SDG16+ Champions of Change

The US Justice Defender who Works Across Sectors to Advance Equity and Justice


Jo-Ann Wallace is the President and CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), the United States’ oldest and largest nonprofit association for public defenders, civil legal aid providers, and the clients they serve. Recognized by the Obama White House as a “Champion of Change” for improving access to quality legal representation for all, she leads cross-sector collaborations to advance equity and justice.

In the latest of our Justice Champions of Change interviews, Pathfinders’ Maha Jweied asked Jo-Ann about her work.

Maha: Could you tell me what influenced you to dedicate your career to improving access to justice?

Jo-Ann: My passion for justice derives first from my experience with injustice. My father was among the first African Americans to join the navy. After serving his country in World War II, he used his veterans’ benefits to help get a college degree, and then looked for a job that would bring together his love of music and teaching. However, no school system in the city would hire a young black male teacher and instead he found a teaching position in a rural community. Growing up I was directly impacted by the choices of my family, and by the obstacles that directed their paths in life. These experiences influenced my life and my sense of fairness and justice.

Maha: What were your first steps in the justice world?

Jo-Ann: My passion found expression when I spent a summer working as a special education advocate for Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS). GBLS had sued the Boston School System for failing to comply with the special education laws [which guarantee every student the right to free public education regardless of handicap or disability]. The parties had entered into a court-approved agreement where they both agreed on a plan for reform.

I worked to develop special education plans for children and adolescents and documented any non-compliance with the law and the agreement. It was often very difficult for social services professionals to persuade the school system to spend money on the educational services needed by low-income children and children of color. Once the school officials realized that I worked for the attorneys on the case who had the power to pursue legal action, however, the outcomes were very different and more often than not children received the services they needed.

That experience showed me what a powerful tool the law was for addressing social issues, and most importantly, how essential access to legal assistance is to advancing justice, equity and opportunity. It is what drew me to pursue a career advancing access to justice.

Maha: After law school, you continued your path in social justice including with Washington DC’s Public Defender Service (PDS), which you ultimately came to lead. That office is often seen as a model public defender program in the United States. To what do you attribute its success?

Jo-Ann: One of the essential reasons for PDS’s national reputation as a standard-bearer for public defense is the deeply ingrained culture of client-centeredness. The moment you walk through the door as a new employee, you are immersed in the agency’s focus on a people-centered approach. This continues throughout your training period and tenure at the agency. The analytical framework for any discussion, whether focused on a case or an agency policy position, always begins with the question: “What is going to advance the needs and interests of the people we represent?”

PDS’ high-quality representation includes addressing the underlying social issues that lead to court involvement in the first place, as well as defending people’s liberty. When defenders have deep engagements with their communities, their representation provides access to opportunity, reduces recidivism, promotes public safety, and benefits clients and communities.

2018 NLADA Equal Justice Conference (Photo: NLADA)

Maha: You then moved to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA). In the United States, criminal legal aid and civil legal aid communities are sometimes seen as separate actors in the legal system because one is provided as a right under our constitution and the other as a benefit to the very poor and under certain specific circumstances. Can you share why you think an organization that represents both communities — plus their clients — is important to advancing access to justice in the nation?

Jo-Ann: Civil and criminal justice issues are intertwined and have a collective impact. The challenges low-income communities face and the solutions that are needed to advance justice and equity do not fall neatly into one category or the other.

Disparate treatment of individuals from communities of color in the criminal legal system, for example, begins long before people feel the weight of criminal charges brought against them by the government. It begins with wealth, employment, education, and health disparities. Eliminating the most deeply rooted barriers to equal justice in our country requires multi-sector, multi-disciplinary approaches, starting with the individuals and communities who are directly impacted.

Another example of the interplay between civil and criminal justice can be seen in the number of people in US jails and prisons who are incarcerated because they cannot afford to make child support payments or pay court fees or fines. The negative impact of the assessment and enforcement of court fines, fees, and bail on low-income and minority individuals is increasingly gaining recognition as a factor that leads to over-incarceration, job losses, housing losses, and family instability. These court user fees and fines perpetuate poverty and alienation among people who are caught in the justice system.

Maha: And why is this interplay important for NLADA’s advocacy work?

Jo-Ann: Effective advocacy to change the policies that lead to incarcerating people simply because of poverty requires a clear understanding of both civil and criminal systems and procedures. It also requires the input and engagement of the community members who are impacted. That is why an organization like NLADA that includes all of these stakeholders in its governance and community, has expertise reaching across all of these issues, and considers how they interact with each other is critical to trying to ensure equal access to justice for all, as called for in Sustainable Development Goal 16.

Maha: You helped to create the Black Public Defender Association (BPDA). Can you share why you think a public defender association dedicated to supporting and lifting up black public defenders is an important step to achieving justice for all?

Jo-Ann: The lingering impact of slavery and the disparate impacts of the criminal legal system on Blacks and other people of color are well documented, leading to a lack of trust in the justice system by the African American community. Black public defenders bear witness to the disparities in the system both professionally and personally. The passion and commitment of advocates who identify with the clients and communities they serve have an important role to play in advancing systems, institutions and policies that advance justice.

At present, the legal profession lags behind many other professions in advancing diversity. Recent studies estimate that in the United States, only about 4% of attorneys overall and 5% of law firm associates are Black or African American. Diversity percentages in public defense agencies vary across jurisdictions but are often similar. Clearly, we must do better. BPDA works to expand diversity by creating and maintaining a national network of skilled Black public defenders who identify with and are committed to the populations they serve, and thereby to improve the quality of defense provided to low-income communities across the United States. Equally critical, BPDA works to increase diversity in the leadership of public defender agencies.

Jo-Ann Wallace and Debbie Majoras, General Counsel of Procter & Gamble at the 2018 NLADA Equal Justice Conference (Photo: NLADA)

Maha: You have announced that you will be stepping down from your current position at NLADA later this year to lead a related organization — the NLADA Insurance Program, essentially NLADA’s private sector arm. What prompted you to make this transition?

Jo-Ann: The NLADA Insurance Program serves as the advocate and provider of quality professional liability insurance products for the full spectrum of the NLADA membership community. This includes individual attorneys, legal aid organizations, public defenders, corporate pro bono law programs, law school clinics, individual clients, and public interest groups. An essential part of the Program’s business model is to support NLADA’s mission and it provides significant financial and other resources to NLADA and its members.

Working with NLADA’s Corporate Advisory Committee and collaborating with entities like the Association of Pro Bono Counsel and associated law firms has made clear how much the private sector can do to advance people-centered justice. Research shows that the public worldwide has more trust in business leaders than leaders from any other sector. People expect business leaders to step up and speak out on important social issues and they expect business CEOs to fill the void left by a lack of trust in government leaders. At NLADA, we have seen that domestically through the Corporate Advisory Committee’s commitment to civil legal aid and public defense in advocacy before Congress. Over the last year, we have also seen it globally through NLADA’s participation as a Steering Committee member of the Business Leaders for Justice Coalition, launched by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.

Much of the focus on the business role in social justice has focused on large corporations — and there is still much more that they can do — but in many places across the globe, small business drives the economy. In the United States, small businesses account for approximately 60% of the gross domestic product and contribute significantly to innovation, entrepreneurship and local economies. Harnessing that collective power in support of access to justice is among my next goals.

Maha: Your career mirrors what the Sustainable Development Goals acknowledge — that all sectors — government, civil society, and the private sector — have a part to play in ending extreme poverty. How does your experience inform your view around collaboration across these sectors?

Jo-Ann: My experience working in and with these sectors confirms that we can only make a difference if we approach this work in a unified way. The SDG 16+ framework mirrors exactly what advocates working to advance equal access to justice anywhere in the world know — justice is a worthy goal in and of itself and it is also a necessary prerequisite to almost any other measure of well-being, be that eradicating poverty, ending hunger, improving housing, providing education, advancing racial equity, or securing gender equality. The only way we can work to ensure all of these goals are met is through an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need to lift the floor together and no government, civil society organization, or private sector actor can do it on their own.

Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

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