By Robin Steinberg, Founder of the Bail Project
Reviewed by: Ann Nye —
Robin Steinberg, asks us to consider the question, “What if your entire life were defined by the worst thing you ever did?”
Robin shares her path as a public defender working within a systemically flawed criminal justice system. She asks us to “imagine what it would be like to be in the other person’s place and the journey that could have brought them there.” The lives and stories of the “unlovable” people she defended taught her that the key to compassion is the “courage to be vulnerable and not closed off to the suffering of another person.”
You learn about her clients – a rapist who is accused of rape who’s not a rapist, a person who is accused of sexual molestation who’s not a molester, evidence that is planted, police who lie about their interrogations and fabricate confessions, and that there are no “Perry Mason moments in real defense work.” There are also cases where the defendant is guilty of horrendous crimes like murder and needs to be held accountable. In these cases, Robin shows us how you can view a person who has committed a horrendous act yet deserves a chance for rehabilitation.
At Berkeley in 1975, Robin began realizing she didn’t want to throw stones at the system from the outside, but to make systemic change on the inside. In the fall of 1979, she decided to go to law school. I “traded my tie-dyes and peasant skirts for pants and blazers and began classes at NYU School of Law.” One summer she interned at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. The case she worked on was like a movie scene “right out of To Kill a Mockingbird.” They ended up winning the case, where a win was life in prison versus the electric chair. However, all that brilliant advocacy was overshadowed afterwards by her traumatic encounter with Morris Dees, the social justice icon and founder of SPLC. Robin’s experience wasn’t unique, either, and she learned a hard lesson, that she would need to create a “supportive haven for women in this profession.” Note: SPLC’s sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the workplace continued for decades – Morris Dees didn’t get fired until 2019.
In 1997, after being a public defender for 15 years, Robin founded a new kind of public defender office in the South Bronx, the Bronx Defenders. She saw an opportunity to build an office after NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cancel the Legal Aid Society’s contract with the city when their lawyers went on strike. The city put out a request for proposal for other groups to provide representation for indigent New Yorkers, and Robin stepped in. The organization is now considered the gold standard for public defenders.
After visiting Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2016, Robin felt compelled to move there and start a new organization, Still She Rises, in tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou, who is famous for her poem “And Still I Rise.” Her objective was to marry public defense and feminism to serve the women of north Tulsa. She was surprised by folks she met wearing TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT on their shirts who were neighborly to her and needed her organization’s help.
Robin, who now lives in Los Angeles, spoke at our Palos Verdes Democrats January 2023 meeting on Reimagining the Bail System. Check out her presentation in our January Newsletter.
A few last remarks: A few weeks ago, I was driving to drop off a package at a friend’s house that I’ve only visited once or twice. I knew her house was a small house behind the main house on the street. When I drove up, I only saw the addresses of the houses on the street. I parked my car and walked down the driveway and I was confused, because I didn’t see her house. I walked around the yard perplexed. I walked back to the street and realized I had walked down the wrong driveway. There was a neighbor up the street watching me as I walked to the house next door and walked down their driveway. Thankfully, I found my friend’s house and dropped off the package without incident. This was a few days after a Kansas teenager knocked on the wrong door and the homeowner shot him, and a second incident where two young adults in Florida pulled into the wrong driveway and were shot at by a neighbor.
Consider Robin’s words of wisdom: “Learning to control our fear is worth the risk and can have tremendous impact on how we treat one another.” Late one night, she was awoken by someone breaking into her garage. Read about it on page 196 of her book.