There is a steadily increasing push towards criminal justice reform throughout the country. We are still recovering from the "tough on crime" era of the 80s that led us to our current incarceration rate of 500%. Today, we've seen some policy changes in areas such as bail, but what of the tactics in court? This week's guest, defense attorney, Scott Hechinger, tells Xander about his work with the Brooklyn Defenders and how defenders can be pivotal in reversing the unfavorable narrative surrounding arrests and sentencing. He founded Zealous to teach defenders how to show up in court as well as how to become "natural allies."
Scott's goals are to "push back against the prevailing narrative." He wants to reform criminal justice and ultimately end the racism, excessive policing, lack of health and safety, and cruelty that often accompanies it. He believes that the public perception that our system works is due to ignorance of the issues combined with media influence. "It's just easy to go with, it is bad, and there is evil," he says, "There's this quick and easy solution even if the data doesn't support it."
He started Zealous in 2019 after years of working with the Brooklyn Defenders because he felt that more had to be done within the approach of how, as he calls them, "criminal justice champions" advocated for their clients. He says defenders are "on the ground, in court every day fighting against the system, representing people who are directly impacted, who are crushed by overcriminalization, over-policing, incarceration." However, defenders are often afraid to address injustices to the media, while others may feel unqualified or fear overstepping.
Zealous gives attorneys the tools they need to advocate inside the court and actively join the movement outside. Through Zealous, they learn how to approach defense relationships and abandon the implied possession and control over individuals by shifting from using phrases such as "my client" and replacing it with "the person I represent." With new strategies, Scott wishes to offer agency to the people he represents and eventually see the 95% of immediate guilty pleas for misdemeanors decrease.
Scott explains that defenders have the advantage of their unique perspectives to shift hearts and minds. "Like the black single mother being arrested for leaving their kids alone for short periods because they couldn't afford child care," Scott explains that defenders can use their platforms to bring attention to the complexity of stories like this. He joined coalitions and spoke out against conflicting THC arrests that followed the legalization of marijuana, leading to council meetings to change policy. "Advocacy storytelling is so key to what defenders are kind of amazing at," Scott says, "effective when done right."
Scott continues to train defenders, build on community, and fight for immigration rights, education, and housing. He believes that bringing together various organizers from activists, social workers, community leaders, artists, filmmakers, and influencers is imperative to this mission.
As his movement continues to grow, Scott believes, "The criminal legal system will be significantly smaller, significantly fairer, and significantly less racist." He says, "The way we get there are these collaborative advocacy hubs throughout the country."