CT’s first Black chief public defender embraces work ahead
TaShun Bowden-Lewis’ hour-long drive to and from her Hartford office might include time spent soaking in the soulful expeditions of musical icons Anita Baker and Mary J. Blige or strategizing on the phone with a colleague about what division unit needs an expansion.
“If I Ruled The World” by Nas and Lauryn Hill could also get Bowden-Lewis humming the right tune before work, but meetings and calls take up more of life lately for the recently appointed chief public defender.
After spending a quarter of her life in courtrooms, fighting for clients and negotiating with judges and prosecutors, Bowden-Lewis now oversees a state-funded agency with more than 400 employees and decision-making authority over how Connecticut’s public defenders help people navigate the criminal legal system.
“Lots of decisions have to be made,” Bowden-Lewis said. “But I truly, truly enjoy the role.”
Her July appointment by the Public Defender Services Commission to head the Office of Chief Public Defender also added a new, and perhaps more significant, layer to the state’s history archives: She is the first Black person — and, more specifically, the first Black woman to do so.
Now three months submersed in her new job, Bowden-Lewis has tasked herself with strengthening a system that has had to rebound from the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a bevy of retirements, backlogged courts and increased workloads for public defense attorneys.
“You have the benefit of an extremely qualified person and somebody who represents the population that the agency serves,” said Christine Rapillo, a Superior Court judge and Bowden-Lewis’ predecessor. “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of that.”
A shift in the narrative
Connecticut’s public defense system, which provides pro bono legal services to low-income people unable to pay for private attorneys, does not mirror the racial demographics of the state. Black people make up 13% of the population and account for more than 42% of those incarcerated in Connecticut, but the Division of Public Defenders’ office, which includes administrators, professionals and paraprofessionals, is at least 70% white, according to the agency’s most recent fiscal year report.
It’s also not lost on Bowden-Lewis that the state holds nearly 4,000 people behind bars pre-trial who likely cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars in bail, a reality that disproportionately affects Black people. (Connecticut is routinely among the U.S. states with the widest racial wealth gaps.) Republicans and law enforcement officials have touted a need for tougher penalties for juvenile crimes in a state where 43% of youth admitted to juvenile detention facilities are Black, according to The Urban Institute.
Bowden-Lewis, a South Norwalk native, is among the 5% of public defenders across the country who are Black, compared to white public defenders, who make up more than three quarters of the workforce, at a point when attorneys nationwide have left the profession as a consequence of overbearing workloads and inadequate pay.
Black public defenders nationally have seen how difficult it is for some of their clients to walk into courtrooms and see no one else who looks like them. A predominantly white state now having a Black woman hold some command over how attorneys statewide approach their work can send a positive message to underserved people, said Alaina Bloodworth, interim executive director of the national Black Public Defender Association.
“I can tell you that for a Black woman in Connecticut to be leading an office is extremely powerful,” Bloodworth said. “When you have somebody like TaShun, when you have those people that are in power, you know that they are going to hold the line.”
Some Black public defenders in Connecticut see Bowden-Lewis’ accomplishment as an inspiration to young people — and a move that could spark cautious optimism for people seeking adequate representation in the state.
“For my daughter to see someone who looks like her in her position, that speaks volumes,” said Rashad Glass, a public defender in Waterbury. Glass now supervises the office where Bowden-Lewis previously worked. “For our clients who often have the notion that we don’t care or understand what they’re going through, there is a certain effect that that can have.”
Meanwhile, the people whom public defenders represent have tempered expectations for what the new chief can actually accomplish, given the large-scale disparities in the state’s criminal legal system.
“This could be a shift in the narrative, not a total change, because one person cannot impact everything,” said Anderson Curtis, a Black man who was represented by public defenders before he was last incarcerated 15 years ago and now works with the ACLU’s Connecticut chapter.
And for the attorney who as a child longed for a career in public defense, getting the opportunity to lead public defenders across Connecticut is an honor.
“It’s important for everyone, not just people of color, but people, to see that this has happened,” Bowden-Lewis said. “For all the children coming behind, and even young people, too, who are trying to figure out what they want to do … it’s important for them to see a Black woman in this role.”
A life’s calling, but not for the faint of heart
Bowden-Lewis prefers to keep details about her personal life separate and sacred. But she is often willing to talk about the roles Dorothy and Vernell — her mother and grandmother — played in her upbringing.
She said Dorothy had a job in human resources, while Vernell worked in factories. They gave the future attorney everything she needed growing up. Both matriarchs also stressed the importance of getting an education and helping people.
Bowden-Lewis’ grandmother wanted her granddaughter to know that she could do whatever she aspired to in life. For Bowden-Lewis, that was working as a public defender. Because public defenders helped people.
“It was always very evident in my home that my family believed in me,” she said. “And hence, I believe in myself, even to this day.”
Much of what Bowden-Lewis undertook over the years was tailored to her goal of working in public defense: She went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to earn her undergraduate degree because the school was in the heart of the political scene (and lawyers). She moved to North Haven to attend Quinnipiac University’s School of Law when it was time to officially launch her career. She once interned for the state’s attorney’s office to witness how its operation functioned.
Throughout several years spent working in New Haven and Waterbury’s Geographical Area and Judicial District courts — the former handling lower-level offenses and the latter overseeing more serious crimes — Bowden-Lewis was able to answer what she felt was her life’s calling. She eventually oversaw Waterbury’s Judicial District office, where she represented thousands of clients and managed her own team.
Bowden-Lewis distinctly remembers helping a white woman in her early 30s arrested on robbery charges. She and her team worked to get the woman into treatment while she was incarcerated. When the woman was released, she maintained her sobriety with the help of her probation officer, earned an education and found housing. The woman still calls Bowden-Lewis every now and again to let her know she’s doing OK.
“I had a part to play, not only as being her attorney but also helping her to get her life together so she can be the best person she can be,” Bowden-Lewis said.
Bowden-Lewis knows first-hand that Connecticut’s public defenders, who work in the first state to adopt a statewide public defender system, are competent lawyers. Their daily workloads accentuate the importance of providing adequate representation to people struggling to make ends meet.
Public defense attorneys drive hundreds of miles to correctional facilities around the state to visit incarcerated people needing representation. While on the road to and from these visits, they take calls. After getting settled back at their offices, they field more calls and emails.
They also have around-the-clock communication with social workers and investigators to ensure that relevant materials are in place for court. Other times they are in the trenches, knocking on doors, asking provocative questions and gathering facts that could potentially demonstrate a person’s innocence.
Some days require long sessions with Microsoft Excel to organize the dozens of cases on their agenda. Other lawyers find themselves running into a courtroom with an armful of manila folders to help someone who needs them last-minute. Their clients sometimes require emotional support. Then there are days when an urgent task materializes in the middle of the day and deters them from what they already had planned.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Bowden-Lewis said. “When someone is crying, someone’s upset, someone has no way to get to court, wants to get there but has no way to get to court, hasn’t eaten in the past couple of days, has no place to live, you have to be able to be stable and be able to advise … sometimes you have to just be able to listen, because no one else has ever listened to them at any point in their lives.”
Then there are Black public defenders — often alone in the crowded rooms where decisions regarding someone’s life get made.
But now Bowden-Lewis wears the pearls when it comes to public defense in Connecticut. Her role is administrative by nature: Setting budget priorities, establishing divisions to carry out tasks and assuming responsibility for the overall direction of all personnel. She intends to lean on both her life and professional experiences to make certain that the hundreds of employees under her guidance are doing their jobs with a client-first mentality.
“My whole motivation for doing this is because, even as a child, I knew acutely that most of the people in the system were Black and brown,” she said. “Everybody cannot afford to hire someone who may be asking for $10,000 right off the bat. They can’t always do that. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have somebody who’s going to fight for them, who understands the law and who cares.”
After being in court for much of the last 25 years, moving into an administrative role was bittersweet for Bowden-Lewis. But the job has afforded her an opportunity to effect change on a larger platform. She said it’s a responsibility that she does not take lightly.
The 49-year-old walked into her eighth-floor office on Hartford’s Farmington Avenue with a three-prong vision: Improving recruitment and retention to diversify on all levels, rebranding the division primarily through community engagement, and revitalization of the office to ensure public defenders and supporting staff feel valued. She and her colleagues also hope to collaborate with lawmakers and help spark the policy discussions that matter to people navigating the criminal legal system.
Her job pulls her in different directions every day, but the new chief tries to set realistic expectations for what’s feasible. She said there are no guarantees about what she can accomplish. But she will do her best, she said, to work in the best interests of the division and the people it serves. That’s how she defines success.
Glass, the Waterbury attorney, said the onus is on every public defender leading their respective offices to make sure that Bowden-Lewis’ message trickles down to the clients needing their services.
“I know her passion, and I also know her capability and that she’ll put the work in,” Glass said. “My hopes are just that everybody gets on board and tries to make her visions happen.”
Curtis, the formerly incarcerated man now working with the ACLU, said he shares the excitement about Bowden-Lewis’ opportunity but also understands that she needs help from others who hold power.
“We can’t put it all on the chief public defender,” Curtis said. “She has an opportunity to bring in some new leadership but, also, there’s a lot of factors that go into how this system works. And we can’t have the expectation that one person can just wave a magic wand and everything’s going to be better. That’s not the reality in America. That’s not the reality in Connecticut.”
The Black chief public defender’s appointment has also resonated with Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, who was the first Black person appointed to his position. He said the historic nature of her accomplishment cannot and should not be disregarded.
“Being the first Black has power; it has meaning,” Robinson said. “At the same time, we’re in a society that doesn’t like to point that out. You need to talk about the problem. You talk about what was because it explains how we got to where we are. It’s about knowing your history so you can know how you got to where you are, and how to get to where you need to be.”
And Bowden-Lewis knows how she got here.
“My grandmother is no longer here … but I know my grandma is very proud of me and my mother, too,” she said. “Because that’s how they raised me to be. This is who I’m supposed to be.”