Legal Aid Society

A Day In The Life

Advocating for Treatment, Not Jail in the Criminal Defense Practice

Afeisha Julien, a Forensic Social Worker in Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice (CDP), cites two life events that led her to her social work career. Afeisha shared that during an English class in high school they watched What I Want My Words to Do to You, a documentary in which 15 women incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York state told their stories.

As they spoke, Afeisha was moved by their life stories and the circumstances that led to incarceration at Bedford Hills. “The way these women were humanized helped me make my decision to work in the field,” she recalls. A few years later, her advisor at Spelman College helped solidify her decision to become a social worker.  

In her second year at Columbia University School of Social Work, she entered the lecture hall for a class entitled People Returning from Incarceration and was greeted by her professor—one of the very women featured in the documentary she watched in high school. Others from the film joined her and spoke about their lives since their release from Bedford Hills. Afeisha met each of them, amazed that she was sitting across from the people who unknowingly sparked her interest in social work years prior. 

I have learned that social workers work on both a micro and macro level. Social work is essential to criminal defense practice. Social workers provide a level of service to people that you cannot get in other professions.

Afeisha started her Legal Aid career in August 2012 as a forensic social worker before transitioning in 2016 to a mitigation specialist in the MICA project. The MICA project assists individuals who are dually diagnosed with mental illness and chemical addiction. As a MICA mitigation specialist, Afeisha advocated for treatment over incarceration. Recently, she returned to her role as a forensic social worker, where she serves clients across Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice. 

Afeisha and other social workers provide a humanitarian lens to the court and lawmakers. In addition to her caseload, she advocates for Treatment Not Jail, legislation that would guarantee that New Yorkers with disabilities and other health-related challenges are provided with an opportunity to obtain treatment and support in their communities. She explains that there are only 75 openings per year in the New York County mental health court part, emphasizing that there are hundreds of potential people who are sent to Rikers instead of treatment.  

After more than a decade at Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice, Afeisha continues to find moments of joy in her work, such as witnessing her clients’ release home from incarceration, or receiving a call that her client found stable housing or employment. Afeisha regularly hears from former clients reaching out to share positive updates in their lives, which is more special since her initial meeting with them is when they are at their lowest point. Seeing clients rise above their circumstances and overcome the perils of the criminal legal system is a highlight of her job. 

Whereas attorneys generally focus on one practice area of the law, social workers center their practice on the many dimensions of clients’ lives. The Legal Aid Society’s work could not be done without them.

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