Lisa Kung '97 on Southern justice

September 24, 2007

Lisa Kung '97, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, discussed race and racism in the criminal justice system in the South as the 2007 Melvyn and Barbara Weiss Public Interest Forum speaker. The Weiss lecture is part of the Leaders in Public Interest Series.

Lisa Kung's bona fides as a southern lawyer are impeccable. As a staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which was created in 1976 to respond to the deplorable conditions in prisons and jails in the South, Kung won one of her biggest victories: a class action representing women prisoners who were housed in overcrowded conditions in an Alabama prison. Laube v. Campbell successfully reduced the number of women in a prison meant for 300 from more than 1,000 to the current population of 700. She has also been lead or cocounsel in cases including guard brutality at the Georgia prison incarcerating the state's most seriously mentally ill men; the lack of indigent defense in Coweta County, Georgia; and on behalf of all women incarcerated in Alabama. Kung became the Center's director in January 2006. In January 2007, she was named by American Lawyer as one of the nation's top 50 litigators under age 45.

Kung framed her talk around the implications raised in tiny Jena, Louisiana, where six black teens who have been charged in an alleged assault against a white classmate have become a national focal point for concerns of racism in criminal prosecution. She posited that the tremendous attention paid to Jena is not because these events are unusual but because they are typical. “Young black men get overcharged all the time,” she said, noting that in the some places in the south, black men have a one in two chance of going to prison in their lifetime. The chance that a black man would be placed in jail, on probation or in prison in his lifetime is nearly 100 percent, she added.

Kung tied together the history of the criminal justice system in the South and how it has led to the current events in Jena. Starting with the “loophole” of the Thirteenth Amendment which prohibits involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” Kung compared the effects of the post-Reconstruction black codes and President Nixon’s War on Drugs. Both, she said, accomplished three things: they created a presumptive illegality, allowed people to say, “this is not about race; this is about crime,” and were designed to maintain white power structures. The problem, Kung said, is that “the [Southern criminal justice] system is not broken. It’s working exactly as it’s designed to.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights, based in Atlanta, challenges the misuse of the criminal justice system to target and control people of color and poor people in the Deep South. “If work in the criminal system calls to you, you should listen to it,” said Kung. “And come south.”

Editor's note: Lisa Kung '97 was the March 2007 Alumna of the Month as well as the Recent Graduate Award recipient at the NYU School of Law's 2007 Reunion.