Nirej Sekhon still remembers his last case working as a public defender in Seattle. A man was charged with theft for stealing a $2 burrito from a convenience store. The man had prior convictions, so the plea recommendation was one year in jail. Sekhon’s client readily admitted taking the burrito, but he didn’t think he should have to go to jail for a year for being hungry.
That case among many others like it, made Sekhon think about how the society often criminalizes rather than ameliorates poverty. It also made him think about the role that attorneys can play in connecting unfair practices to larger questions of systemic inequality and public perceptions of injustice.
“Public defenders have this potentially significant role to play in transforming the criminal justice system,” Sekhon says.
That was 16 years ago. Today, as the nation grapples with widespread demands for criminal justice reform, Sekhon’s questions seem more relevant than ever.
After leaving Seattle, he worked on employment and civil rights cases at a plaintiffs’ side law firm in San Francisco before transitioning to academia. As a Grey Fellow at Sanford University Law School, he began researching the constitutional regulation of American criminal justice practices. That research led him to Georgia State College of Law in 2009, where he teaches Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure.
Sekhon was new to the southeast, having grown up in Huntington Beach, Calif. and attended law school at New York University. He says he was drawn to the College of Law because of the positive, engaged intellectual atmosphere among faculty and students.
He continues to research constitutional criminal procedure with emphasis on how to prevent and respond to police misconduct. In Sekhon’s view, the judicial regulation cannot effectively bridle the police in most instances.
“There’s no judge looking over their shoulder when the police are patrolling the streets,” Sekhon says. “If the institution of policing is to be legitimate, then there needs to be a robust and impartial mechanism for civilians to report violations and question that institution.”
Furthermore, he believes that the police are currently tasked with too many responsibilities that fall outside of core crime-control functions. He questions the effectiveness of one institution responding to violent crime, car accidents and mental health emergencies? He believes that if the scope of police practice were more limited, it might have the added benefit of decreasing violent encounters between police and citizens.
“Law is just a small piece of the story, but questions about race, class and the way police reproduce systems of social dominance have always been central to my research,” Sekhon says. “Public awareness of these issues has increased during the last decade because of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and I hope it leads to positive change.”
Written by Kelundra Smith