Why Tayo Alli may be the best public defender for such a time as this

Tayo Alli won’t likely agree her appointment to head the Georgia Public Defender Council is particularly significant, but she has emerged, at least for some, as the bright spot in an otherwise dark, dark news cycle.

I’ve heard from a lot of people in the last couple of weeks who agree. They think she’s a perfect fit for the job.

And not just because she’s the first Black person to hold that position or even that she’s an astute attorney. Alli is that but she also possesses what a lot of people don’t, that thing I keep hearing is missing from the criminal justice landscape — compassion and the will to do the right thing even when it isn’t popular.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, compassion and the criminal justice system might seem like oil and water.

They don’t often mix. But without compassion, Tayo Alli couldn’t exist.

Deloris J. Baskin, a former Fulton County Juvenile Court employee, put it this way: “Mrs. Alli lives and breathes service. Everything she sets her hands to do is centered around encouraging others to believe in themselves. She empowers, inspires, affirms, supports and guides all who come into her space.”

It explains why she has never seen her job as just providing legal representation but also to making sure people have the tools they need to be contributing members of society.

She told me she wanted to be an attorney because it seemed a good way to give back and so after graduating from Kent State, she earned a law degree from Georgia State.

She’d give it five years max, never thinking it would become her life’s work.

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But there was always one more issue to deal with, one more connection to make on behalf of those she represented.

“It became part of me,” Alli said. “I stopped thinking about leaving, and about what I could do to help my clients.”

When she finally left the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office in 2007, Alli had grown tired of the revolving door, representing the same clients over and over again.

“I felt that everything we were experiencing in the adult court was a manifestation of what we hadn’t fixed in the community,” she said.

That includes a failed educational system, troubled family lives and the hopelessness that often comes with those things.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The next year, Alli moved to juvenile court as the director of child attorneys.

She was struck immediately by the long line of mostly black, mostly male faces milling in the hallways and cafeteria there, kids she would learn who’d been expelled or suspended from school, who weren’t getting the educational instruction they deserved. Without that, it would be virtually impossible to break the cycle of incarceration and juvenile delinquency.

Juvenile Court was their last chance before they age into the adult system. The stakes were profound.

Those long lines and overwhelmingly black faces existed long before she arrived, but Alli actually saw them. As a mother of three, she knew instinctively that something was terribly wrong.

“I thought of my own children and I knew that my court babies deserved the same love, support, and concern as my own children,” she said.

In 2009, Alli left the office of child attorneys to become the chief administrative officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in charge of probation officers, clerks, and other staff.

“I was finally able to connect all the dots,” she said. “I joined with judges, court staff, and local advocates to help kids realize their best through education and prosocial engagement. This has been the best part of my journey.”

If kids couldn’t go to school, Alli decided she’d bring school to them. With the help of a community partner and court leadership, she built on the court’s tutorial program to create a state-of-the-art classroom.

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The Leadership and Educational Advancement Program, known simply as LEAP, helps kids earn a GED or enough credits to return to a conventional school. In just three years, more than 60 children have gotten their GED and enrolled in either a technical school or four-year college.

Her only regret was only 15 kids at a time could enroll in LEAP.

Late last year, after 11 years as the court’s chief administrative officer, Alli was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp as the director of the Georgia Public Defender Council in charge of overseeing the state’s 43 public defender officers.

Her approach to applying the law could not have come at a better time.

There have been protests in Atlanta in the wake of deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans. The sign held by this protester on May 29, 2020, is a reaction to the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck before Floyd died. JENNI GIRTMAN FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Not only have the recent shootings of unarmed black men further exposed racial bias in the system but the need to deal with it once and for all. She'll also have to manage potential budget cuts to her agency and the impact those cuts could have on how it represents inmates with their appeals.

“We’re going to take our defense to the street,” she said. “Instead of just representing clients and releasing them, we want to restore them to the community.”

How will she do that?

Alli said she intends to start a reentry effort that will foster self-sufficiency and productivity among those who exit the system. First by helping them reconnect to their families; providing them educational opportunities and skills training to help them get a job, housing, and help with managing their behavioral health.

“I want them to understand that we are a resource, we are their advocates until they are able to fend for themselves,” she said. “Public defenders are uniquely positioned to rebuild our communities because we are aware of the issues that bring our clients to the system. The task of building a truly equitable society has yet to be completed, but it’s all our responsibility to do everything in our power to move it towards justice.”

I don’t know if that is enough to bring about the criminal justice reforms protesters have been demanding, but Alli seems just the right person for such a time as this.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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