Nirej Sekhon remembers his last case as a public defender in Seattle. A man was charged with theft for stealing a $ 2 burrito from a supermarket. The man had previously been sentenced, so the recommended plea was one year in prison. Sekhon’s client willingly admitted having taken the burrito, but didn’t believe he would have to go to jail for a year to be hungry.
This case has got Sekhon among many others to reflect on how society often criminalizes rather than alleviates poverty. It also got him to reflect on the role lawyers can play in relating unfair practices to larger issues of systemic inequality and public perceptions of injustice.
“Defense attorneys play this potentially important role in reshaping the criminal justice system,” says Sekhon.
That was 16 years ago. Today, as the nation grapples with widespread calls for criminal justice reform, Sekhon’s questions seem more topical than ever.
After leaving Seattle, he worked for a law firm in San Francisco on employment and civil rights cases before moving to academia. As a Gray Fellow at Sanford University Law School, he began researching the constitutional regulation of American criminal law practices. This 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, grew up in Huntington Beach, California and attended New York University law school. He said he was attracted to the College of Law because of the positive, engaging intellectual atmosphere among faculty and students.
He continues to research constitutional criminal proceedings with a focus on how to prevent and respond to police misconduct. According to Sekhon, the judicial system cannot effectively curb the police in most cases.
“There is no judge who looks over his shoulder when the police are patrolling the streets,” says Sekhon. “If the police facility is to be legitimate, there must be a robust and impartial mechanism for civilians to report violations and challenge this facility.”
He also believes that the police are currently entrusted with too many tasks outside of their core crime-fighting functions. He questions the effectiveness of a facility that responds to violent crime, car accidents, and mental emergencies. He believes that a more limited scope of police practice could have the added benefit of reducing violent encounters between police and citizens.
“The law is only a small part of the story, but questions about race, class, and the way the police force reproduces systems of social domination have always been central to my research,” says Sekhon. “Public awareness of these issues has increased over the past decade due to the Black Lives Matter movement, and I hope this will lead to positive changes.”
Written by Kelundra Smith