Congress Just Gained A Rare New Member: Someone Who Worked As A Public Defender

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When Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) is sworn into Congress this week — or whenever Republicans manage to elect a Speaker — she will become one of the few members to have worked as a public defender.Many members of Congress are lawyers, and most of those who worked in the criminal justice system were prosecutors — 29 House members in the 117th Congress that just ended were formerly prosecutors, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But Crockett has taken a different path. After several years with the Bowie County Public Defender’s Office, where she provided legal representation to the poor, Crockett started her criminal defense firm. Her frustration with the criminal legal system prompted her to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, where she filed more bills than any other freshman lawmaker, drawing on her experiences representing people she believes were unfairly punished. 

Working within the Republican-controlled far-right Texas legislature, Crockett could not get any of the bills she was the main author signed into law. So, in 2021, she announced her candidacy to replace the retiring representative of Texas’ 30th Congressional District in Dallas County. 

Crockett spoke with HuffPost in November after her congressional orientation in Washington, D.C., about her work as a defense lawyer and how that informs her political work.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

I read in an interview you did with Darling in 2020 that you initially wanted to be an anesthesiologist but that you decided to go to law school, in part, because of the support you got from your lawyer after being the victim of a series of hate crimes. Are you comfortable discussing what happened and how that affected your career trajectory? 

Yeah, absolutely. So I went to private schools from seventh grade on, which meant that I typically was one of the few African Americans in the class. When I went to undergrad at Rhodes College, there were only 18 African Americans that came into my class as a freshman. And we’re in the heart of Memphis — the hood of Memphis, to be perfectly honest.

For me, walking into a space where I’m in the extreme minority was just kind of a way of life for me after I started junior high.

Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference with newly elected incoming members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.
Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference with newly elected incoming members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

Rep.-elect Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference with newly elected incoming members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

I went to my on-campus mailbox one day, and there was this letter that was kind of like movie style, where you cut out letters from magazines. And it was just saying all kinds of stuff, using the N-word, and very hateful, mean-spirited things. It was so upsetting to me because I didn’t know who I could trust. It made me very skeptical of my classmates. Nobody knows your mailbox number, that’s not very public.

A number of my other friends got these letters as well. One, her car was keyed with the N-word.

The school ended up calling in the Cochran Firm, and a Black female lawyer was assigned to me. It was just comforting that somebody was there at a time when I didn’t know what to do. It was the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do. That is when I was like, “Man, there are people that are needed in this space.” 

In that moment, you’re just hurt, you’re upset, you’re confused, but when you can look back and see the entire picture, you realize that — I’m about to go see my pastor, so I’m on my church stuff, I’m a preacher’s kid. But you can’t have a testimony unless you’ve been tested. I’m happy to say that I’m somebody that has truly been tested in real-life scenarios. But my own experiences are what I always bring to the table — whether it’s going into a courtroom to try a case and having a level of compassion and heart for my clients that are accused, whether it is walking onto the legislative floor of the Texas House, and having to educate my colleagues who have never set foot in my district but want to come up with laws that specifically affect my district, or whether I’m walking on to the U.S. House floor.

Did you join the public defender’s office straight out of law school? 

So, I graduated from law school, and by now, my experiences are a little bit removed because I’ve gone through three years of law school. And I’m like, “Oh, I can make money being a lawyer?” I was recruited by a number of firms. I ended up in Texarkana doing class action defense work, so nothing exciting. I ended up going through a soul-searching moment where I was like, “Why did I do this? I hate this.” 

I always wanted to help people, and here I was defending corporations. It was the opposite of why I ever went to law school. They were opening a public defender’s office, so I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna go apply.” 

I walk in, and the guy that was appointed to be the lead public defender, he’s like, “Why should I hire you?” Because I had no experience. I was fresh out of law school and only doing class action defense law.

I said, “Well, I’m smart, so I’ll figure it out. I got good grades. But, more importantly, I’m gonna walk in with the rapport that no one else in your office is going to be able to walk in and have when they see people that look like me.” 

Unfortunately, the criminal justice system, consistently, no matter what city and state you’re in, incarcerates people that look like me. And so that’s an advantage that no amount of education is going to give any of your employees. So I said, “So, in short, because I’m Black.” 

It was infuriating to experience the mistreatment of accused persons — not even convicted persons — but accused people and poor people. I wanted to always be the attorney that everybody wanted. There’s always this, “We don’t want a public defender, they’re gonna be bad,” and I never wanted that reputation. 

I thank God that I feel like I never ended up getting that reputation in my 16 years of practicing law. 

I finally realized that the power lies with being the prosecutor. Ultimately, I ran for [Bowie County] District Attorney. So that was my first race, and that’s the only one I’ve lost. I was 28. 

So that was before the progressive prosecutor movement had really taken off. 

It’s way before all of that. The election was in 2010, so I started running in 2009. I was talking about the smart ways to prosecute, and there wasn’t a name for it at that time at all. 

I always have these monumental moments that really kind of shift me a bit and shake me to my core. I had a case with a 17-year-old kid — and in the state of Texas, you’re considered an adult [at 17] only for criminal justice purposes, not for anything else. I get him on a probation revocation. He doesn’t have a car, he doesn’t have a job. The allegations are that he’s not reporting to his probation officer during working hours. Well, his mama gotta leave work to go pick him up to get him to a probation officer. It was the most ridiculous thing. 

So I was like, “Why was he ever placed on felony probation? What did he burglarize?”

And he was on felony probation for stealing candy out of the concession stand at high school. And I was like, “I’m sorry, what? How are we helping our community by taking a 17-year-old and making him a convicted felon? Before he can even vote! This doesn’t make any sense to me.” 

Crockett (right) speaks at a demonstration on voting rights outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Aug. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Crockett (right) speaks at a demonstration on voting rights outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Aug. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Crockett (right) speaks at a demonstration on voting rights outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Aug. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, the judge revoked his probation violation for technical violations and sent him to prison for the max, which was two years. For, like, $20 worth of candy. 

I was just like, “Somebody’s at least gotta tell the stories. People don’t understand what’s going on.”

I decided to take an economic angle because we’re a county that was struggling. I’m like, “We’re inefficient! There’s no reason to lock him up! When he comes home, where do you think he’s coming from? He’s coming right back here! You tell me what opportunities he’s going to have.”

I was talking about just being smarter in how we prosecute — not necessarily giving people a pass, but he never would have had a felony with me. Ever. 

You said in a previous interview that you ran for your Texas state House seat because of your frustrations with practicing law. You said, “The reality is that I could be the greatest litigator to walk the face of the earth, but if the laws don’t make sense for everybody, then it doesn’t matter.” Could you elaborate on what laws don’t make sense? And what changes you tried to make in the state legislature? 

Oh my gosh, everything didn’t make sense. One of the bills I worked on was to decriminalize drug paraphernalia, including fentanyl strips. I don’t look at drug addiction as someone being criminally minded I look at them as someone who has a health crisis, and so I try to treat that accordingly. 

I got it out of committee in a bipartisan fashion, but they didn’t allow it to come to the floor simply because the Republicans were pissed at me for calling them out for their racist policies. 

Most people don’t know that if you take what would be considered a misdemeanor amount of flower and you put it into, say, a brownie, it now becomes a felony. It was just thinking through things around that. I filed a number of bills that had to do with my experience around bail reform and minimizing the amount of time someone could be required to sit in custody. Right now, you can sit in jail for 90 days, and if you’re not indicted, that’s OK. I wanted to reduce the trigger on how long someone can be sitting. They lose everything. To literally be gone for three months and expect to have a car, a house, or anything — it’s not reasonable. 

I also created an entire pre-trial diversion program from scratch [for 17-year-old, first-time, nonviolent offenders]. I got really wide bipartisan support in the House, and then it was a Democratic senator that killed it. 

I had another bill that would [adjust] parole eligibility for youthful offenders. All the data shows that your brain is not fully developed until maybe about 25 or 26. So anyone accused of a crime [before] 25, they would become parole eligible in half the time they normally would. 

A lot of criminal justice issues have to be addressed at the state level. What made you decide to run for Congress, and what issues do you think can be addressed on the federal level? 

I don’t look at any of it in a vacuum. You have to understand how people end up in the system. And by being empowered to reduce some of the barriers that they experience in life, I absolutely believe that we can end up in a situation where there’s just less crime overall. 

When you got somebody who goes into a grocery store and steals food because they’re hungry — that’s not criminally minded. That’s somebody who is in a very unfortunate economic situation and is just trying to live. The number of people that I’ve dealt with that said, “I didn’t want to deal drugs — I dealt drugs because I was trying to take care of my family.” 

My focus is going to be on economic prosperity. Almost 20% of my district is below the poverty line. And I also have the highest incarcerated zip code in the state of Texas.