An Interview with Whitney Tymas ’76, Director of the Vera Institute’s Prosecution and Racial Justice Program
More than 1 in 100 Americans is locked up. We’ve got more people incarcerated than any country in the world. America held more than 2.3 million adults in its prison system in 2008. China came second with about a million and a half. Russia was a distant third with less than a million. We are the global leader when it comes to putting our people behind bars. That’s shocking unto itself. Then you start breaking the numbers down by who’s getting locked up: one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is now incarcerated. For black men between 20 and 34, that number is 1 in 9.
This just happened. It is the result of steady growth in our criminal justice system over the past three to four decades. Much of the prison boom was fueled by the war on drugs. The result is a serious situation with dire implications for everyone, but particularly for communities of color. Not only do these communities face the immediate hardship of disproportionate contact with law enforcement, they face ancillary consequences. For example, when people are labeled felons, they stand to lose more than their liberty. They also lose their full share of rights within our democracy — to certain housing, jobs, public benefits and, most importantly, to vote. Imagine the aggregate impacts of black and brown people disproportionally losing the right to vote.
These numbers are not some inexplicable anomaly.
They reflect our priorities and our policies. And viewed in the context of our nation’s legacy of racism, there is a growing awareness that significant bias exists in the criminal justice system. It just does. I can say this with utter conviction, having been a defense attorney, having been a prosecutor. Against that backdrop, folks started scrutinizing judges and police officers. Recently, through Vera’s Prosecution and Racial Justice Program, attention is now being directed towards the prosecutor’s role.
Of all the actors in the criminal justice system, it’s the prosecutor that exercises the greatest discretion. Prosecutors get to decide what and how many charges to file, whether to upgrade or reduce charges, what types of plea offers and sentencing recommendations to make, and a host of other things. A lot of the decisions that prosecutors make might not be the result of conscious racism, but we all carry our biases. They’re deep, unconscious and internalized. And the impact, when you look at many thousands of cases, can be very harmful and can result in vast societal disparity.
The Prosecution and Racial Justice Program is the first of its kind.
To help prosecutors do their jobs more fairly, we work with them to look at all of the points at which they exercise discretion. If we uncover areas of concern, we work closely with the offices to find out what’s going on, why unwarranted disparities exist, and then to address them through the development of policy where necessary. No one’s ever attempted this before. While people may have had hunches about how prosecutors do business, no one else has actually gone into these offices, analyzed the numbers and worked to address racial disparity.
The environment in which prosecutors make decisions has been compared to the “black box.” So it takes a rare prosecutor to invite an organization in to look for areas of racial disparity — one who is forward thinking and committed to transparency and accountability. The first few jurisdictions we worked with were Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Mecklenberg, North Carolina; and San Diego, California. We just started work in Manhattan this January.
I definitely did not go to law school intending to be a prosecutor. I started out with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, which was an experimental, completely innovative Vera project. NDS was the first office of its kind to provide criminal defense to indigent clients in a holistic way. It was a community-based law office designed to function like a private law firm, to deliver the highest quality of services. We were open and available to help our clients and their families around the clock.
People are not going to want to cooperate or participate in the administration of justice if they’re not being treated fairly. Witnesses will not want to come forward. Communities just won’t buy in if historical tensions and mistreatment continue. That will result in less justice and less safety for everyone.
I grew up in the ‘60s during a period of great civil unrest. I was, as a young kid, aware daily of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. I was also blessed to have been born to parents who reinforced in me commitments to service and who talked about current events and told me why people were out protesting on the Mall every weekend. And I had to get from Southeast Washington to McLean, Virginia, every day to go to Potomac, which was kind of a trek across the world. I think I always hoped I would do work that might make the world a better place.
Potomac is special. It respects and celebrates the individuality of each young person, and it values each student as a unique member of the community. I think the emphasis on creativity and self-expression is very healthy, and the environment, the proximity to trees and grass — those are wonderful components to an education. And certainly the relationships that I developed at Potomac have nourished me throughout my life.
I have many heroes who are unknown. I think that life for regular people is challenging. It always has been. So my heroes are the people who have the strength to get up every day and do jobs they may not want to do. They’re people who are committed to helping others in small ways and without getting credit. I don’t have a groupie bone in my body. I tend to respond in the same way to people who are famous as I would to regular people. That’s a lasting consequence of a childhood at Potomac, surrounded by so many notable parents. It really demystified fame.
Listening to Aretha Franklin singing “Young, Gifted and Black” and Stevie Wonder singing “Living for the City” — those were the anthems of my youth. I couldn’t hear “Living for the City” without crying as a kid. I had to turn the record player off. These cultural icons had an impact on the direction my life took. So in addition to the nameless heroes and ancestors who basically worked and died for the likes of me, there were others who in a cultural context were so inspiring to many kids of my generation.
I remember growing up hearing Frederick Douglass’ statement: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” This statement emphasized how important it is to work for your freedom. To agitate when necessary. To make noise when necessary. History has shown that it can be a physical struggle or a verbal struggle. But there is a measure of work and demand that’s always necessary for people to achieve their own freedom.
In June 2011, Whitney Tymas became director of the Prosecution and Racial Justice Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. Tymas began her career as a public defender with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. She later worked at the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York and as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia. She also ran the Gun and Gang Violence Prosecution Program and the Southwest Border Crime Program for the National District Attorneys Association. Tymas holds a BA from Barnard and a JD from New York University.