4 Questions For The ABA's Next Criminal Justice Chair

By Andrea Keckley | August 25, 2023, 3:58 PM EDT ·

Tina Luongo, The Legal Aid Society of New York City's top criminal defender, is approaching their new position as chair of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section with an eye on issues like keeping prosecutors and public defenders in their jobs at a time of significant attrition.

individual smiling in suit

Tina Luongo

Luongo, the chief attorney of Legal Aid's criminal defense practice, brings more than two decades of public defense experience and is the first gender-fluid person to serve as section chair. They succeed Justin Bingham, the City Prosecutor for the City of Spokane, Wash., for what will be a yearlong role.

Luongo has been with the ABA since 2010. They have served as chair of the ABA's task force on comprehensive representation, a co-chair of the women in criminal justice task force, a co-chair of the Section Officers Conference budget task force and a member of the Section Officers Conference executive board.

Here, Luongo discusses their plans for the coming year and the issues they are focused on. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your overall goals for the position?

The criminal justice section has a rich history of doing global policy, professional development and practice. So, the first thing to say is my year is to continue in that rich tradition. We are doing a strategic vision for our section, and I think it's really critically important for bar associations to right now ask, what do our members need? What brings new members into our associations, and how do we help people in our profession?

For us, it's not just criminal defense attorneys. It's public and private criminal defense attorneys. It's state and federal prosecutors, judges [and] academics. What do our members in the criminal justice section need from us, and how can we help them face the challenges they're facing in their jurisdictions? And, frankly, we have global reach in the places across the world they practice in.

And when I think about some of those issues that are facing our profession, state prosecutors and public defenders, frankly, even the federal defenders at this point, are facing enormous attrition. We need to fully fund resources for people who are representing people, or representing the government if you're a prosecutor, to stay in the work that you love. ... So we really need to fix that, because if we are going to be a system that relies on and boasts that it is fair, or tries to be fair, and it tries to be equitable, and that we're meeting the constitutional needs of people who are accused, well then you have to make sure that you have experienced, dedicated people doing that work.

And the wonderful thing about [the criminal justice section] is that people aren't locked into the way they think when we're in court. When we're in court, we're adversarial. What I have found over my time with the criminal justice section is it's really a unified voice. If we have to problem-solve, we're problem-solving this together. So, this is a good group to have these conversations.

Next thing, obviously, is to look at the continued reliance and over-reliance on incarceration and ensuring that we're doing everything we can to move away from that ... to get away from relying on a criminal justice system to give people programming when what we know to be true is we'd like to not have to meet anybody ever in the criminal legal system.

And then the final thing is ... we really have to call to question some of the decisions that are made around removing prosecutors or public defenders who are trying to do things differently, moving toward reform, and the pushback they get, or the removal from office that happens when they do that. I think about prosecutors who are duly elected by the people ... and then the government removing them. I look to Florida and question those actions. I think we have to really, as we're looking at an election year, look at what's motivating those decisions and ensuring that the rule of law and the election process [is] allowed to do what it is supposed to do, which is to have people select who's in office for them.

On the public defender side, there have been instances where public defenders who are supposed to be independent, because of the work that they do, we do, being removed from office because of perhaps a position they have taken. So we really want independence and ensuring that as we continue to sort of face issues in our country around a concern about public safety or a law change or a court decision, that when our elected or duly appointed officials that are supposed to be protecting people's rights or ensuring public safety and justice, that they're allowed to do what they're allowed to do without interference, so long as they're doing what they're doing by the law. And so that is a focus as we're looking at an election year.

How do you work to address criminal justice issues, like policing, for instance, where many decisions are made at the local level while you're in a position with national reach?

Policing is a central focus of the work we have done for many years at [the criminal justice section.] And in fact, we have a policing consortium ... So we partner with law schools right now in local jurisdictions so that those law schools can work with their police departments, with their public defender offices [and] with their schools to come up with local policing projects that look to address the issues that are of the concern of that community.

And what we do at [the criminal justice section] is we support that work. We have a staff member who leads that work nationally. We also have law enforcement leaders on our Criminal Justice Council, because we really think that, besides having the prosecutors, lawyers and judges, the real important aspect is to have advocates [and] to have people who do this work, not as lawyers, like police chiefs. And we have those who are impacted — non-lawyers who were impacted by the criminal legal system — that sit on our Criminal Justice Council to help us make decisions. And so when we're having these conversations about policy, we're bringing in the perspective of people who are practicing locally.

And often, a conversation will happen where something may or may not work ... where we don't understand what effect would happen in that local community. And so we seek out the opinion of people who are in those jurisdictions to help guide so that policies we're coming up with that ultimately go to the American Bar Association to be voted on by their house of delegates to become ABA policy is vetted through a bunch of different opinions and frames.

How do you think lawyers can use new technology or other advancements and innovations in the legal industry to work toward more just outcomes in the criminal legal system?

So one of the things that is really exceptional about the work of [the criminal justice section] ... is the work that we do that's done in our white collar community. So there, it's the private bar, it's the international criminal defense bar, larger law firms, as well as the federal government.

And we do three very large, white-collar conferences: one here in the States called the national white-collar conference, and then one that's done in the southeastern region of the country, and then we do one that's international. And they are tackling the movement toward data privacy [and] AI.

And what I appreciate as a public defender is being in those communities, hearing these dialogues as it relates to the private sector, but learning how to apply it in the public sector.

So in this next spring, we'll be doing our conference in San Diego. And my theme is to bring together these types of issues and look at them from both frames, the private sector, as well as the public sector, because we have a lot to learn from one another.

How do you want to promote a more diverse profession in this position and build on the [criminal justice section's] existing diversity plan?

I think we've come a long way in making sure that the people who are in our association, as well as around the table making decisions, come from a wide array of lived experience identities.

I'm the first gender-fluid chair of the section. That happened because of very intentional work, allyship and mentorship of people who came before. Several of the chairs have been Black practitioners, other prosecutors and public defenders. And in the next couple of years, that is going to continue.

That's about intentional work. That's about not only speaking the speak around [diversity, equity and inclusion] but very intentional work about ensuring that we are reaching out, that when people join, we are welcoming and that we commit ourselves to creating pathways to leadership.

And I think it's a model that we have to all lean in on. We can't just boast about DEI programming. What has to come behind that is an intentional plan for creating space and being affirming and creating belonging. And I think that when programs fail, it's because that is not present. And so I'm happy to say that we are very committed at [the criminal justice section], and I'm certainly committed to continuing that work.

We have diversity, equity and inclusion programming that happens. [Professor Emerita at the University of New Hampshire School of Law Sarah Redfield] and former federal Judge Bernice Donald go around the country training on DEI in the criminal legal space.

We did a task force on women in criminal justice where we brought together an intentional group of women who made it their mission to go around the country — before COVID, it was in person and during COVID on video — ensuring they were listening to women in our profession from across the country where normally we did not listen — Spokane, New Mexico, tribal lands.

The question for them was, why are you leaving the criminal legal profession after a few years, and why are you not joining the criminal justice section? And we listened, and what we heard were hard things. We then took that information, built out 12 principles in gender equity in the criminal legal system, and the American Bar Association adopted it as their policy.

 --Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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