Shanti is a criminal defense attorney and author, she believes in the power of a story and how bringing these cases to the public eye can create awareness about the injustice and bias ingrained in this country’s justice system.
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Understanding the Situation of our Criminal Justice System
The United States has the largest prison population in the world. We have the highest rate of incarceration per capita. The system is too big, too profitable, and too unjust. Furthermore, consider how the criminal justice system was institutionalized as a form of systemic racism hundreds of years ago. Today, some argue there is an obsession with criminalizing behaviors rather than addressing the social necessities like homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and poverty. Our jails are packed, and the sense of them being a rehabilitation center is almost completely gone.
There is probably no other group more “otherized” in our society than “criminals;” people who’ve come face-to-face with the American criminal justice system and have lost their case. People who unfortunately are no longer part of society and who have very little chance of true reintegration into a community once you have a criminal record — of any kind.
Introducing Shanti Brien
In today´s episode of Creating Community for Good I was joined by criminal defense attorney and author, Shanti Brien. Being a defense attorney is a work of tremendous responsibility and pressure since your client’s life is essentially in your hands. Shanti specializes in criminal appeals and post-conviction proceedings; the very last instances of the criminal justice system like the habeas corpus. Shanti’s clients are those who have already been convicted and are fighting the system from the inside; many of them convicted to life in prison.
“I did that until my heart broke…”
Shanti’s path as an author began when she got her heart broken; after years of defending convicted criminals, the system had let her down and she was facing justice at home too when her husband’s company became involved in an investigation with potential criminal liability. Shanti’s book Almost Innocent is about the criminal justice system, it follows the legal and personal journeys of Shanti’s clients, both innocent and guilty, in the context of a criminal investigation thrust into Shanti’s private life; an inside account of the messy and tragic criminal system.
Shanti is a storyteller and a “story listener,” and this book shows exactly that. She believes in the power of a story and how bringing these cases to the public eye can create awareness about the injustice and bias ingrained in this country’s justice system. I had the fortune of reading the book and was completely drawn to the cases but especially to the personal details she shares across the plot. Shanti’s writing is both narratively exquisite and tremendously eye-opening. (Check the episode’s resources to get the book!)
Stop bias in the US justice system
Bias and systemic racism represent the core problems of our justice system. From police brutality to unfair proceedings, racism is still a huge issue that needs to be addressed with action. One of Shanti’s projects is Fogbreak Justice, a national organization that collaborates with criminal justice professionals, civic leaders, and business change-makers through which she has taught thousands of people about reducing bias, increasing fairness, race, and racism, and building community trust. Her work is about giving a voice to those who have been muted and moving the needle for criminal justice reform through the education of today’s and tomorrow’s decision-makers.
This is not an episode about fundraising strategies or tools. It is a heartfelt conversation on an immensely necessary topic for any community: justice. We need to listen to people’s stories and get closer to the issue, however uncomfortable it may get. At the end of the day, equity and inclusion policies are the right strategies, but the core of it all is radical empathy.
Join Shanti and me in this conversation, it may be the first step towards change.
05:54 – Shanti Brien’s journey in the justice system and how heartbreak led her to write Almost Innocent.
11:10 – Does being a female criminal defense attorney change anything?
14:34 – Shanti’s family story and the reason behind her passion for criminal justice and giving a voice to unheard minorities.
17:09 – Creating community through storytelling and Shanti’s amazing education work with the Fogbreak Justice project.
19:11 – The two major problems of the U.S. criminal justice system: “The system is too big and the system is too unfair.”
22:51 – How to reduce bias in today’s justice system? Reduce discretion and implement wide-scale education in systemic racism to see a 40% decrease in the stops of African Americans in Oakland, California.
27:06 – Shanti reimagining the limits of the police, including bias training, the use of weapons, and the militarization of the police.
30:00 – What can I do? Get to know the issue, get proximate, and know your voted district attorneys.
33:26 – There’s still hope! Every day more and more people are paying attention and caring about justice.
36:07 – Almost Innocent: Why radical empathy and human connection is absolutely core.
Connect with Shanti
Almost Innocent by Shanti Brien
Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Shanti Brien’s bio:
Shanti Bright Brien is a writer, criminal defense attorney and Co-Founder of Fogbreak Justice, a national organization that collaborates with criminal justice professionals, civic leaders, and business change-makers who are serious about fairness, equity and inclusion.
Shanti’s book, Almost Innocent: From Searching to Saved in America’s Criminal Justice System (Amplify Publishing, 2021) chronicles Shanti’s story as a mother, recovering-NFL-wife, and lawyer to “criminals.” Almost Innocent is an inside account of the messy and tragic criminal system and offers suggestions for what it could be: more fair, more humane, and more just.
Shanti received her BA with high honors in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley and JD from Stanford Law School. An enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe, Shanti lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three kids.