Zealous Founder Scott Hechinger

It’s that time of year when as the weather gets colder we warm ourselves with thoughts of gratitude and giving, which, for many, includes charitable donations to organizations making a difference. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with the founder and executive director of one such organization. Scott Hechinger, a former public defender, runs the nonprofit advocacy organization Zealous, whose aim is to educate the public about the inequities of this country’s justice system. We examine why more public defenders aren’t elected to higher office, talk about the repercussions from last year’s recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, and discuss the impact Zealous is trying to make.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Scott Hechinger (SH) | 00:16 – If you care about human rights, if you care about fiscal responsibility, at the end of the day, public health and safety, like you should a support investing in public defense. All but you should also love your local public defender. You should be encouraging more public defenders to run for office. I think we’d be in a way, way better place across the board policy-wise. If we had thoughtful public defenders in office.

Narrator | 00:40 – It’s that time of year when as the weather gets colder we warm ourselves with thoughts of gratitude and giving, which, for many, includes charitable donations to organizations making a difference. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with the founder and executive director of one such organization. Scott Hechinger, a former public defender, runs the nonprofit advocacy organization Zealous, whose aim is to educate the public about the inequities of this country’s justice system. We examine why more public defenders aren’t elected to higher office, talk about the repercussions from last year’s recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, and discuss the impact Zealous is trying to make.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:35 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Scott Hechinger. He’s the founder and executive director of Zealous. He’s an attorney, former public defender and a law professor as well. Scott, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Scott Hechinger (SH) | 01:50 – Thanks for having me on. Great to be here.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:53 – So, first, why don’t we talk about your role as a public defender? You’re not actively serving in that role, but it’s an important part of your background and maybe explain what the mission of Zealous is and how that kind of all works within that framework.

Scott Hechinger (SH) | 02:10 – So Zealous really is an outgrowth of the work, um, uh, that I was doing for close to a decade as a public defender in Brooklyn. And frankly, going back further than that, my first law job during law school down in New Orleans, uh, in one of the first intern classes, most people don’t know this, but there was no full-time public defender office in New Orleans before Katrina in one of the strange silver linings that came from Katrina was that a lot of social justice attention got focused down in New Orleans. Um, and one of the ways that it happened was that a lot of public defenders went, came in from around the country and said, look, we wanna change the system of private attorneys who are friends with the prosecutors and friends with the judges, having this kind of old boys club plea deal system and actually get some folks in there that were trying to challenge the system, which is what public defenders do. The role of public defenders is to provide people who can’t afford representation with meaningful Zealous counsel in court, um, in order to, to figure out what’s actually happening in the case to, to try to come up with the best case solutions, whether that goes through to trial or before. Um, it’s about challenging police misconduct in court. The sad thing is the reality is because of just endemic underfunding and, and also that’s the laws and practices that have been created over, over decades and decades. Even the most well-funded public defender offices like the one I worked in in Brooklyn with investigators and social workers and relatively low caseloads. I had between 80 and a hundred people, uh, who I was representing at any given time. That sounds insanely high in New Orleans. It’s 400 to 700 still there. I saw every day going into court how, despite all that, and despite my training and despite the fact that like I wanted to bring everything I possibly could to every single case, things like pretrial detention, um, which scared people into pleading guilty, whether or not they were things like mandatory minimums, where the judge could be your best friend. It could be your, your, your mom, your, your, your dad. Um, and if you’re found guilty, at the end of the day, you get a mandatory minimum and they have no choice but to sentence seat immense amounts of time that scares people into depleting guilty. It scares people into silence because of evidence laws that make it so that prosecutors don’t have to tell you what they actually know is my role as a public defender was harm reduction at most, was trying to come up with the best plea deal was often trying to lead people through plea allocations. That’s where you say, are you pleading guilty, freely and voluntarily? The judge asks you these questions, we all know the answer to. And the answer to is, is no <laugh> like they’re pleading guilty because, because they’re being coerced to do th so through the, the pressures of the system and the people who are doing this are mostly black and brown and, and living in over police neighborhoods. And so the job of public defender is absolutely critical. It’s, it’s a fundamental right under the constitution. It’s, it’s the cornerstone of American democracy, and yet we’re so far away from actually being able to do, and I saw that firsthand. And so Zealous, it was a reflection of my and other public defender’s deep frustration over our limited ability in court using traditional advocacy tools, oral and written advocacy, said to a audience of a judges and prosecutors predisposed to just kind of carceral cruelty this frustration of, of the limitations of those, those avenues and asking questions about why were we not, uh, sharing our perspective and expertise about what we were seeing every day outside of court. Why weren’t we partnering with the folks who we were representing ethically and effectively to share their stories and breathe life into what we were seeing? So more people can know the truth. Why weren’t we engaging with press who right now? And then, um, and, and for kind of the last, at least half century has been sharing mostly misinformation about not only who’s in the system, but how the system works. And those questions turned into answers at Brooklyn Defender Services in the form of, we started proactively pitching stories that no one was writing about instead of responding, no comment. We started working with community organizations. We started sharing our perspective and expertise on social media, um, and, and, uh, and then start people around 2019 as we started to see policy impacts with bail reform, with defenders involved in coalition. As we started to see discovery reform, so evidence laws opening up to allow folks to see more and to make informed decisions, defenders from around the country started being like, what the hell are you guys doing in Brooklyn? Are we, are we allowed to do this? Is it ethical? And the truth is like, yes, if you do it right,

Alex Wise (AW) | 06:45 – Embracing the media in a non-traditional manner.

SH | 06:48 – Yes. And, and more so expanding the advocacy toolbox beyond the stuff that we learn in law school. Um, so that’s engaging with media, it’s speaking outside of court. It’s working with clients to actually talk about their cases outside when it makes sense or systemic issues. Are we allowed to do this? So the ethical laws really provide the floor right of, of, of what’s required. But when it comes to the really necessary but fraught work of public defenders, engaging the people who they represent in systemic advocacy, you know, where we <laugh> where we were and where we now, and this is part of Zelous is kind of teach and engage other public defenders to do this work. We’re talking about that there’s a lot of gray area. What’s your comfort as a public defender in engaging like this? What are the questions that you have? What’s your motivation coming into this work? And most importantly, when and if you do engage the folks who you represent, who you’re representing in their cases or that, that are ongoing or after, how do you do so in a way that’s trauma-informed? How do you do so in a way that allows them to have full agency, um, how to be and feel like actual partners and not just being used again, uh, for a purpose? So, long story short, I’ll end it right here, is that Zelle started off as a training. We flew in 55 defenders from 42 different offices in 27 different states, and then Covid strikes, and those same defenders whose minds were kind of opened up were then like, Hey, can you help us write talking points? Because the life and death nature of public defense got even more so with Covid, I, can you help us connect us with those journalists? Can you actually create video content like we were doing? And it was very clear that this was not gonna be a, a side thing on top of my caseload, on top of directing policy also at Brooklyn Defender Services. But, uh, folks needed help right then and it’s evolved.

AW | 08:33 – And, and, uh, how much inspiration did you draw from the Innocence Project, which I think does some important work, but they don’t have as much focus on media. They’re, they’re a little more reliant on a case-by-case exposure or a documentary film on the injustices that have happened to an incarcerated individual, et cetera. So where’s the overlap and the inspiration there?

SH | 08:57 – Right. Well, I mean, first of all, sometimes like topically we worked at, at, at Brooklyn Defender Services when we were working on the discovery campaign, which was trying <laugh> New York was one of the four worst states in the country, literally allowed prosecutors to withhold the most important information till the day of trial. We worked closely with the policy and communications team at Innocence Project on communication strategy. And so it was like a really seamless, um, incredible partnership with them, um, on that particular issue because obviously a major impact of not knowing <laugh> what, what evidence you have is are wrongful convictions or plea, uh, or pleased to things you didn’t do. Um, I also do think that they, they more broadly do a very good job of, uh, blending sort of in court advocacy with that kind of outside of court policy and advocacy and storytelling where, you know, where we go far more expansively as we really lean into, um, the issues that are not exclusively, you know, innocence. Actually the vast majority of the issues that we focus on, um, are folks that, you know, either haven’t yet been found, uh, guilty, um, uh, or, or may or may not be innocent, but are dealing with horrific conditions. You know, we look at conditions as a way, so conditions of pretrial detention, solitary confinement, um, the fact that people who are incarcerated are not allowed to hug their children in visitations as a, not only a, a moral imperative to talk about this and try to advocate for different, but also a way to get people to think beyond what the person’s charged with or convicted of, or whether they’re innocent or guilty or, um, and actually focus on the thing that they should be focusing on, which is, as a country, um, as a state, as a locality, we shouldn’t be treating humans like this. Um, we focus on excessive sentences. So even in guilty cases, people shouldn’t be serving life without parole sentences, um, without any possibility of showing redemption, um, in far beyond any kind of claim that they possibly could be, you know, dangerous to the public. We focus on, um, issues about the criminalization of poverty. Yes, someone was carrying substances. Yes, someone was using substances, yes, someone was acting in a way because of their mental health issues. Yes, uh, they failed to pay their bills and therefore warrant issued for their arrest. But should we actually be criminalizing houselessness? Should we actually be criminalizing, uh, crimes of, of really poverty instead of investing resources in, in prevention and support? So I think the easiest way to distinguish the work, although I I, you know, think they do very important work, is that it’s, I I it’s a, the work we focus on is far broader than innocence, I think, in an important way. Um, and I think, you know, I think it’s, uh, it, it’s, it’s one of the biggest challenges right now is to, is to not only find pe the people who are in the system, who are the quote unquote most sympathetic, but make people think generally about the system in a more holistic, nuanced way. So it isn’t driven by necessarily the most sympathetic stories.

(Music Break) | 12:12

AW | 13:04 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Scott Hechinger. He is the founder and executive director of Zealous. So Scott, you were talking about how your organization rallies public defenders from all over the country to come together on, on a number of issues. I can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more public defenders in our political system at the, it it’s not a great first gig if you have aspirations for public office. My former senator here in California, Kamala Harris, who’s now the vice president, she always would mention that she was a prosecutor and she knows the inside of a courtroom, and she was not alone. Like Chris Christie talks about being a prosecutor, you any, it’s a very popular talking point with the American public to say you are a prosecutor. Where’s the disconnect happening with, with the public and, and its acceptance of this important role, Scott?

SH | 13:57 – Yeah. In a truly informed working democracy, I’d expect that public defenders would be some of the most appealing public figures, candidates, et cetera, who are public defenders. Public defenders are, first of all, they live and they work where they run, and they understand because of, you know, the intersections with criminal justice of public health and safety, of housing, of education, of infrastructure, just how the current system is, is failing us, us all. Not just the folks who are coming within the system, but also how we’re spending a fortune on things that actually, that actually hurt. Turns out public defenders are extremely savvy politicians. We are shapeshifters, we know how to tell powerful stories and, and tell them to lots of different types of audiences from a judge to a prosecutor over the phone during a negotiation to a family that’s grieving and terrified because their loved one’s locked up to folks at the moment of like the worst moment of their lives. We think in nuanced terms, we want what everyone else wants, I think at least, well-meaning folks, again, public health and safety, fiscal responsibility, but we’re not put into these positions. And it’s often a thing that’s attacked, and it’s often a thing, as you said, that’s kind of like hidden and you don’t hear it a lot for the same reasons that we’re frankly in the position that we are right now, which is spending the most amount of money in the history of society on, on policing, punishment and prisons, even though we know from police’s own mouth that were not the safest society and the healthiest society in the world. And why are we there? It’s because of a, a fear mongering. It’s because of this kind of drumbeat that quote unquote tough on crime. And investing more into punishment based approaches to health issues is the successful approach against all evidence to the contrary

AW | 15:49 – And it’s successful for one’s political career as well. I mean, on the flip side of if you were running for something, I’m sure a craven politician could easily dig out a lot of cases that the narrative could be crafted so that you look like you, you’re not tough on crime, that you defended this rapist or this person who did X, y, or Z, and they, they’ll just drag you through the coals. You’re just very politically vulnerable

SH | 16:12 – Because of this, this binary, this totally false binary that’s been created that either you’re putting people away and therefore care about public health and safety, or you’re doing anything else or suggesting any other possible policy solution, and therefore you want anarchy. I remember this question. I was at a, I was on a panel with, with a prosecutor. I’m often on panels with prosecutors. This was for it was, I think it was a conference about the criminalization of drugs and someone asked about violence and how we, how we think about, um, interacting with survivors. And the prosecutor said, well, it’s easier for, you know, Mr. Hechinger to talk about, you know, issues around violence, and it’s easier for him to talk about alternatives to recurrent solutions because he doesn’t have to worry about victims. He doesn’t have to care about victim’s crime. And I, my head, I, I was just like, oh boy, <laugh>, how am I going to, how am I going to deliver a measured response here? Because I was so awfully offended and I, I somehow managed to say, look, um, I have, from my experience over, over a decade of, of thousands of cases and seeing people brought into the system and spit out far worse than when they came in with no kind of support for actually the underlying causes of what made them break the social contract, that our current solutions are not working. I care as much as anyone. I’m not going to measure anyone else about public health and safety. I’m a dad, I’m a husband. I, I live, breathe, work in Brooklyn. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to get, get hurt. I just have different ideas about what it’s going to take to get there based upon personal experience, not political talking points. That’s how it should be. And I, and I think that that’s a big part of our work.

AW | 17:57 – Well, you’re meeting some amazing public defenders in your work who would make great public servants, and they chose their path knowing that feeling the greater good was more important than their own personal gain. And there is personal gain to be had if you go on the other side of that binary equation.

SH | 18:16 – Well, that’s also, I mean, <laugh>, here’s the other piece. You know, I don’t see, but this is probably a product of the way that politics are, I don’t see a lot of folks going into public defense with aspirations to operate and to lead in our current political system because perhaps there’s this observation that like, it’s just not a place for them where their ideas are welcome. Um, it’s, it’s their role. Like that’s not what they learned. They’re going to fight for freedom. Um, but my God, the best trial attorneys that I ever saw were not, by the way, private defense attorneys we’re public defenders over and over again, the most <laugh>, most organized folks, the folks who were able to carry the most amount of information they had at any given time, the most powerful speakers, the folks who are the best people. Whenever I’m on the phone with the public defender, this is why it’s weird saying former public defender, it’s like once you’ve done it, you’re always a public defender. There’s a common just like a way of thinking about the world. And, and to go back to your point of like, they, you know, defenders just, you know, they’re just people who represent so and so, what’s amazing is, look, there’s no right to a, a, a prosecutor. The prosecutors are not in the United States constitution. There’s a right to counsel in the United States Constitution. Public defenders are breathing life when they’re funded into a fundamental constitutional right that we should all care about. Not just because the Constitution says so, but because public defenders make sure that like our government is held accountable, public defenders, um, represent, you know, folks that like need help. Public defenders actually wind up if you just care about the taxpayer money. Uh, I care about that too. They keep people, uh, they, they argue for people’s release that have no business being in, I mean, uh, uh, uh, being, being detained pre-trial and Mississippi, and I’ll stop after this anecdote. There are only 33 public defenders in the entire state. And among other things that makes that absolutely horrific is that there are thousands and thousands of people without an attorney simply to put their case on the docket, to get before a judge to say, Hey, can I be released? And we’ve seen in a small pocket where a little bit more money has been invested for public defenders, folks have been released with no issue whatsoever. The cases have been resolved. And so if you care about <laugh>, if you care about the constitution, if you care about human rights, if you care about fiscal responsibility, at the end of the day, public health and safety, like you should a support investing in public defense. All but you should also love your local public defender. You should be encouraging more public defenders to run for office. I think we’d be, in a way, way better place across the board policywise, if we had thoughtful public defenders in office.

(Music Break) | 20:52

AW | 21:59 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Scott Hechinger. He is the executive director of Zealous. So Scott, here in San Francisco, we had a former public defender become the district attorney, Chesa Boudin. And, and he was quickly recalled and replaced by a quote unquote tough on crime district attorney Brooke Jenkins. It meant a lot of resistance here in San Francisco. And yet the fallout seems to be that Chesa Boudin was not a good enough politician. That’s a lot of the talking points that I have heard here. But electing Boudin was an important experiment in so many levels of policy, and it never got a chance to play itself out. And now we’re seeing kind of the backlash here in San Francisco where the war on drugs is, is amped up, et cetera. Obviously you’re biased, but I wanted to get your perspective on that case.

SH | 22:51 – You know, I think what you said about never got a chance to actually see, I mean, it’s like, the thing about experiments is, is, um, how are you going to know whether they worked or not, unless you actually like, let the results happen? And, and, um, oftentimes it’s not just with, you know, so-called progressive prosecutors, but any kind of law that the parts from the norm of, you know, kind of our corral harsher, one way, ratchet up in terms of harshness laws, um, whenever they pass there is a, which is <laugh>, which is very rare, by the way, still. Um, there is a quick forceful, very well-funded effort across the country, no matter where it happens to discredit, to fear monger, to lie about causation, um, selectively to pull short-term data, make conclusions when we know that short-term data doesn’t work in any field, but particularly criminal justice data. Um, and, uh, it taps into that fearmongering taps into the strongest of human emotions, um, which is fear. And that fear drives a flight or fight response where it doesn’t make it, where it makes it hard for people, um, especially those who don’t really, uh, think about these issues as much as I do, to have patience for change to, um, to, uh, and, but it makes it more comfortable for them. They want to go back to what’s comfortable, what’s comfortable is, is the usual, at least what’s being expressed to them. And that’s what happened in Cha with, with Chesa Boudin. It was a typical, uh, right wing, um, police and prosecutor and union supported, well-funded effort to convince San Franciscans who know better or should know better and, and, and are brilliant and care to act on fear rather than reason. And let me just say like that, that power of fear was made all the stronger by the very real, by very real fear that people should feel like, you know, it’s, it’s, you know, people who have experienced in San Francisco and I, half my family’s there. So it’s not like I’m saying coming in from this, like not wanting safety and health in San Francisco. I want that, not just for my family because I, I care about humanity. Um, people have reason to feel scared, feel, feel scared, like they don’t want people, you know, hurting them or loved ones or the things that they see in the news. And like, yes, like there is visible really awful like health issues. And when they’re, when they’re being told that there’s this cause of that, that reinforces the things that they not only see every day either in the news or literally walking down or hearing from friends, but also that what they’ve learned from popular culture from the moment they were born. <laugh>. I’ve got a kid now, and it was like, it took me a minute to realize that Paw Patrol was propaganda. But it’s like, it just, it created this environment where he was doomed to fail whether or not he was a good politician or not. And I can’t speak to that. And, but I think at the end of the day, like, um, people, you know, need to, I, I think what, what hap you know, I just explained what happened and what, unfortunately, not only have we have, did we lose a very well-meaning, um, and I think ultimately what would’ve been a very successful, um, experiment and even saying experiment because it’s like he, he, uh, he, he was, he was doing good work. And it was data driven too. It was data driven and like, and was the opposite of it. We lost that, but we, what we got instead was a cynical district attorney who, uh, you know, it very clearly appears that, uh, you know, was, was leading the campaign even though she said she wasn’t getting paid, um, to basically take his job and was lying along the way a bunch. And who would, by the way, right by the way, is not only brought back severe, you know, the, the, the, the harsh worn drugs that’s been failed and in the process been hurting a ton of people, um, including folks who have been human trafficked from other countries and charging them as like the top dealers and cases actually getting dis dismissed. Because the jurors who are seeing these cases are realizing, wait a second. We’re being, we’re being hoodwinked by the government, but what are, what are the numbers showing? Numbers are showing that violent crime rates and crime rates are actually up under her. But what’s and I, and I think the key, the key thing people should maybe ask about that is why aren’t they hearing the same news? Blaming Brooke Jenkins, why isn’t Brooke Jenkins being blamed for the rise in crime because of her policies? Why isn’t she being pilloried? Why isn’t a recall a campaign against her? Not to say that there should be, because I don’t think that her policy is one, you know, in the short term necessarily or driving crime. It’s all kinds of different factors that are present across the country and consistent all over the place. But it’s that, that cynicism that is so clearly in relief that the difference in treatment between Chesa and Brooke.

AW | 27:51 – Well, folks who want to learn more about Zealous should go to your website. It’s Zealous, that’s Zealo.us. Scott Hechinger, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

SH | 28:01 – Thanks so much for having me.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Miles Davis, Jimmy Cliff, and Fog Swamp. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream, or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.