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Tulane, National Book Foundation host authors, scholars on criminal justice reform

March 11, 2019 8:15 AM
Alina Hernandez



Louisiana has been the nation’s prison capital for nearly 20 years, but recently enacted a landmark package of 10 criminal justice reform laws. As a result, in June 2018, Oklahoma instead became the U.S. state with the highest imprisonment rate, replacing Louisiana.

With that backdrop, Tulane Law School and the National Book Foundation are partnering to host an evening exploring the stories of those who’ve lived under mass incarceration nationally, and the efforts at criminal justice reform. Titled “Literature for Justice: The Gravity of Bearing Witness,” Tulane scholars will discuss the state of criminal justice reforms alongside authors who will share stories about incarceration, redemption, and the search for hope in darkness.

The event will take place Tuesday, March 19, at 5 p.m. at the law school’s John Giffen Weinmann Hall, Room 110. A reception and book signing will follow.  The event is open to the public, but registration is encouraged here.

The panel includes:

  • Prof. Janet “Jancy” Hoeffel, who specializes criminal law and procedure, death penalty law and evidence.
  • Prof. Becki Kondkar, Director of Tulane’s Domestic Violence Clinic.
  • Prof. Katherine Mattes, Director of Tulane’s Criminal Justice Clinic.
  • Jimmy Santiago Baca, poet and author of A Place to Stand who was imprisoned at 21and served six-and-a-half years in prison, three of them in isolation.
  • Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and two other novels who writes about social justice issues. He spent eight years in prison when he was charged as an adult at the age of 16.
  • Sergio de La Pava (moderator), author of Lost Empress and Literature for Justice Committee member. Pava has worked for years as a public defender in New York.

The National Book Foundation’s Literature for Justice program is a nationwide, book-based campaign that seeks to contextualize and humanize the experiences of those who are incarcerated. The program is guided by the Literature for Justice committee, a cohort of well-known authors who are also experts, leaders, and advocates. They choose a selection of five books annually to guide readers through this complex issue, with the hope that these texts will help shift public perception and understanding of mass incarceration through the power of storytelling. Literature for Justice is made possible from the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Speaker Bios:

Tulane Law School

Janet “Jancy” Hoeffel is a professor of law specializing in criminal law and procedure. Her prior work experience includes six years as a public defender for the District of Columbia, where she practiced both trial and appellate advocacy, and as a litigator with a firm in Denver, Colorado. Her scholarly work has focused on the constitutional regulations of discretionary actors in the criminal justice system. Recent publications include “Miranda’s First Principles,” 50 Texas Tech Law Review 113 (2017) and “Death Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” 68 Arkansas Law Review 267 (2017).  She also recently co-authored two casebooks and a hornbook on criminal investigative and adjudicative procedure.

Becki Kondkar is a Senior Professor of the Practice, Director of the Tulane Law School Domestic Violence Clinic, and co-founder of the Women's Prison Project. Her areas of expertise include the intersection of domestic violence with both civil and criminal justice systems. Kondkar has specialized in family violence litigation since 1999 – first as a legal services lawyer representing domestic violence survivors, and later in a nationwide practice specializing in child abuse. She has handled domestic violence and abuse cases in trial and appellate courts in 11 states. Nationally, she has trained hundreds of attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, and mental health professionals on legal issues affecting victims of abuse.

Katherine Mattes is a Senior Professor of the Practice and Director of the Tulane Law School Criminal Justice Clinic and Co-director of the Women’s Prison Project.  She specializes in criminal litigation at all levels of practice, including trial, appellate, post-conviction and federal habeas.  She has particular expertise in the intersection of criminal justice and mental illness, specifically mental competency to proceed and the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. She has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform in the state of Louisiana, and her advocacy has transformed the lives of hundreds of accused and incarcerated persons, especially those living with mental illness, those serving draconian sentences under Louisiana’s habitual offender statute, and juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.


Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico and is of Indio-Mexican descent. He was raised first by his grandmother and later sent to an orphanage. A runaway at age 13, it was after Baca was sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison that he began to turn his life around: He learned to read and write and unearthed a voracious passion for poetry. During a fateful conflict with another inmate, Jimmy was shaken by the voices of Neruda and Lorca, and made a choice that would alter his destiny.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. A poet and memoirist, he is the author of three books. The recently published Bastards of the Reagan Era, the 2010 NAACP Image Award winning memoir, A Question of Freedom, and, the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. Dwayne is currently enrolled in the PhD in Law Program at the Yale Law School. He has earned a JD from the Yale Law School, an MFA from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, and a BA from the University of Maryland.

Sergio De La Pava is the author of three novels: A Naked Singularity, Personae, and Lost Empress. He is also a lifelong public defender and Legal Director at New York County Defender Services in Manhattan where he represents indigent criminal defendants and advocates for large-scale criminal justice reform. He has taught at Seton Hall Law School and lectured, spoken, and written on criminal justice issues for The Guardian, MoMA PS1, Harvard Law, Public Radio International, Sky News, New York Daily News, and other venues.