Defenders of Justice candidates (from left) La Shae Henderson, George Turner and Ericka Wiley. (Photo courtesy La Defensa)

Defenders of Justice backed to diversify L.A. County courts 

Judicial elections have become of increasing interest to the public as alternatives to incarceration are explored. The Defenders of Justice, a campaign begun by decarceration nonprofit La Defensa and grassroots electoral campaign group Ground Game LA, assists candidates with public defender experience in running for open seats in Los Angeles courts. Past candidates include Holly Hancock, who was elected to the Superior Court bench in 2022. 

Gabriela Vázquez, La Defensa’s deputy director, said in a press release shared with AfroLA: 

“In the 2024 Defenders of Justice cohort, we are seeing judicial transformation in action. The Defenders of Justice exemplify our deepest values: 

  • Investment in treatment, rather than criminalization;
  • Judicious application of the law, especially as it has evolved towards justice in the past two decades; and
  • A deep empathy and compassion for all members of our community, whom they each aim to keep safe.”

This year’s cohort candidates hail from South Central Los Angeles and Inglewood. They bring lived knowledge and collectively, more than 60 years of public defense experience to their bids for the bench. Each candidate hopes their campaigns  will increase public awareness of how judges can affect their communities, and create new ways of looking at the justice system. 

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Be sure to return your ballot to a designated drop-off location or vote in person by March 5.

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According to L.A. Superior Court data, 63% of Los Angeles County Superior Court judges are white. and only two are former public defenders (including Judge Holly Hancock). AfroLA interviewed each candidate tapped for the Defenders of Justice campaign. Each candidate emphasized the need for better diversity and representation in the courtroom.  

Seat 97

La Shae Henderson has worked in youth courts as a public defender for 15 years. She describes public defenders as often being more “even-keeled.” “You are the hands and legs of the court,“ she explained. The job requires research and understanding the resources available to defendants, and to be plugged in to the community where you work. Henderson said has always been an advocate for seeing her clients as whole people, and believes it is her job as a public defender–and a judge, if elected–to ensure people get the resources they need. Her goal, she said, is to apply the law individually to meet the needs of each person as a whole person.

“I think it’s being able to weigh out what is needed for every situation, and not putting people in a cookie-cutter box. That’s what was irritating me as a public defender. I have all these clients with all kinds of needs, but I’m bringing them in front of someone, and they’ve decided that everybody’s getting this, or I’m doing it this way. And I don’t care what anybody says; well, that’s not helpful. So, we need someone who is sensitive to the needs of the public and able to approach each case and evaluate what needs to be done in each case.” 

Seat 39

George Turner, a public defender for 15 years, said he wants to see more transparency on the bench. And, if elected, he wants to see more alternatives to incarceration explored, especially for the unhoused. Turner runs a unit dedicated to aiding unhoused people through the legal system. 

“I think that it is so very important for people who are making decisions about folks lives, to know something about that person, to know something about their experiences, to know something about where they can end up to know that to see the potential in folks and am keen to allow for and push towards positive outcomes.,” 

Seat 48 

Ericka Wiley said her goal is to apply the law with fairness, integrity and accuracy. As a 20-year veteran of the public defender’s office, she has defended clients in felony, juvenile and mental health proceedings. Now, she deals solely with special circumstance cases which can involve some of the toughest clients. 

“The bench officer obviously sets the tone for her courtroom. She requires [her]staff and of all the participants in the court to operate with integrity. She provides the example for that.”

Be sure to return your ballot to a designated drop-off location or vote in person by March 5.

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