Rebecca Bernhardt


As Interviewed by Duncan Findlay, March 18, 2017

Rebecca Bernhardt: In Her Own Words

[Intro Music]

My name is Rebecca Bernhardt. My education background is that I went to UC Berkeley for college and I went to Yale Law School for law school. I have had a career as a farm worker attorney, an attorney for agricultural workers, and [an] immigration and civil rights attorney, and more recently as a legislative advocate for criminal justice reform and civil rights

What are the rights provided to people who are convicted or accused of crimes?

So there are a lot of them, but the general rule is that theyíre not very well protected or enforced. The sixth amendment provides you the right to an attorney -- that is one of the weakest rights because if you canít afford an attorney the system does sometimes an OK job that frequently a really bad job of giving you an attorney. You also have the right to a reasonable bail, to not have a bail the overly onerous or oppressive -- and that right doesnít work very well either, but thatís about whether or not you get out of jail or stay in jail before youíve been convicted of something.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of our current criminal justice system?

Its strengths are so that itís adjusting to the realizations that itís not very fair. Itís aspirational -- it tries. It says itís going to protect certain rights; it just does a very bad job of it right now. I think maybe itís done a decent job of keeping us safe, although we donít know that we might have less crime and we probably would have less crime if it was doing things better. So on safety and the fairness side, I say that it pretty much stinks. So the weaknesses are that prosecutors really prioritize winning over getting it right. Police practices are not constrained enough, and a lot of people get arrested for things that either they should get arrested for or they certainly shouldnít sit in jail for. So thereís a lot of over incarcerating people before their case is resolved. The system does a horrible job of ensuring that people have lawyers who have the resources and time to do a good job on their case, and our sentences are way too long -- we put people in jail for way too much time.

Was there or is there much gender or racial discrimination involved in our criminal justice system?

I think that there was a huge amount of race discrimination. It can be measured at every step in the process. For the same crimes, African-Americans are more likely to get arrested, Latinos are more likely to get arrested -- so like thereís the rate for White people, and then itís either one and a half to two times more likely to get arrested if youíre Latino and itís like 3 to 6 times more likely to get arrested if you are African-American. So people can be committing the same crime but they get very different treatment from the system. And when it comes to women, I think itís a complicated story, and we didnít use to have very many women in the criminal justice system. But the population of women in the criminal justice system is going up a lot right now, and folks are trying to understand why -- and a lot of it seems to be criminalizing poverty. Things that are really very related to the fact that we have a lot of single moms who are low-income, and they get into criminal justice problems in situations that is probably not the point of the criminal justice system.

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