Cristal Harris, JD '17

Injustice in the Criminal Justice System

A close encounter with police put Cristal Harris JD ’17 on the path to public defense

As a child, Cristal Harris JD ’17 could have been shot by the police.

She was 8 or 9 years old, lying in bed in her East Oakland home, when a slew of officers burst into the room.

“They came in guns slinging,” Harris remembers.

They were searching for a family member who lived at the house, but to this day, Harris, now a criminal law student, feels traumatized by the invasion. It comes back to her whenever she hears stories of black people who have been killed by the police.

“I think, ‘That could have been me. My name could have been among the hashtags,’” she says, referring to the outpouring of social media support for victims like Akai Gurley, who was shot and killed in a dimly lit stairwell by a New York City police officer who said the discharge was accidental (the officer was later convicted). “It could have been #CristalHarris.”

For me it’s about defending those who can’t defend themselves.

Criminal justice double standard

That experience is one of the reasons Harris was drawn to criminal law at USF’s School of Law. And why she wants to make a difference as a public defender after graduating.

Growing up in poor neighborhoods and with a mentally ill and drug-addicted mother, she’s seen how the justice system works — 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 is completing law school this fall.

Against the odds

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.

Among the reasons Harris chose USF’s law school were the services offered by the Academic Support Program, which provides tutoring and supplemental classes for first-year law students who have been culturally, educationally, or historically disadvantaged.

Future law professor

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.

When she worked with clients in the clinics, 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. She saw the cyclical nature of poverty — one she might have been trapped in herself, had she made different choices.

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 in the vein of one of her favorite USF professors, Sharon Meadows, who retired in May.

“African American women are extremely underrepresented in academia,” Harris says. “I want to add to the conversation about police misconduct and racial misconduct in the justice system.”