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Connecticut's first Black chief public defender is changing the game

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “CT’s first Black chief public defender embraces work ahead,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

JE: TaShun Bowden-Lewis — she's the first Black Chief Public Defender of Connecticut, which is a state funded division that oversees Connecticut's public defense system, essentially. And this is a Connecticut-bred woman. She's from South Norwalk. Someone who, for her entire life, has wanted to be a public defender, which I found very interesting. She's always said this to me in previous interviews and before I even met her, she spoke about this anecdote of even when she was a child, people would ask her what she wanted to be. And she always knew that it wasn't a private attorney making millions of dollars. It wasn't a judge, which public defenders tend to move into those roles. It was always public defense. And she knew, inherently, that public defenders help people and that was sort of a message trickled down to her by both matriarchs in her family.

She was raised primarily by her mother and grandmother, both of whom emphasized this need to help people in life, and she knew that public defenders helped people. And so yes, you have this essentially career long public defender who has worked in New Haven and has worked in Waterbury for 25 years. Now she has been appointed as Connecticut's first Black Chief Public Defender in a role in which she says, this is what she feels she's supposed to be doing. And now she has sort of the final say, in a state where you have Black people and people of color in general who are overwhelmingly incarcerated in a state in which the demographics of Black people in Connecticut, for example, is 13%.

WSHU: And they comprise how much of the criminal justice system? 13% of the population, but how many of the people involved in the criminal justice system are Black?

JE: So 42% of people in the criminal justice system are Black. Not to mention too, a state division that is overwhelmingly white, right, when you talk about the Office of Public Defense.

WSHU: How many black public defenders do we have in Connecticut?

JE: So that's a number I wasn't able to kind of narrow down in particular. And that is one thing that they're trying to be better in terms of, data tracking. But I do know, within the office of the Chief Public Defender, the data division, the office with paraprofessionals, it's at least 70%, white based on their last fiscal year report. They haven't broken up into those different categories of professionals, para-professionals, etc. But all at least 70% white, numbers she said could be even more at this point when they do the next fiscal year report.

WSHU: Well, across the country, you say here, that it's only 5% of public defenders across the country that are black.

JE: Right. So yeah, you're talking about a profession that at large is not representative. I mean, we know the national trends in terms of so many Black people, people of color, who are again, overwhelmingly under-represented in the criminal legal system in jails and prisons and courts across the country. And so we're talking about she's also a symbolic representation of that demographic, of the 5% of public defenders across the country who typically walk into these rooms where important decisions are made. They are in many cases the only black people, only people of color in those particular rooms.

WSHU: So how is she approaching this job that she has now?

JE: It's very fascinating, as she's three months into the role. She was appointed. She started in July officially. So a lot of it has been kind of laying the groundwork , she has a three prong vision. Among those which I thought was among the most important, is that she's really taking a community engagement approach. She really wants to get out and meet the people that public defenders help the most and I think that's also an attempt to diversify public defense. She wants young women, young girls, I mean, people in general to know that she's there for them, that she's accessible, that she knows their background and where they're coming from, and things like that. And what she doesn't know, she's willing to do the work to learn. And so that's a big part of it. And another part of it too is to make sure that the people within her office feel valued.

I think that a big part of it is to make sure that the people who work there know that they are important, that they're valued, and that their work is appreciated. And then the third prong which she talks about is to diversify on all levels, and recruitment and retention on all levels, you know, understanding that, again, public offense, and Connecticut and across the country is not at all representative of the people they serve the most.

WSHU: Now, could you tell us the role that her mother and her grandmother have played in Bowden-Lewis’s life?

JE: You know, it's fascinating, because I found myself at times, I've asked her particular questions. And she's always mentioned to me that it's important for her to keep her personal life separate and sacred, those are her words, separate and sacred. But those are two people that she's willing to talk about, you know, at any point, Dorothy and Vernell, both matriarchs in her life. Her mother had a career working in human resources.

And then her grandmother had jobs with factories and things of that nature. These are women who, again, they would always emphasize to TaShun that it's important to get an education, it's important to help people. And they wanted her to know that she can do anything that she aspired to. As cliche as that may sound, as often as we hear, she really took that to heart. And I mean, now she's seen it all come to life. And she credits her belief in herself and the work that she's doing, to the work her grandmother and mother put in raising her to be the best person that she can be.

WSHU: Now, public defenders have always had a problem with funding. How is she approaching that aspect of it? Because it's great to have all these ideas of trying to diversify the workforce and recruiting more people. But generally, the funding for the public defender's department has had problems in the past. How is she approaching that?

JE: Yeah, that part is so interesting. We talk about Connecticut public defense. And one thing I wanted to see was how do people look at Connecticut in comparison to other public defense systems across the country? You find a scenario or a situation where I've talked to numerous public defenders, even TaShun’s predecessor, Christine Rapillo, who is now a superior court judge and she noted to me that anytime, at least during her tenure, when they would reach out to whomever for particular assistance, funding or things like that, they really have been granted the things that they've asked for. And I've also spoken with folks who say that when you compare Connecticut to other public defense systems across the country, it's a situation where the system within the state seems to be a lot better off than what we've seen, you know, across the countries.

In New York in particular, you know, you've had a bevy of people who've left the profession, citing overwhelming workloads and inadequate pay. In Connecticut, there seems to be a different morale based on my reporting, in terms of people. Obviously, is it what it needs to be? No. I've even asked TaShun, and I've asked, you know, other public defenders, and they always welcome more help, more attorneys, more funding, more all of those things. But, you know, again, speaking with them about how they look at Connecticut's public defense system, when paired up against other systems across the country, where you have a bunch of systems who are not even as centralized, who aren't state funded. It kind of varies across the country, people really feel I guess, confident about where the division is headed.

And so part of TaShun's job is to set budget priorities and things of that nature. So I do believe just based on my conversations with her that those are things that she's aware of, and things that she's going to continue to try to push.

WSHU: Now what does this say about Connecticut, that we have a black Chief Justice, and we have a black chief public defender? Now, what does it say about the justice system in Connecticut? What impact is that having?

JE: When you have young people who seek careers as attorneys, as lawyers, as chief justices of the Supreme Court in Connecticut, it definitely sends that sign and that message that it's possible for you to accomplish this thing. It's not this dream and ivory tower that's so distant from you that you will never be able to reach. At the same time, though, it's a reminder of how much work there is that needs to be done. It’s 2022 and we're talking about the first Black chief public defender, or with Chief Justice Robinson in what, it was 2019 or 2018 when he was appointed and Connecticut had it’s first Black Supreme Court Chief Justice.

So while it is a reminder of, maybe we know we're taking steps in the right direction, it's also a stark reminder that there's so much more work to be done. And it's also important to remember that just because someone has a particular background or experience doesn't mean that they can solve all the issues. So that is one thing I've heard too on the ground is that it's going to take way more than a Chief Justice Robinson,TaShun Bowden-Lewis Chief Public Defender, to overcome the systemic issues that we've seen across the country. Long story short, you know, it's an inspiration for a bunch of younger people.

But at the same time, it's a reminder that there's still much more work to be done, and the fact that we're having conversations in 2022 about the first, not as in that beautiful lighter as you may see. It's also something that we have to be wary of, and really think about, why is it that it took this long to have the first in this particular position?

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.