inspiration for going to law school?

I entered law school thinking I wanted to become a public defender. Before law school, I worked at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Central District of California (in Little Tokyo). I did paralegal work there and worked on a death penalty case.

I attended Yale Law School and spent my first summer at the LA County Public Defender’s office. Over 90% of criminal cases take place at the state level and I thought I should see what that looks like, too. Half of my time was spent in juvenile court, which was what really motivated me to become interested in reentry work. I saw that kids were getting arrested in schools and getting arrested for things that in other neighborhoods may have been handled differently.

What ages were these kids?

Anywhere from 8 to 17. When I talked to kids, so often they wanted an outlet. They wanted someone to listen to them or someone to talk to. To me, some of the things kids were getting arrested for didn’t seem like a big deal. They seemed like normal kid stuff and in a different neighborhood they wouldn’t have been arrested.

What would you say the racial and gender makeup of these kids were?

I was at Eastlake Juvenile, which is a pretty heavily Latino area. The majority were black and brown kids, mostly young boys.

What about their economic backgrounds?

The vast majority of the youth I worked with were living in poverty. One major issue was that people were going to public schools where there were school police, which definitely contributed to kids entering and staying in the system.

One of my most distinct memories from my time at the public defender’s office was seeing one kid who had to sit in juvenile hall for a week because the commissioner didn’t feel like his grandmother — his guardian at the time — was a proper caretaker because she came to court strung out. First, this kid got arrested because he and his friends lit a couch on fire. That is not ideal behavior but it’s not what we should see as criminal behavior, either. That situation led him into the system, then to sitting in juvenile hall for a week, and then waiting for someone the judge felt was a fit guardian. This process opened the door wide to labeling him as a criminal and starting him down that path.

Pictured: Nicole with Sam Lewis, Director of Inside Programs at ARC

The system working in that capacity is a common narrative that I hear from many people. You graduated from Yale with the opportunity to do anything — jump into corporate law, entertainment law, but you go instead into this horrific system. Most people would say, “You know what, I don’t want to deal with that. I can go ahead and make money doing other things in the legal realm.” What was it about those experiences that really made you say there’s something I can do here?

It felt so much like it was lack of opportunities and people’s circumstances that led them to specific situations. I just kept wondering “what is it that we can do either at the front end (while people are incarcerated) or at the back end to help support people to overcome the barriers that continue to be in place?” I’m referring to the barriers that add to this cycle of poverty and incarceration within low-income communities and communities of color.

I worked at two law firms out of law school. I worked at a firm in LA called Morrison & Forrester and then I clerked for a Federal District Court judge. His name is Jesús Bernal and he is an incredible person. He was a career federal public defender. It was an amazing experience to work with him because he’s incredibly smart and somebody who sees so much humanity in people.

Then I went to New York and worked at another law firm called Paul, Weiss for a year before transitioning to nonprofit work, where I worked at Legal Services NYC, a civil legal services organization. There, I helped manage their pro bono legal program for two years. In early 2018, I saw a job posting to work at Root & Rebound, here in ARC’s office, and it seemed like the perfect fit: an opportunity to get back into in-depth direct legal services work, supported, managed, and trained by Root & Rebound, and deeply serving this amazing community at ARC.

That’s an amazing trajectory. I think that’s super important for federal judges to have compassion and empathy. I don’t think people in a legal space should be able to practice if they don’t have a sense of what it means to be human, if they don’t see people for who they are contextually. It would be hard to be a judge and make a decision on somebody’s life if you can’t be empathetic or compassionate and put yourself in their shoes. And that’s not to do that in lieu of honoring victims and people who have been hurt by other people. But I think our system would be a lot better if we did more of both. That brings me to prosecutors, who play an incredibly important role in our judicial system. What has been your experience working with prosecutors?

Many ARC members have felonies that cause them to have a strike on their record. When they pick up new cases, it’s about trying to encourage the prosecutor to see them as somebody deserving of a second chance. That’s an important part of this work. I’m not a criminal defense attorney — we at Root & Rebound work as “reentry generalists,” focusing on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions — so my role as I see it is to support ARC members in their criminal cases collaterally by collecting letters of support, collecting all the mitigation evidence. Public defenders have incredible caseloads and don’t necessarily have the time to dive deep into everyone’s case. My role in this work for people who are picking up new cases is to collect all that information and present it to the public defenders in a way that allows them to present to the judge and the district attorney to ask for more compassion, to ask for more mercy.

Pictured: ARC Executive Director Shaka Senghor & Nicole Jeong in ARC office

We don’t often think about the compounded impact of prior convictions. This bothered me for a long time, how the trouble one gets into their youth stays with them. Let’s talk about ARC. You joined ARC in the Spring of 2018. It came about as a result of a relationship with Root & Rebound, an organization doing incredible reentry work. What was that transition like and how did it happen?

I was living in New York at the time but I’m from LA so I’ve always thought about coming back. When I saw the position open, it just seemed incredible. I read about ARC years ago because I had maintained interest in reentry work, and Root & Rebound came to my attention in 2018. The work is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time — I can support the clients here and am plugged into a system of support from the Root & Rebound team of like-minded and similarly trained reentry attorneys through case consults, trainings, and databases of resources.

Something unique about this model — both at ARC and Root & Rebound — is how holistic it is. ARC provides such amazing services: housing, mental health, job readiness, and more. Root & Rebound is similarly holistic in its approach and tackles all of the areas of law that impact formerly incarcerated/justice involved people. Not many legal services organizations provide the broad range of services that I’m helping with here. For example, some of what I do is work on family reunification cases. Especially for people who have records — given that most of our members are the non-custodial parent — that work isn’t necessarily funded in LA.

We at Root & Rebound also do a ton of advocacy regarding probation and parole, traffic tickets, court ordered debt. No day looks the same and I am able to respond directly to what people need from me — I don’t define what they need. That’s the R&R approach and it works so well here at ARC, where I serve women and men, people of all backgrounds — each with different needs. A lot of the work I’m able to do at ARC is not funded well throughout LA County, and I feel so fortunate to be able to come in and fill that gap.

Nicole working one-on-one during a legal workshop

Thank you so much for sharing that. How would you define your role here at ARC?

I am a reentry generalist attorney who is here to help people with any reentry legal barriers they are facing. That covers anything related to their criminal records.

At Root & Rebound, we’re legal generalists in the way you see a general doctor. We believe this approach is critical to working with people living in poverty and/or at the nexus of criminal justice involvement. They don’t need a specialist who’s going to help them challenge an employment denial and send them packing; they need a general practitioner to support their whole person — to sit with them and have the capacity to think about and diagnose all of their legal needs, to see not just how their record is presenting a barrier to stable employment, but how it’s also impacting their ability to find stable housing or reconnect with their family. Root & Rebound provides me with the training, framework, and support to work holistically like this.

Our Roadmap to Reentry, the foundation of all we do, covers 11 areas of law and life — including housing, employment, family reunification, tribal issues, immigration, and credit and debt. I am trained in being able to understand and support generally on all of these issues, so when a person comes to me, I’m able to look at them as an entire person and provide support on every issue they’re facing. If, as there sometimes are, issues are so complex and require specialized knowledge that I don’t necessarily have, then I can refer someone to a specialist in that situation.

As an example, for ARC members who have immigration issues, I can help with some of what they need, like if our members need assistance to apply for employment authorization documents to work in the US if they aren’t US citizens. But if they are placed in deportation proceedings, I don’t have the expertise to help because immigration law is such a complex body of law. So I’ll do my best to find an immigration attorney expert to help with that piece of it.

In what ways is your role unique?

We work holistically with people over time. We are not prescriptive in our approach, which is an incredible aspect about the partnership between ARC and Root & Rebound. We don’t cut off how long we serve people or have a lot of exclusions with respect to who we serve. For example, a lot of legal services organizations have exclusions against serving people who are undocumented, or people who make even a little over 200% of the federal poverty line. The fact that neither of our organizations has this allows us to serve people holistically over the timeline of different needs. Needs and priorities change for people — I try to meet people where they’re at and help them address what’s most important for them at the moment while also communicating that there are other areas that I can help with, when they’re ready.

In addition to providing direct representation for people, a large part of my work is to do know-your-rights presentations for ARC members and the broader LA community to democratize access to legal information and empower people to advocate for themselves. For example, I have done several trainings on employment for ARC members, and I’ll be facilitating a training soon on fair chance hiring laws for ARC’s partner employers.

What are some things you don’t work on that ARC members may not be aware of?

Immigration is one. Criminal defense is another — although I support our members to understand and participate in their defense process, I leave it to the public defenders to be the lead attorneys on those cases because they have years and years of experience in front of those judges, working with those DAs, and working with whomever else is in the criminal courts building. Those are the two primary areas that have come up that I provide additional support on. Of course, when people have picked up new cases, I am in constant communication with their public defenders just so they know somebody else cares and is taking note, encouraging them to pay closer attention to our members’ cases. As I mentioned, I support them by providing whatever they need and in many ways act as their assistant.

What are some things you’ve experienced in your profession that most people would be shocked if they knew?

I think people would be surprised to learn many ARC members are real legal scholars. So many of them have worked in the prison law libraries, learned from working on their own cases and others’ cases, have read more Supreme Court opinions than some lawyers, and know more about habeas and some parts of criminal law than I do! And I’ve learned so much from them about both the law and how the law plays out in practice.

Final question: what is the last amazing album you listened to?

I love Kendrick Lamar. One of the last things I did in New York was go to Kendrick’s concert.

Thank you so much for sharing.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.