Dignity, Justice, and Hope

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Release Date: 
Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Our VISTA members are embedded in offices leading the way for holistic defense. Below, Wan Qi interviews a staff member at the Orleans Public Defender who exemplfies the importance of quality defense and support for clients in all stages of the criminal justice system.

An interview with Robert Jones, Director of Community Outreach and Lead Organizer

By Wan Qi Kong, New Orleans Community Partnerships VISTA 

“Equity means fairness for all.” No one knows the meaning of fairness more deeply than Robert Jones, director of community outreach and lead organizer at the Orleans Public Defenders. Every day, Robert works tirelessly to ensure all of his clients are treated fairly by the criminal-legal system, regardless of the color of their skin, how much money they have, or where they come from. A native New Orleanian who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, Robert says that he is drawn to his work through his own experience of hardship.

He’s burying the lede here. For context of who Robert is and his background, Robert was wrongfully convicted and sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, a famous prison known as Angola built on a former slave plantation, when he was only eighteen years old. He was incarcerated for over twenty-three years. For those twenty-three years, Robert knew that he would never be a passive bystander; while he was at Angola, he studied law and was a legal counsellor to his peers in prison. After many efforts, on his forty-fourth birthday, Robert was cleared of all charges.

Shortly after his exoneration, Robert began working at the Orleans Public Defenders as a client advocate. Rather than retreating from the criminal-legal system that had failed him, Robert decided to take action to ensure it wouldn’t fail anyone else. “If it happened to me, an innocent man,” he says, “it could happen to you.” What he leaves unsaid is the idea that it could happen to you— whether you are innocent or guilty. As long as you are black, you will be marked, and as long as you are poor, you cannot afford to buy justice. Robert explains that he feels so compelled and so committed to the field of public defense because he wants to do everything in his power to strengthen his community and protect his clients— people in the same position he was in many years ago— from injustice in the system.

Today, Robert is known around the office, by his clients, and in the courtroom as a zealous client advocate who works tirelessly to protect his clients from the injustices that he had faced. Robert is unique in that he understands the lived-experience of going through the criminal-legal system in New Orleans, allowing him to gain the trust of his clients easily and fight for their freedom effectively. His strong sense of who he is and his charismatic persona lend way to his many activities as a public speaker, community organizer, motivational writer, and mentor.

As the director of community outreach, Robert sees potential in having a Community Partnerships VISTA. Together, they use a multi-pronged and intentional approach to deepening relationships in the community and working to erase the stigma against public defense— presenting Know Your Rights programs at various schools, youth programs, libraries, and churches and planning for annual events such as our open mic-style Defender Dialogues or our annual Second Line for Equal Justice. These events allow people in the community to take ownership of criminal-legal issues in New Orleans and to feel empowered to take action themselves. Having the VISTA program housed at the public defender office allows him to take his vision even further by increasing capacity for organization contact and coalition-building, systemizing a strategy through goal score-cards and points-of-contact spreadsheets, and brainstorming new ideas. But his eyes are on the big picture: community outreach as a means of showing the importance of public defense, and why it needs to be funded equitably if we are to have a fair and just system.

Robert knows the work doesn’t end anytime soon. When he thinks about what it means to stay dedicated to fighting for what is right, he quotes Norris Henderson, a fellow exoneree from Angola: “No surrender, no retreat.” The movement from chains to change begins at Tulane and Broad, and Robert refuses to retreat until we truly have fairness for all.