Pretrial Justice Institute
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Black Voices 5 Minute Read

Black Public Defenders Matter

Shavonte Keaton
Words by
Shavonte Keaton
Published on
August 01, 2023

Kevin Beckford and Shavonte Keaton presenting at the BPDA Conference.

INSPIRED! That is the word that resonates with me when I think about my time at the Black Public Defenders Association (BPDA) Conference this summer. BPDA aims to improve the quality of defense provided to low-income communities across the United States by creating and maintaining a national network of skilled Black public defenders that identify with and are committed to the populations they serve.

This year my colleague Kevin Beckford and I presented a workshop rooted in PJI’s Local Antiracist Pretrial Justice (LAPJ) framework titled "Advancing Local Antiracist Pretrial Justice: Leveraging the Power of Public Defenders." While I was honored to present to this esteemed collective, I was also excited, as a fellow Black lawyer, to spend time with so many of my peers in one place. Here are a few of my key takeaways from the convening.

We need to redefine safety.

It’s time to rethink what safety means—and address it from multiple perspectives. This theme repeatedly emerged throughout the conference, and it’s something PJI has been exploring as well. (Watch our “What if safety was two-sided?” conversation here.) Historically, the criminal legal system has approached public safety from an “us versus them” lens — with them being folks accused or convicted of crimes, and us being anyone else. BPDA emphasized the need for a holistic approach that honors the safety of everyone who touches (and is touched by) the criminal legal system, including those accused of crimes, those who have been harmed, those working in the system and the communities we all live in. 

Black mentors matter.

I was really struck by the elevation and commitment to continued learning from both newly minted and seasoned Black public defenders. This went far beyond legal best practices, as attendees shared life lessons and strategies for having healthy, successful careers—and pride in the fact that this career choice is just as impressive and important as big law. Witnessing this beloved community in action was a great reminder that all the lawyers in that room are courageously blazing a path for generations of Black public defenders coming behind them.

Self-care is essential.

“You have time to take care of yourself in this work.” That was a resounding message from April Frazier Camara, President & CEO of National Legal Aid & Defenders Association (and co-founder of BPDA) in her closing session on vicarious trauma for those working in close proximity to the criminal legal system. From attorneys to advocates and everyone in between, it can seem counterintuitive to stop and care for ourselves when so many people are experiencing harm from a broken system. But we can’t fix the system by breaking ourselves. And we need to remember to care for each other, too.

While this was my first BPDA conference, it will not be my last. The Black excellence was on full display and a joy to witness! It also affirmed how essential Black public defenders are in moving the needle toward liberation, which I believe extends to every critical role in the movement to end mass incarceration. To achieve true equity, Black voices, perspectives, skills and talents must be celebrated—and activated!