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April Frazier Camara

Spectator Magazine:  Before getting to the national level, you worked as a public defense attorney. Do you have any particular cases that were most memorable to you, and how did they affect you?


April Frazier Camara: Absolutely. One of the greatest jobs that I have ever had in my life was being a public defender. So, for many people that’re trying to figure out, 'how do I want to impact the world?' you should definitely consider becoming a public defender because it was the greatest work of my life. I was able to see how, in real life circumstances, really good people end up in very difficult situations. I've worked with clients when they were coming home from jails and prisons to make sure that they address different legal issues that you face when you come home. And so I had one particular client who came into the office in northeast D.C. We were right next door to a charter school, Popeye's Chicken, just a regular shopping center, so people were coming in all the time in need of services. And it was one particular client who came to me, because he had previously been represented by one of my colleagues. He suffered from mental health issues and he was homeless. He just came in to say hello. I remember doing an intake with him to figure out what he would need or [if there] was anything that we could [do to] be helpful. How could I be helpful as a public defender to support him?

I remember sitting in that initial client intake room with him and thinking to myself, I don't think there's anything I can do to help here. I mean, his situation was pretty dire. All of the characteristics that you would think of when you think of someone who is homeless. [He had] mental health conditions—sometimes what he was saying to me didn't quite make sense because he wasn't quite coherent—and I thought it was a really far-fetched idea to think that we could do something to impact that person. Today, [he] lives less than a mile away from me in his own apartment, in stable housing, and is thriving. I see him in my community and I see him walking down the street. So he's the example of many people who come into contact with the system; he had a pending criminal case for not showing up in court. What he needed was access to an advocate who could help navigate, to get him in contact with mental health services, to get him back into housing. Someone to advocate and make sure [that] was resolved. He literally was able to stabilize his life and transition from the person that you may see on your street corner—who you think is so incoherent—to somebody now who is stable, who is healthy, who's in treatment, who is living on his own. It renewed my belief that not only can people change, but they can change if they are given access to what we all have access to, right? Support and resources and people that care about you. It was a combination of yes, he needed his legal needs met, he needed help applying for Social Security benefits, but he also needed just basic support that our social work team was able to provide to him. 

And what that teaches me about the legal system is that we don't represent case numbers, we represent real human people and real human lives.


"...we don't represent case numbers, we represent real human people and real human lives."


That's the perspective that I do my work [from]. I do believe in transformation. I also believe in holistic representation. That people, no matter what they have done in their [lives], they're better than the worst thing that they ever did. They should be treated like human beings and we should address them as a whole person. 


SM: That’s a great story, thank you. On the other hand, what was a very frustrating or discouraging case you've had to deal with? 


AFC: Unfortunately, as a public defender, with a lot of cases, we don't always win. Things don't always come out as we advocate for. One of the cases that troubled me a lot was when I was a juvenile defender [representing] children in juvenile court in Memphis. One of my last cases before I left the office was a young man who was facing transfer from juvenile to adult court. That was very difficult for me because he was 16 years old and he couldn't even quite understand. Can you imagine, Braden? How old are you? 16, 17? 


SM: 17. Yeah. 


AFC: So imagine a 16 year old—I’m with him in a juvenile detention facility—and I have to explain to him that he's facing 30 years in prison if he's transferred to adult court. He hasn't even lived 30 years. To try to get him to understand what I was saying to him was really hard for him to grasp. He couldn't understand why he couldn't go home. Because even though sometimes you see images of people being accused of really, really serious things, they are still children.


AFC: So for me, trying to get a child to understand the gravity of going into the adult system was very difficult to do. [There were] a lot of sad days. Sometimes we don't see children for children, and unfortunately, often times that apply to Black boys and girls.They don't always get the benefit of the doubt of being viewed as a child in the way that others do. 


SM: Also, white defendants are, I think, around three or four times more likely to get out of death row, while Black defendants are much more likely to be put on it and more likely to get executed. 


AFC: Yeah, I think around eight years ago, it was a case that happened in my hometown.The case of Pervis Payne, who was just removed from death row in Tennessee. He was a young Black boy, 19 years old, 20 years old, and he was accused of killing a white woman and her child and injuring a second child. And in our small town, crime never really happened. Like, I don't even remember hearing a murder case or anything growing up, but I remember sitting around and hearing the adults. It was just the lived experience of Black people in the South at the time and they said that he was going to be convicted simply because of the color of his skin.  And unfortunately, that remains to be true when we see how the death penalty is actually implemented. It is very deeply rooted in slavery, white supremacy, and racism, and disproportionately not only impacts Black people and communities of color, but also people with learning disabilities. So when you combine race and learning disabilities, the likelihood of Black people who have a learning disability being put to death is really, really high. It's frightening, and I hope even in Pervis Payne's case, we see some corrections in our lifetime. 


SM: Definitely. So from your perspective, what are some crucial changes that need to be seen in our judicial system? What are some steps that people not only in your field but potentially in other parts of the government could take to make those changes? 


AFC: I’ll start out with changes needed today. The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that our criminal legal system does not often produce justice. So whether it’s from the perspective of Black Lives Matter, or if it's from the perspective of people who think the government over-prosecutes, the majority of Americans have concerns about the American legal system. And I think as a country, we need to respond. We need to correct a lot of mistakes of the past where we know that racial disparities exist. We need to correct them where we know that we have over-incarcerated people.


AFC: We need to take a second look and let people who have really lengthy sentences [come home]. Even now, how we police every social problem, the response should not be to call the police. We need to create other systems to deal with social ills outside of police and the criminal legal system. That's what we can do today. And I think what we can do in the future is I need your generation to reimagine. I think if you all, your generation, if you don't think that this system can be fixed, then create alternative systems. Let's look at restorative justice. Let's look at ways that we can decriminalize things like mental health and substance abuse issues and create other systems. We don't have to keep these systems if they don't work. We can build new ones.


"We don't have to keep these systems if they don't work. We can build new ones."


But I don't think it's my job. I think my job is to explain to you all how they work, and this is going to take a new generation of activists to reimagine and actually build new systems. I think we definitely need the creativity of the new generation to reimagine what justice should look like.


SM: Definitely. I'm a senior in high school, so for any young men, women, and others who would like to get into this field, what are some beginning steps to start to go down this path, and what challenges should they expect along the way? 


AFC: Absolutely. So I think one thing is that the majority of people's impression of the legal system comes from Law and Order and things that you see on TV. I would encourage every high school student to go to your local courthouse. You should go and watch, whether it's a criminal or civil case, because people would be surprised to see how it operates. In so many courtrooms, we don't have justice—we have these machines that just mass produce results. That's not always just. So I would say, go check out your local courthouse and see. 

But also, as far as what to expect along the way, you're always going to hear from people in my generation—middle age, older people—that it cannot be done. Don't believe it.


AFC: I just think one serious challenge that young people hear all the time is that their ideas are not practical. I actually think the systems that we have right now are not working. So why not try out new things? So just don't be discouraged when you hear people tell you that your ideas don't make sense, that they're not practical. I just want to encourage people to. I just believe enough in yourself to believe that you all can make different choices than previous generations have made.


SM: [Absolutely.] So obviously, this is tied in with public defense. Do you think that the issue of mass incarceration has been getting worse, staying around the same, or improving? What are some ways that mass incarceration can hopefully decrease going forward?


AFC: Yeah. So mass incarceration has become a new vocabulary that is in the lexicon. Like people refer to it. Talk about it.  While we do see some decreases in incarceration across certain communities, I think we should be very concerned about how we define incarceration because what I see is a transfer from jails to prison to e-carceration. So Michelle Alexander has written about it and warned about the new Jim Crow or the newest Jim Crow. So what happens is that we don't physically put people in cages, but what we do is we put bracelets on their ankles and we incarcerate people in their own homes. We also see an uptick in surveillance of certain communities and not just Black communities, but also Latinx communities. With the focus on immigration, we should be very concerned about the overuse of surveillance in communities of color. So I would push us to kind of redefine what mass incarceration is, because anytime you restrict my liberty, even if I'm in my home right now and you say I can go no further than my front door. I am incarcerated in some way because I am not free, at will to do as I please. So I would push people to really examine when we say mass incarceration, I think [it] is still around. They're just transferring it to different systems. And so, while, you know, this bail reform movement is no more bail. People are home, but they're over using surveillance and electronic monitoring to steal, surveil and police the same communities at the same rate. So I would say we're not making the progress we need to make.


SM: I noticed you mentioned the book The New Jim Crow. In my sociology class, we just covered some excerpts from the book. One thing that we are talking about is the use of social media as surveillance and how social media is, quote-on-quote, meant to be more private space for you and people around you. If the legal system is constantly peering into your social life [and] the people you hang around with, you're bound to find something on anyone, right?


AFC: Exactly. That over inspection of social media can be very, very dangerous. I'm glad you brought that up because it is a very important point. I do think what we're going to have to face is what expectation of privacy should you have, because I think if law enforcement can get on everybody's social media account and have access to stuff. It is a form of government surveillance. I think for the new generation, we're going to have to really reckon with all of this new technology and what expectations should we have around making sure it's not being used to surveil us? 


SM: For sure. Many politicians nowadays are running on the platform of reforming our judiciary system and improving the issue of mass incarceration, which we just spoke about briefly, and many of the complaints going on with these politicians is that they consistently fail to deliver on these promises.


SM: What are, in your opinion, some of the changes politicians can be making? And what are some realistic expectations from the people that should have [been] set on these politicians in terms of change? 


AFC: Yeah, I think it's very complicated because I think people make really big promises. But one thing that I think that is very lacking right now in our political system is courage.  People on both sides, [have] a lack of courage to speak out and shake up the status quo. I think we can recently see it with the Biden administration and a commitment to racial equity. We see the same administration coming in for more resources into policing and giving more money to systems that the same communities that elected him are saying this is harming them. So, you know, being courageous enough to say we need to do something different. Knowing exactly how your local courts work, what's going on at your local jail, what's taking place at your local juvenile court, all of those things, I think, are local issues that you can have an impact on without being so obsessed with what's taking place on Capitol Hill. 


SM: Thank you. So right now, I know, especially in my school system, there's been a lot of discussions about what should be used in a curriculum. What are some pieces of history, specifically related to public defense and the legal system as a whole, that you think should be implemented into school curriculums? Or maybe offered as electives?


AFC: So I think it's really important for school systems to educate students about the truth of how [societal and legal] systems are built. I think it's really important for people to understand the history behind how surveillance or how the criminal legal system, or how––I can give you an example of the second Amendment: What is really rooted behind the second Amendment? Why was it founded? Why did white landowners feel the need to create the second Amendment, the right to bear arms? And to understand the context behind it, that it was always a tool to protect property in specifically the history of slavery. And you see how that plays out currently, where it seems to be a right that is associated with you based on the color of your skin.

Because if you're a Black person carrying a weapon with a license, like Philando Castile, you're still murdered in the street by police officers. But if you're a white person like Kyle Rittenhouse carrying a weapon [you are not]. [There’s] a lot of historical racial context to the second Amendment.


AFC: So I think just really teaching the truth around the history of how amendments and constitutional rights developed are important. And then, when you ask about what classes should be taught, I think a sociology class. I was a philosophy major, but I think you really have to be able to step back from these systems and explore the social context. Law does not operate in a vacuum. Laws impact real human lives, right? So whatever courses you need to take to understand the human consequences of legal systems or laws, is really important. 


SM: Of course. Expanding on what you said about fully teaching amendments, what would you think about implementing this into an NSL [government] class at school to discuss how these amendments impact everybody?


AFC: Yeah, I think it's just to be inclusive, to tell the whole story, not to just tell it from one particular perspective, but to tell the entire story. And I think we're moving there as we become a more diverse society. I just think share all of the perspectives. So when we have to have a full conversation, invite all of the perspectives. I just think from that standpoint, lay it all out and tell the whole truth.

"...lay it all out and tell the whole truth."

—April Frazier Camara for Spectator Magazine, 2021

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