The “Yes, And…” Principle for Justice: An Interview with Emily Galvin-Almanza

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Emily Galvin-Almanza is CEO and co-founder of Partners For Justice, a nonprofit that pairs recent college graduates with overworked and resource-poor public defenders’ offices to provide case management services to vulnerable clients. She is also the senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, an organization that offers legal, policy, communications, and networking support to organizations working to end mass incarceration and poverty.

Galvin-Almanza’s pinned tweet is about #DefundThePolice, and how it’s going to take a lot more than withdrawing qualified immunity to finally hold individual officers and entire police departments accountable for incidents of fatal misconduct.

Amanda Knox

Tell me about yourself. How did you get into the wacky world of criminal justice?

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

Wacky is such an adjective for it. So I was a public defender for many, many, many years. Basically, I went to law school through a strange turn of events, and the area of law that captured my interest the most was criminal law, because the stories that give rise to criminal cases are extreme and human and tragic, and it’s such a confused area of law where the storytelling has been so bad for so many years. It’s been such a prosecutorial narrative dominated area. My first summer of law school, I went and worked for the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s. I sat next to an innocent man for months and months of trial. I was allowed to second chair a double homicide trial. He was so clearly innocent that I was making plans. “When this is all over, we’re going to go to my favorite burger place.” I was so confident. There were a lot of dirty tricks on the part of the prosecution and the police during that case that caused a wild miscarriage of justice, and he was convicted, and I was traumatized into being a lifetime public defender. I never stopped working on the case. I went back to school and I kept working on that case for the next nearly a decade that it took to get him out. We’ve seen a lot of change in the system over many years, but the degree to which prosecutors and police have been enabled and empowered to use both sweeping authority and really unfair tactics to penalize primarily black and brown communities, but really, there’s a lot of people who get wrongfully convicted or overcharged every year, it’s a shocker.

Amanda Knox  

You’ve mentioned storytelling. The story about who’s committing crimes, and what kind of people they are, and what we should do about them, the stories we tell ourselves about crime in order to rationalize our response to it. What kinds of stories did you see being told, and to whom, and by whom?

Emily Galvin-Almanza

Oh my gosh, that question. I could talk for four hours about that question. To begin with, there’s the story of what crime is around us and who’s committing it. You often hear police are like, “Crime is on the rise. This is a high crime neighborhood.” Making people feel frightened as they sit in their homes or in their apartments. In fact, when we break down what police are actually called out to do, what we use police for, the vast majority of it is barking dogs, someone peed on the stoop, an unfounded call like trespassing. So the vast majority of what police are actually responding to when we talk about crime is very low level stuff that most people don’t notice or are not bothered by. Then there’s the narrative of police stopping crime, the police being these heroic actors, like on a Dick Wolf TV show, who get there just in time and they save someone. And that’s actually not the case, either. Communities are much more likely to prevent crime on their own through violence interruption programs or community mentors or youth programs. Police show up after the fact. And they’re not actually always that strong, doing what we want them to do, which is solving serious crime. Solve rates are not 100%. They’re not even 80%. In some places, they’re as low as 30% or 40%. When you get a jury in a criminal case, the jury comes in assuming that the police are trained investigators who do a great job investigating cases. And when you’re a public defender in the system, one thing you realize after seeing all this police paperwork is that some police departments are better at investigation than others. But in the Bronx, I was getting cases that were so shockingly badly investigated that my investigator could solve the case and the prosecutor wouldn’t even be interested in hearing what we found. We had police arresting people who were literally out of state at the time an incident took place and not bothering to check the receipts and maybe their flight stubs. We had cases of wildly mistaken identity that were oftentimes an NYPD narrative and their arrest report or complaint report is literally one sentence. And they don’t even bother to collect video. I’ve had multiple times officers say, “Oh, there’s no video of this.” Then we get the video. So this narrative that police are brilliant crime solvers, that’s not true. The narrative that forensic evidence is completely 100% truth, well, actually, even DNA evidence is open to interpretation, and there’s different levels of quality in the samples of DNA. You get a lot of the forensic evidence that people relied on for decades, bite mark evidence or a lot of forms of arson investigation, turned out later to have resulted in a ton of wrongful convictions because they were deeply flawed and not actually scientific. And that extends to other forms of experts. In cases where prosecutors talk about gang membership, they often rely on police witnesses to tell juries about what signifies gang membership. There was a great paper on this called “Interrogation Is Not Ethnography.” The wolf is not great at telling you about sheep culture. There’s a reliance on experts with a personal stake in the case, with a heavily vested interest. So at every stage in the process, we see the public’s expectations, that have been formed by police in media and movies and TV, just really not being met by the system. 

Amanda Knox 

You’re currently working to combat these issues. One as the senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative and also as CEO and founder of Partners For Justice. Tell me about these organizations.

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

At The Justice Collaborative I’m senior legal counsel. We’re a national law and policy organization. We primarily focus on criminal legal reform. And I’ve worked a lot on helping reporters get the tools they need to cover these issues, helping bring new polling to light on various legal reform initiatives so that the public can understand how much support there is for change, amplifying great change ideas and helping local activists and leaders get traction for the initiatives that they’re pushing. The Justice Collaborative is now doing much broader work. A lot of these issues are too interrelated to really sift apart. Poverty, and housing, and jobs, and all these various forms of social instability are so deeply woven into the fabric of the criminal legal system that it’s hard to talk about them separately. That’s the really core idea of my own startup, which is called Partners For Justice. I co-founded it with my friend from first grade, Rebecca Solo, who is a brilliant organizational thinker, and I just brought my public defender bona fides to it. We’ve recognized that no matter how great policy is, or no matter how bad policy gets, the most powerful thing shaping an individual person’s outcome in the system is who is fighting for them. Who is the team they have surrounding them? Rich people have great teams. If you’re wealthy and you need a housing lawyer, an immigration lawyer, a civil rights attorney, and a wraparound team, you’ve got it. But low income people don’t get the same kind of humanizing, powerful representation. So what we did was we thought this type of multidisciplinary approach, the kind you see at Bronx defenders, should really be something that low income people can access anywhere in the country, but too often public defenders can’t afford to provide such robust wraparound teams. So how can we create a program that makes public defenders able to really expand capacity and offer their clients housing support, employment support, education support, benefits, mental health or substance use treatment? Basically say “yes” to whatever the client needs in order to succeed and walk away from the system with their life intact. And we realize this may be a great opportunity for people graduating from college to have a job that’s really meaningful, impacting actual people’s lives on a daily basis. They don’t have to be lawyers. They can just be smart, tenacious, brilliant young advocates. We basically train these college graduates to fight across multiple areas of subject matter, to bring in counsel wherever needed, to network with local lawyers, and get everybody playing for the same team and create a robust, pro bono, multidisciplinary wraparound team for every public defender client who needs one. 

Amanda Knox  

So if I were to apply to Partners For Justice ― and I got accepted ― what could I expect to be doing every day?

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

We train everyone to do a really wide array of subject matter work, but most of what you’d be doing is learning on the job. Because we can give you the tools to know how to do a benefits application, or how to document someone’s police injuries and file a civil rights complaint, or how to get someone into a coordinated shelter system, but most of what you’re doing on the job is listening to your client, hearing what they’re telling you they need, and figuring out how to do it. So if you’re going to be an advocate, your number one skill set is being scrappy and going out and convincing people to help you when you need outside support. Concretely, that means we help people get into shelters, we help people stabilize their existing housing situation, we negotiate and navigate with landlords, we prepare people to become more employable, we help clear records, we help people prepare for job interviews, we do resume support, we keep kids in school, we can fight suspension hearings, we can fight for licensure, including DMV licensure, we get people benefits and cash assistance and food stamps, we get people into appropriate treatment programs. If somebody wants to get help, we help them get the help they want and we support them through that process. And then we also put all of this together for the court. So oftentimes, courts dehumanize the people who appear in front of them. It’s easier to throw somebody in a cage if you don’t think of that person as human. So we work with our clients to make sure that their story is heard, and that can mean talking with them about how they got to be where they are, and who they are, and what they care about, what they’re good at, and who’s their family, and what did they overcome, and wrapping that into a big story that we can present to judges and prosecutors that shows who this person really is and forces the system to see them as a human being ― flawed, but with promise ― and that encourages courts to give better dispositions to our clients. In just 68 cases, we saved people an accumulative 23.4 years behind bars, just by telling their stories. 

Amanda Knox

It sounds like you’re teaching people how to be problem solvers who look at their clients and say, “Yes, and.” 

Emily Galvin-Almanza  

Yes. Just like improv theater.

Amanda Knox

Speaking of saving people decades in prison, what [are] the causes of our incredible incarceration rates here in the U.S.? Is that a sign that we have exceptional law and order, or is that a sign that we have an incredibly dysfunctional law and order system? What’s going on here?

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

It’s really a failure of vision on our part. Our system of mass incarceration is very, very, very directly derived from slavery. When black people were freed, a lot of slaveholding states did not want to lose the free labor they were extracting from primarily black men, but also black women, and they created something called Black Codes, which were laws to convict primarily black men, put them in prison, and then release them back to slaveholding plantations, because the only exception in the 13th amendment, which ended slavery, was slavery is okay if it’s for the purposes of punishing a crime. So they’re like, “Okay, great. Let’s just come up with a bunch of crimes we can really frame people for, low level offenses you can throw people in prison for.” Our mass incarceration structure was built originally to preserve and prolong slavery, and we see a lot of echoes of that today. We see a system that dramatically overrepresents black and brown people. We see a system that is not in any way “rehabilitative.” If you wanted to make people better, you do not isolate them, traumatize them, harm them, and provide them no meaningful work or education. Everything about our system is designed to make things worse, not better. So when I say a failure of vision, what I mean is, in order to step forward from our phenomenally toxic past and build a system that is actually responsive to transgression and improves public safety, something that is rehabilitative and also desired by people who have been wronged, by people who have survived crime, we would need to be thinking not of cages, but of accountability, of community-based forms of confrontation and reconciliation. We also need to be thinking about mental health support and educational support, jobs, housing. Most people, if they have a great job, a house, and whatever mental health or substance use treatment they need, are not going to commit crimes. There’s three ingredients that are all more related to social stability than cages that would subvert the need for prisons in the first place. The reason we have this system is because we’re coming from a history of slavery. We’ve never scaled this back. We embraced it in the ‘90s. We respond to every type of transgression with cages. Everything from someone having a behavioral health crisis, to a domestic partnership that’s falling apart and has become really toxic, to actual violent crime, to the crimes of poverty to, at this point, even kid stuff.

Amanda Knox

Like not doing their homework?

Emily Galvin-Almanza

Right. We respond to everything with cages because nobody’s told us the story well enough, or we haven’t listened to the story of what a different response would look like.

Amanda Knox 

What would a different response look like?

Emily Galvin-Almanza

Josie Duffy Rice has a great answer on this question. I’m going to steal Josie’s idea and expand on it. When you think about the way affluent white neighborhoods of privilege are policed, that’s a vision of what a world without these toxic systems could look like. Now, I’m not saying police don’t exist in suburbia. They do. But when I went to school, I could get in a fistfight in the schoolyard and be put in detention and someone would call my mom and figure it out. I could be busted with pot in my locker ― I wasn’t, but I could have been ― and it would have been detention and call my mom. The community would have treated me like a child. As a young person walking down the street, I was not constantly followed and harassed and approached and checked and searched and touched by police the way, in many neighborhoods across this country, primarily men, but also young women of color and people of color, are on the daily harassed and stopped and touched and probed and questioned by police. That type of contact doesn’t help anybody. What’s good for people is to be supported to thrive in a community that responds to transgression with community action rather than punitive action. So I think a world without this system would look a lot like the world that white people of privilege get when they get arrested. I mean, Brock Turner is a terrible example of this, but also a good example. I’m not taking a position on that case, but I am saying that if the system always treated people with such care, and such kid gloves, and such humanity, we would probably get better outcomes.

Amanda Knox

I actually wrote way back in the day a piece about that judge’s extremely compassionate response to him, and I was like, “I know y’all are like super mad at him and I totally agree, but wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was treated like him?”

Emily Galvin-Almanza  

Yeah, treated with that level of concern and care. I practiced in Santa Clara County. It was my first job out of law school and I met my husband there. He’d been practicing there longer than me and he’d appeared in front of Judge Persky many times, and he said that what broke his heart about that case was that he felt that Judge Persky treated all of his clients with that level of care, too. That Judge Persky was just a very conscientious and merciful judge. So, obviously, there are problems in terms of how we listen to survivors. Reconciliation doesn’t happen without the survivor feeling that their concerns were heard, and that was a big issue in that case, but I totally agree with you that mercy should be the base point of the system rather than punishment. 

Amanda Knox

So one thing that I was just chilled by was your pinned tweet. This whole discussion of defund the police has been this big thing and for a lot of people who are not immediately on board, it seems like a scary idea. Like, “Why are we taking away police’s pensions when we all get retirement? Don’t we need money to make something function? If it’s dysfunctional, why are we taking away more money?” I’m just gonna read the tweet that gave me chills, which was, “Killings — murders — have continued and will continue, because the police lack all accountability. It’s not just qualified immunity, which protects them for being found liable for things that would bankrupt and jail the rest of us. It’s the money. Follow the money.” Walk me through that.

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

I agree with you. Anybody who works hard should get their retirement. I’m saying that, when we look at the incentives surrounding policing, people often focus on qualified immunity, which is basically the legal framework that shields police officers from being held accountable in civil court. You can’t sue them if what they did to you was plausibly part of their duty. And that could be really horrible stuff, and under the framework, they could be wrong about whether or not they were doing their duty, if they plausibly thought they were, the court will shield them. But that’s not actually all of it. A huge part of it is that even if they are found liable for wrongdoing, even if they did something so beyond the pale that qualified immunity couldn’t protect them and the city has to pay a settlement, often that doesn’t even come out of police coffers. So the department as a whole is not being held accountable for the wrongdoing of its officers. Its officers can commit all kinds of atrocities, and they’re not going to lose funding because of it. That’s the foundation of a super toxic culture. I included this great first person account from a former officer in my tweet thread, because that officer talks about how impossible it is to be the good cop in these toxic environments. The bullying and professional intimidation and professional consequences, demotion, desk duty, that befell this writer from when they tried to do the right thing and be a good cop is not unique. That’s happening across departments. Part of the problem is that it’s very, very hard for departments to get rid of anyone who is doing a terrible job. And I’m not meaning to imply that the solution to policing in America is to get rid of the bad apples and do more training. That hasn’t worked. We’ve tried it. But I will say that when we do talk about “bad apples,” those officers are oftentimes protected by things their unions have negotiated, so they can’t really be fired. So a department has somebody who’s literally shooting innocent bystanders, and they can’t fire them. Or even if they do fire them, a cop can’t lose their license to be a cop because they don’t have a license to be a cop. I could lose my license to be a lawyer, but a bad cop can just go to the next town over and get rehired. And that results in the kind of culture where people can behave with impunity, and that means making bad arrests. I pointed out in my thread, oftentimes bad arrests happen at the end of a shift so that people can collect a lot of overtime by sitting there processing paperwork, getting time and a half. It’s one of the rare professions where somebody can be salaried and also get overtime. Do I think the solution is to fix qualified immunity and do more training and maybe create a tracking system to root out the bad apples? No. I think that at this point we’ve asked police in this country to do so much stuff that they shouldn’t be doing. We need to think of something better. I do not think there should ever be a world in which someone calls 911 for help, and there’s no one on the other end to help. You should always be able to call 911 and have someone come and help you. But I think that we may be able to send more appropriate, better trained people who are less likely to kill.

Amanda Knox  

Do we teach kids that 911 is still the number that you call no matter what kind of trouble you’re in, and then the person on the receiving line will know what department to direct that inquiry to? What is the ideal vision, at least for you? And how are police a part of that? Like, police: what are they good for?

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

I think cities have come up with 311 to weed out all those calls that are like, “There’s a car blocking my driveway,” which is great. 911 operators shouldn’t have to deal with non-emergencies. But I think that our emergency response personnel can be really qualified, assuming they’re not massively overloaded, at figuring out what kind of a response is needed to a call. There’s a big difference between you come back to your parked car and you find someone sleeping in it, versus you see a bunch of kids at the park having a fistfight, versus an intimate partner situation where a person feels threatened. All of these require different responses, and I actually don’t think that police are necessarily the best response to any of them. Somebody sleeping in your car, you may want to get a social work team who could help that person get the resources they need to not be breaking into cars to sleep there. You don’t want a cop who could kill the person sleeping in the car, which has happened again and again and again in this country. Kids tussling in the park? Send a Community Violence Interrupter, send somebody who’s trained in mentoring youth and who’s from the neighborhood who can defuse the situation, figure out what’s happening with these kids, and help them straighten it out, instead of, as we’ve seen, police have showed up and I’ll never forget that footage of a cop throwing a 13-year-old girl in a swimsuit on the ground. We’re shooting a child who’s playing with a toy. We don’t need violent actors. We need mentors and leaders. People often throw intimate partner violence. “Oh, we definitely need police for this.” Well, actually, most of the time, when somebody is in that crisis, what they need is an escape. They need safety. What somebody needs in that situation is a person to say, “Okay, I’m going to come over. I’m going to meet you. Here’s how we’re going to get you out of the house. Here’s a safe place for you to stay. Here’s a shelter where your partner won’t know where you are. Here’s resources to help you move your finances or find help with your child.” What they need is a network of smart resources, not a cop with a gun who might temporarily remove the violent person from the home, but oftentimes they’re putting that person in a cage doesn’t help anything either. Oftentimes, these situations are dramatically more complex than that. I could see a world in which there’s an active shooter at a school and you need someone who is able to respond to active, ongoing violence. These situations are extremely rare. It happens more in our country than anywhere else because we have a lot of guns, but on the scale of what police do, this is tiny, tiny, tiny. I could see a world in which you have a trained response team garrison, like a fire department, where if there were an active shooter, you could bring out a team that is armed and trained to respond to an active shooter situation. But you’re going to need that very rarely. For the vast majority of everything else, you need other kinds of experts, and we should have a ton of them, well resourced, well paid, with pensions. That’s what we actually need.

Amanda Knox 

What do we have to do to pave the way towards that kind of world and what kind of obstacles are in the way? 

Emily Galvin-Almanza  

This is going to have to be local change. This isn’t something we can fix as easily on a large scale. It has to do with local elections. Going to your City Council, County Board of Supervisors, elected leaders and saying, “We don’t want this anymore. We want something different.” Every city or county is going to be different. They’re going to have a different charter. They’re gonna have a different relationship with the union. But allowing these localities to dissolve their relationships with overwhelmingly powerful police unions and build something better is really important. It also means being patient. This change is not going to happen overnight. This is going to be something where we have to move money out of police budgets and toward smarter things like violence interruption and robust social work and alternative emergency first responders. Paying attention to these local elections is everything, because who’s on your board of supervisors will determine whether you can get rid of a really toxic police department. Paying attention to DA elections and sheriff’s elections is really, really crucial, because you can have local law enforcement leaders who are aligned with the idea of minimizing the need for and role of law enforcement. San Francisco just elected a DA that has been amazing in terms of understanding that his best work as a DA might be to make the DA obsolete. Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley have brought legislation federally that would create alternate first responders. That’s amazing. We should be supporting that and talking about that, but we can’t lose sight of the local stuff.

Amanda Knox 

Do you have any final thoughts before I let you go?

Emily Galvin-Almanza 

I’m just really excited that people are questioning their assumptions about the system. I kind of miss being in the courtroom these days, because I feel like if I were back in court, I would be meeting juries who understand how bad the system is much more than they ever used to. We used to have juries where they believe anything a police officer said just because a cop was saying it, and they assumed all our clients were guilty, and I think we’re entering a new phase in which ordinary people understand that the system is a machine built to oppress people with the least power, and I wish I could be presenting my arguments to those juries. So my love goes out to all the folks still fighting in courtrooms to set people free.