Kenneth Thompson Lecture examines challenges faced by Black women prosecutors in criminal justice reform

On March 23, NYU Law honored the legacy of the late Kenneth P. Thompson ’92 with the fourth annual Lecture on Race and Criminal Justice Reform in his name. This year’s discussion centered on the unique challenges facing Black women prosecutors as they attempt to reform the way their offices do business and reshape the larger criminal legal system. The featured panelists included professor Angela Davis of Washington College of Law and prosecutors Kimberly Foxx, Cook County state’s attorney, and Stephanie Morales, commonwealth’s attorney in Portsmouth, Virginia. The conversation was moderated by Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law executive director Jason Williamson.

A gift from Lu-Shawn Thompson in memory of her husband—who was named Brooklyn’s first Black district attorney in 2014— established this annual lecture as part of the Ken Thompson Social Justice Fund. The fund seeks to advance racial equity in the criminal justice system through lectures, panels, and student scholarships.

“This event is especially important and meaningful to me because it represents the exact work to which Kenny devoted his life,” Lu-Shawn Thompson said in welcoming remarks. “Criminal justice and prison reform was the foundation of his career in public service.”

The virtual event was co-hosted by The Peter L. Zimroth Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law. It was presented in partnership with the Law Alumni Association and Law Alumni of Color Association.

Watch the full discussion on video:

Selected remarks by the panelists:

Stephanie Morales: “We’re at a time in our country where we truly need [prosecutors] who understand that we are not becoming safer as a result of mass incarceration. We’re harming our communities.… I think we need different leaders now who are looking at the data, and who are understanding just what the system has done and the work that we have to do to reverse course.” (video 18:59)

Angela Davis: “We should have an expectation of every single person that is a prosecutor… to do what the United States Supreme Court said they are supposed to do—which is to do justice. There’s a case called Berger v. United States which says—and I’m paraphrasing—it’s not the duty and responsibility of prosecutors to seek convictions, but to seek justice. And part of the problem is that too many prosecutors have done just the opposite… Sometimes justice does mean locking somebody up, but sometimes justice means letting somebody go.” (video 32:18)

Kimberly Foxx: “One of the things that we did is we put all our data on an open data portal. I wanted the public to see who we were charging, what we were charging them with, what the sentencing outcomes were going to be, and we had it by race, by gender, by zip code.… So when we talk about data, historically prosecutors were one of the most opaque players in the criminal justice system—the most power, and the least visibility in how we used it. The most power, and the least transparent.” (video 43:11)

Posted April 28, 2022