Monthly Constitutional: On Race & the Justice System

by Lois West, Director of Communications

This past Tuesday's 8th grade Monthly Constitutional was an especially rewarding experience for me. TPS alum Ben West '93 – my son – was a featured guest, along with his colleague Natasha Taylor-Smith. Ben and Natasha, assistant federal defenders in Philadelphia, spoke about what drew them to public service, particularly to the defense of indigent clients in a justice system that treats individuals differently on the basis of race and class.

Natasha spoke of her first appearance in court as a law student defending a mother who had lost custody of her daughter. She was proud of her client, who had overcome homelessness and unemployment and found a home for herself and her daughter. She argued passionately in front of the judge – who, she realized in mid-argument, was asleep on the bench.  Burned into Natasha's soul, that experience led to a personal and professional commitment to serve with integrity, passion, and respect and to an eventual run for a judgeship herself.

A different kind of judge inspired Ben to go into public defense. As a high school student, he interned in the courtroom of Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge C. Darnell Jones II. (The judge is now a federal judge, before whom Ben is scheduled soon to appear with a client.) Judge Jones, who is African American, was troubled by what he perceived to be racial inequities of the criminal justice system. Ben recounted the day when the judge wept openly in court as he sentenced a young African American man to a lengthy prison term. The judge asked, “What will it take so that I never will have to send another young brother to prison?”  Ben told the students that he feels he has a responsibility to help reverse the disparate racial effects of our criminal justice system.   

Natasha and Ben's 50-minute presentation to our 8th grade constitutional scholars somehow also managed to include a discussion of merit selection versus election of judges in Pennsylvania, federal versus state jurisdiction, and the 4th and 13th Amendments.

The final question directed to Natasha and Ben was, "When you were in middle school, was there anything you were studying that you weren't particularly passionate about but has had a big impact on your life or career?" Natasha mentioned reading nonfiction, which she now realizes opened new places and new perspectives to her. Ben mentioned Spanish, in which he is fluent. He explained, "My Latino clients appreciate this, and I can establish a better and more trusting relationship by speaking with them in the language in which they can best communicate."  

As an alumni parent, I will be forever grateful to my children's teachers at The Philadelphia School for reinforcing the values of respect, equity, and social justice. (A special thanks to Marco Velis for the Spanish!)