The Louisiana state criminal code for robbery holds no exceptions for students on the honor roll. Being a high school drum major with a nearly spotless attendance record has absolutely no bearing on whether someone is guilty of a crime.
Yet these things matter. At least, they matter to Lisa María Rhodes.
She is the subject of this week’s cover story, which comes from our yearslong collaboration with The Hechinger Report, an independent news organization with a focus on education. Hechinger brought her to our attention because she is doing something unusual, if not unique, in the United States. She has added “legal advice” to the list of services George Washington Carver High School offers its students.
Lorenzo Elliot, the drum-major honor roll student, has seen his life change because of it. When he was brought up on charges related to a robbery, Ms. Rhodes wrote a letter to the judge in support of Lorenzo, then delivered it in person. With her help, his bail was lowered, and an original charge that could have brought 15 years in prison eventually was reduced to three years’ probation.
The classic image suggests justice is blind, but it isn’t in practice – and shouldn’t be. The law is essential for maintaining order and safety, but it is a blunt instrument, unable to account for situations and character. Judges have significant leeway for precisely this reason, yet no judge can discern the heart of a defendant from the bench. They need help from people like Ms. Rhodes – both in getting the measure of an individual and in knowing that someone is there to help an individual navigate the legal system and make better choices in the future. Some 73% of juvenile immigrants with a lawyer are allowed to stay in the United States. That number drops to 15% for those who don’t, our cover story notes.
And that is the point. Again and again, research has shown that the inequities that have grown in America during the past 30 years have grown from the fact that the wealthy have the means and the knowledge to effectively advocate for themselves; others do not. It’s not that the law favors the wealthy. It’s that the wealthy can comparatively easily get the help – be it legal advice, money, or counseling – that judges see as necessary for trust and reform. Which makes Ms. Rhodes extraordinary.
It is widely accepted that perhaps the most powerful form of charity today is mentoring children and teens in underprivileged communities. In doing so, the mentor spreads her superpower – the ability to navigate legal and education systems in which too many fall through the cracks. Ms. Rhodes is now essentially the legal mentor for all of George Washington Carver High. And our cover story shows what an effect that can have.
Nationwide, justice reform is afoot. Lawmakers are increasingly seeking an unction of compassion even while getting tough on crime. Not everyone has a Lisa María Rhodes, after all.