Jennifer Sellitti, Deputy Public Defender in Essex County, NJ, shares her thoughts on her work and why she joined our board.
by Leah Sakala, February 3, 2014
We are thrilled to begin a blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board! We spoke with each of them about their important work and thoughts on the Prison Policy Initiative.
First up, Jennifer Sellitti, who is Assistant Deputy Public Defender in Essex County, New Jersey.
Why did you decide to join the PPI board?
Jennifer Sellitti: Although I currently work as a criminal defense attorney, I began my career in prisoners’ rights. I guess you could say that the mission of prison reform has been and always will be in my professional blood. It is unacceptable to me that what passes for justice in this country is a broken, unrelenting, and soulless system of mass incarceration. I am honored to be a part of an organization that not only brings attention to some of the most pressing issues in prison reform but also leads the way in proposing groundbreaking solutions to the American prison crisis.
What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and PPI?
JS: As an assistant deputy public defender for the State of NJ, my work focuses on the criminal defense of indigent people accused of felonies in the NJ Superior Court. In my experience, busy criminal defense attorneys often forget that our clients live with the repercussions of their cases long after the case is resolved and the file is closed. Whether our clients go to prison, spend time on probation, or go back into their communities, their lives will be forever impacted by the choices their attorneys help them make. Through my work at PPI, I hope to spread the message to my colleagues in the criminal defense bar that we should be just as concerned about broader legal issues as we are about individual cases. These issues include prison conditions, attorney and family access, sentence enhancements, solitary confinement, provision of rehabilitative programs and other concerns that directly impact both the quality of life and the futures of our clients and their families.
What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?
JS:This is not your parents’ prison reform. By that I mean what makes PPI unique is that, unlike other prisoners’ rights organizations, it does not try to tackle every issue in criminal justice reform at the same time. It takes a more tailored, surgical approach that maximizes resources and organizational efficiency. By focusing on key areas – such as prison gerrymandering, high rates of prison and jail telephone calls, and sentence enhancement zones – PPI can make a tremendous impact and see results in a shorter amount of time.
What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?
JS: PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner and I began our careers together as student interns at the same prisoners’ rights organization. I have many fond memories of our talks, most of which took place in prison waiting rooms, about our plans to take on the justice system in our own distinct ways. Peter was passionate about bringing attention to “prison gerrymandering,” his discovery that the size of the prison population was combining with an outdated Census Bureau rule to undermine electoral fairness. When we reconnected recently, I was amazed to see how Peter’s idea has transformed PPI from a law student’s dream into one of the nation’s leading criminal justice policy organizations. What did not surprise me is that Peter still has the same passion, energy and enthusiasm for the work that he did all those years ago and that same zeal is now reflected in his talented staff and my fellow board members.