"The Need for Prosecutorial Accountability": An Interview with Raha Jorjani

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We teamed up with immigration defense attorney Raha Jorjani to create an illustrated video explaining the need for prosecutorial accountability in our criminal justice system. Raha works with the Public Defenders of Alameda County. She is a Leading Edge Fellow and is nationally recognized for her work at the intersections of immigration and  criminal  law. 

To learn more about Raha, read our interview below. Watch and share the video in your communities. And vote in your upcoming District Attorney election! (Oh, and see what Shaun King has to say about the power of prosecutors.) 

 

What kind of law do you practice?

I'm an immigration removal defense attorney. I represent people who are facing deportation and are often detained by the Department of Homeland Security. My practice is focused at the intersection of criminal and immigration laws since very often, coming into contact with the criminal justice system can have devastating immigration consequences - like deportation - for folks who are not citizens. 

Why did you become a lawyer?

I always thought that mass incarceration was one of the most pressing humans rights crises that our nation faces. I wanted to be involved in the type of law that helps to free people from human cages and help to reunite them with their families.

What is it like working for the Public Defenders of Alameda County?

I absolutely love working for the Alameda County Public Defender's Office. It really feels like we have a huge family here and we're brought together by a common cause. By fighting for [our] clients, we're also fighting for their families and for their communities. We have one common goal. [When] one of us wins, all of us win. 

Is there anything that makes the Alameda County public defender’s office  unique in regards to the criminal justice system?

Our office was the first office in California (and outside of NY, really) to embed a full-time immigration attorney in a county public defender's office.

We know that our clients need and deserve more than just legal representation--they need and deserve access to healthcare, social workers, re-entry plans...The vision of the office is really one of holistic defense and going beyond that of just traditional criminal defense representation.

Why does the system look like this? Why on earth do prosecutors have so much power?

I don't consider myself to be a subject matter expert on this topic, but from what I understand it's a combination of the way the criminal legal system is set up and the system's history, as well as the laws in place that value protecting prosecutors more than they value accountability. 

If you dig into the criminal legal system, you'll find direct connections between the current system and this country’s legacy of what Bryan Stevenson refers to as racial terror. Understanding these foundations is key to understanding how we got to where we are today.

How can we make this narrative more audible?

It seems to me that the more people understand how the criminal justice system actually works and the importance of holding all actors in the criminal justice system accountable [that] we're going to get to a place where this narrative will become more accessible. 

I think that it's really important for people to understand that even though the video focuses on prosecutors, I absolutely believe that every single actor in the criminal system needs to be held accountable, including judges, probation officers, and certainly public defenders, and other criminal defense attorneys. 

It seems like across the country, there are reform movements that are focused on promoting more progressive DAs. (Real Justice PAC, ACLU, etc.) Do you think progressive DAs will  1) be able to create longstanding change and 2) last more than an election cycle?

I hope so. I think DAs who prioritize the overall integrity and well-being of communities, rather than prioritize  obtaining convictions will make a difference. 

The hope is that we can slowly change the culture of an office and legitimize another way of thinking about these problems and responding to [them]. With that, it would hopefully last more than an election cycle. 

To be clear though, the crisis of mass incarceration, mass deportation, race-based policing and so on will not be solved by having DAs approach their work differently; we need systemic change for that. But holding DAs accountable, as we would other actors in the criminal legal system is an important step towards shifting realities for the folks on the ground whose lives are impacted and often destroyed by how things current work.  

For people who watch the video, what do you most want to communicate to them?

I most want to communicate to them that they do have power and that they can make a difference. In addition to that, [I want] to have them walk away feeling like they understand the system and the role of prosecutors a little bit better, a little bit more than they did before. The most important message is the note that we end on, which is that prosecutors have only the power that voters give to them. 

Finally, what is an immigration defense attorney doing making a video that is about prosecutors in the criminal justice system?

I get that question a lot. What we've seen in the immigration system in the last 2 decades is an unfortunate merging of the immigration system with the criminal justice system...for folks who are not citizens of the US, contact with the criminal justice system almost ensures contact with the immigration system. What happens in the criminal justice system tends to define more and more the outcome for whether or not [people] will be deported. 

Fixing and addressing the problems of the criminal justice system could not be more relevant to improving the lives of immigrants in this country and protecting their rights. Again, it's a human rights issue. I'm not only interested in issues that impact immigrants--I'm interested in issues that impact all of us.  


If you’re fired up and want to learn more about the criminal justice system, click here for a list of activists and organizations to follow!