“You should know by now there is no such thing as justice.”
When Los Angeles native Natashia Deón heard those words spoken more than a decade ago, she was a corporate attorney. It was during an insurance case against her company, brought by a plaintiff who had shattered a hip in a preventable fall. A weird thing happened: The plaintiff’s lawyer offered to settle for the cost of her legal fees, a fraction of what the company was prepared to pay. The move not only took Deón by surprise, it rankled her sense of what was fair for the client.
“I shouldn’t be advocating for your client,” Deón remembers telling the opposing counsel. “I said, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t justice.’”
And that’s when the judge presiding over the case uttered those words, which ended up launching her into a life all about defending and defining that very thing. “I knew then that I was leaving,” she recalls.
For Deón the word “justice” resonated on personal levels: Her father was a deputy sheriff for L.A. County. She was raised in a church founded by African Americans who’d moved to California to escape the oppression of southern Jim Crow laws. And she herself had once been the victim of a violent crime, and “I knew what it felt like to be alone in a struggle.”
So, give up a fight for justice? “That wasn’t why I became an attorney. I still believed I could make a difference.”
Today it’s fair to say she’s done just that.
Now an award-winning writer of the historical novel “Grace,” an NAACP Image Award nominee and a much-laureled social justice advocate — not to mention a wife and mother of two children with special needs — Deón’s first pivot from corporate law was into nonprofit work advocating for the mentally ill. Then she moved into helping people clear their criminal records after they served their court sentence and paid their debt to society.
Says Deón, “I was just working on the ability of them to start their lives again. Seal records and move on. They are often not the same person at 50 that they were at 18.”
Being able to make a fresh start is one key to stopping recidivism and helping people lead productive lives. Dogged by a criminal record, housing, employment, even steady relationships elude many. Left without the option to move on, the descent into hopelessness can create its own vicious circle.
So certain that this work can be a vital link to creating more equity in society, Deón in 2018 partnered with fellow attorney Charles Hamilton to create the nonprofit Redeemed, to amplify her work with the help of volunteers from the legal profession and from a cadre of fellow authors, who partner with clients to help them write appeals for record clearing.
Deón says her work has always been predicated on the reality that “the criminal justice system is a racist system, meaning the results disproportionately put Black and Brown people in prison.” She has witnessed how the criminalization of people of color happens as young as grade school, with arrests occurring for school incidences that suburban white kids get a stern talking to and suspension for: “Those permissions that are often given to white kids are not given in the same way to Black and Brown kids. Now they have a record and the cycle begins.”
And then George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police sparked the cultural reckoning and inspired Deón to her latest effort: lobbying California legislators for a suite of new laws captured in the social media movement #EndArrestExecutions.
“You can’t execute the death penalty on civilians who have not been tried with a crime,” she says it boils down to.
She imagines a time when “[police] can’t kill runners, and can’t kill the combative when they are not directly under threat with a deadly weapon.” She says her proposals under #EndArrestExecutions raise the level of scrutiny for officers. “I know it seems totally not Hollywood for the bad guy to get away, but this is real life. This actor is not going to get up and be in another movie.”
Deón calls herself a reformist: the solution isn’t to dismantle police forces and put their work onto other systems like health care. “That is what I am passionate about. To find right solutions, not just for civilians but for police officers. How can we change this relationship to make it healthy for everyone? I think every system has its own illness. Right now we are at such a historical moment. Let’s focus on policing while we have the strength and the power to change it now. We have all this possibility.”
Source: Orange County Register