Injustice in the Criminal Justice System

Close encounters with police put Cristal Harris JD ’17 on a path to public defense

Growing up in poor neighborhoods and with a mentally ill and drug-addicted mother, Cristal Harris JD ’17 saw the justice system at work, including how poor people, black people, and others can be unfairly treated by police and juries.

People of color make up 67 percent of the prison population, but only 37 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

“For me it’s about defending those who can’t defend themselves,” says Harris, a part-time student who wants to work as a public defender after she graduates.

Harris’ road to law school was a tough one. She grew up in a neighborhood where gunfire was common. When she was 13 she moved to Stockton to live with her aunt. They ended up losing their home during the Great Recession, and lived in a car at one point.

But she never gave up and, against the odds, graduated from high school, then community college, and then UC Los Angeles, where she majored in African American Studies.

At USF, she discovered her passion for criminal justice through USF’s Racial Justice Law and the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Law clinics, where she gained hands-on experience reducing bail for poor clients and defending alleged criminals in petty cases.
She made it a point to see them not only as “criminal defendants” but also as mothers and fathers, and people who had once been children themselves, possibly exposed to crime or drug use.

Ultimately, Harris says, she wants to be a positive influence not only on clients, but on students. Her goal is to become a law professor. “African American women are extremely under-represented in academia,” Harris says. “I want to add to the conversation about police misconduct and racial misconduct in the justice system.