By Jeremy Conrad
The District’s True Reformer Building on U Street, surrounded by murals and markers celebrating the figures that earned the street the nickname “Black Broadway,” recalls the neighborhood’s cultural importance as a gathering place for the Black community during the uneasy optimism of the Reconstruction era.
The stately 1903 structure is an icon of Black accomplishment in the District and the physical expression of a community’s determination to lift itself up from within. Today, the building is home to nonprofits dedicated to community-led social justice efforts. Among its tenants is DC Justice Lab, founded in June 2020 by Patrice Amandla Sulton in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
Sulton’s roots in social justice and the law run deep. Her parents both have ties to the civil rights movement. Her mother is an NAACP trial attorney who has won awards for her civil rights work, while her father has worked in higher education administration and African affairs. Her grandfather, who ran for office in South Carolina, was involved in the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There was a whole constellation of civil rights figures around us,” Sulton says. “On my mom’s side, one of her sisters publishes the Jackson Advocate out of Mississippi. Growing up, I got to read about what was going on there and was fascinated by the Black press. It kept me plugged into things that, I think, most people in my generation thought were long gone.” When Sulton was in the ninth grade, the newspaper was firebombed. “And there was a firebombing of a church our family attended after that. So, growing up, it felt like all of the problems from my dad’s generation were still very much present,” Sulton says.
DIVING INTO POLICY REFORM WORK
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Sulton was involved in social activism early on. After completing an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sulton attended the George Washington University Law School, where her clinic experience brought her to the policy advocacy work she does today.
“It was profoundly relevant to the racial justice issues I had worked on, but I found myself wanting to do more work on actually changing the law,” Sulton says.
That passion for advocacy led Sulton to the District of Columbia Criminal Code Reform Commission, which proposed a comprehensive revision of the District’s criminal code; the Police Reform Commission, which recommended an overhaul of the city’s public safety system; and the Task Force on Jails & Justice, which published a plan to halve the number of District residents incarcerated. If there is any formal discussion about carceral policy in the District, chances are Sulton and DC Justice Lab are involved.
“I think I expected that, after rewriting the criminal code, I would go back to practicing,” Sulton says. “Once [you get] into it, you find new skills, and then you want to use them for different things. Statutory drafting was exciting to me.”
BUILDING UP ADVOCATES
Sulton and DC Justice Lab’s omnipresence is the result of the breakneck velocity they set for their efforts. At a team meeting in August, a yearlong calendar is quickly filled with Post-it notes of the schedule for advancing legislation. A roadmap takes shape from the to-do items: statutes to be drafted, announcements to be made, meetings with agencies and allies to rally support. The group disbands, and Sulton is off to her next appearance – a roundtable discussion on a proposed online sexual harassment bill.
There is a pedagogical aspect to much of Sulton’s work. This comes as no surprise considering the eight years she has spent as a lecturer at GW Law.
In August, DC Justice Lab launched the DC Justice Fellows program for recent law school graduates to receive training and support on criminal policy reform work in the District. “[We’re] really trying to get back to the way we started — giving students a capstone project to pursue,” Sulton says. “This [is] an opportunity for new grads, so students from [the University of the District of Columbia] and Howard who sat for the bar exam in July will work with us for a year. It’s a pipeline for movement lawyers.”
Participants will develop core professional skills: research, writing, and oral advocacy in constitutional law, criminal law, criminal procedure, professional responsibility, and legal ethics, among others. Through training, networking, coaching, and mentorship, the program seeks to shape fellows into community-centered lawyers.
Patrice Sulton (center) was drawn to social activism at an early age, growing up with family members involved in civil rights work. Her mom, Anne Thomas Sulton, is a civil rights attorney and criminologist, while her dad, James E. Sulton, Jr., is a former higher education administrator with a background in African affairs. (Photo: Bill Suber)
CHANGE FROM THE GROUND UP
DC Justice Lab also works directly with community leaders to plant the seeds for change. In one weeklong workshop last summer, for example, the organization brought together activists and representatives of nonprofit groups and grassroots organizations to find solutions to public safety issues.
“There are people who are doing important work on the ground every day who don’t have a policy person to help,” Sulton says. “We spend a week with them and provide them with all the things they need to work effectively, write the statutory language with them, create a campaign plan with them, create a presentation for them to give Councilmembers at the end.”
“It’s about taking lessons learned, the easy way and the hard way, and equipping other Black-led organizations so that they can also change laws as quickly as we have,” she adds.
The workshop culminated with a Community Safety Fair at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where participants presented their legislative proposals on issues such as the elimination of pretrial detention, funding of wellness and mental health programs, and reentry programs for formerly incarcerated D.C. residents.
Among the participants was Leonard Edwards, an advocate with Bread for the City who has accumulated years of experience working on housing issues in the District yet felt shut out of larger policy-based discussions in the past. “They get to talking about legislation, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got nothing to contribute to the conversation because I don’t know anything about that,’” he says.
His training with DC Justice Lab has empowered him to take a more active role. “I feel that, by me stepping up my game, learning about policy and legislation, I’ll be a better advocate,” Edwards says.
Edwards and his project partner, Herbert Robinson of the nonprofit More Than Our Crimes, revised the draft of H.R. 3339, Improving Reentry for District of Columbia Residents in the Bureau of Prisons Act of 2023, which seeks to disallow incarceration in a Bureau of Prisons facility more than 250 miles from the District. Their proposed bill clearly identifies a problem: the disconnection that results from incarceration far from community contacts and the disparate effect on Black families.
“The whole week was amazing,” Edwards says. “By Wednesday I was starting to get the big picture, and now I have the basics of policy and legislation to work with – stuff I never knew before.”
The workshop addresses a problem Sulton has observed in public policy work. “What I see a lot is that people come to the community, mine people for ideas, and then go write [something] up and pass a law without them, or they come up with an idea that they like for people and then say, ‘Come testify.’”
The hearing on proposed legislation becomes both the starting point and the finish line for the community’s involvement, Sulton says. “But when people are actually writing the words on the page, there’s less visibility for that, and that’s where things happen. People get left out of the most important part,” she adds.
Sulton would like to see a lot more base building in the District. “We can’t be the community leaders in every issue, nor should we be,” she says. “I hope the Council is ready because they’re going to be hearing from a lot of people who are really organized and really informed.”
This article originally appeared in the November/ December 2023 issue of Washington Lawyer, the official publication of the District of Columbia Bar. Reprinted with permission.
Editor’s note: Attorney Patrice Sulton is the niece of Alice Thomas-Tisdale, Publisher Emerita, Jackson Advocate.