The founder of the nascent National Justice Impact Bar Association says it will assist qualified “justice-impacted” people—those with criminal records—who want to become lawyers but face obstacles to obtaining a law license.
A decade ago, as a teenager, Dieter Tejada got into trouble with the law and spent several months behind bars after pleading guilty on an assault charge.
For Tejada, the experience sparked an interest in the legal profession and in improving the legal system.
“I started to see that there were a lot of people who got screwed over a lot worse than I did,” Tejada told Law360 last year. “So I decided I was going to go to law school.” After leaving prison, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a law degree from Vanderbilt University.
But Tejada, now 29, still can’t practice law, despite passing the Connecticut bar exam. Bar examining committees in many states, Connecticut among them, include a “character and fitness assessment” that often disqualifies people with criminal records from obtaining a law license.
To lower that hurdle, Tejada is planning to launch the National Justice Impact Bar Association (NJIBA)—a voluntary group for “justice-impacted” people who want to practice law—and a second nonprofit called the National Justice Impact Movement, which will share stories of people whose lives have been negatively affected by the justice system.
“This is going to be the first legal access point into the field for people with the background and experience of dealing with the justice system,” Tejada told the CT Mirror.
Legal experts have expressed interest in the cause, which they say would help diversify the legal profession. Christine Perra Rapillo, Connecticut’s chief public defender, told the outlet that lawyers with experience in the criminal justice system would help in criminal cases.
Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School, agreed that an insider perspective on the criminal justice system would be valuable to the profession.
“I think this is a time when we are recognizing the effects of mass incarceration and recognizing the unique role that formerly incarcerated people can and should be playing in addressing reforms in the criminal justice system,” Mukamal told Law360. “So as we’re seeing that these people should be at the table and should be part of creating solutions to fix some of these issues, these questions are coming to the fore.”
In comments to CT Mirror, University of Connecticut law professor Miguel de Figueiredo noted that people like Tejada have shown a high level of tenacity. “Oftentimes the people who do get through all those hoops are going to be pretty strong lawyers,” he said.
Tejada told the outlet that he is working on getting NJIBA incorporated.