How Zealous is giving more power to public defenders

Founded by a former Brooklyn public defender, Zealous aims to create real-world change through collaboration and advocacy

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice

 This Q&A is part of a series highlighting the work of NPPJ partners.

As a public defender for nearly 10 years in Brooklyn, Scott Hechinger knows all too well the struggles public defenders face each day: overwhelming caseloads, the lack of funding and resources to provide adequate defense, and witnessing the constant harm done to people—especially those of color—by America’s legal system all in the name of public safety.

To empower public defenders to get more engaged in systemic advocacy outside of court, Hechinger founded Zealous in 2019, an organization that trains and supports public defense attorneys to advocate for themselves and the communities they serve effectively and ethically.

Hechinger sat down with NPPJ to discuss the public defense system, teaching public defenders to harness their power and voice and collaborating with communities, and pushing back against the long-standing narrative that more incarceration equals greater public safety. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPPJ: What is Zealous, beyond a great name? 

Scott Hechinger: We’re a national initiative that supports and trains public defenders in partnership with the people and communities they represent, and also community organizations, to think about creative ways outside of traditional legal advocacy to shift the narrative and get leaders and the general population to listen to more rational responses to achieve public health and safety. We want to transform the systems that we currently have that undermine both public health and safety.

Our aim is to create collaborative advocacy hubs around the country on a range of issues. One of the main ways we do so is by bringing groups together to learn together.

We work with local defender offices, grassroots organizations and people with direct experience on a range of skills—from social media to traditional media to collaboration with coalition—training and building through a pressing local issue they have identified as a priority. These convenings build capacity within local organizations, strengthen coalition, and develop coordinated, powerful, and story-driven campaigns.

NPPJ: So in a way you’re giving more power to public defenders, many of whom these days are overworked and overburdened with caseloads.

SH: Here’s the deal. For basically half a century, pro-carceral forces have driven the narrative, emboldened by the media, that more incarceration, more punishment, more policing, more prosecution is the way to get to justice—it’s the way to get to public health and safety. And during this time, public defenders were these natural justice champions, who see up close and personal every day how these laws and practices actually undermine those twin goals while devastating predominantly Black and brown communities.

Unfortunately, public defenders have either been overlooked or they’ve self-imposed a “no comment” approach for a range of reasons. One of the things—kind of the founding principle of Zealous—was the idea to train defenders and support them in the effort to get more engaged in this social and racial justice movement, to learn how to effectively and ethically not only share their experiences but also partner with the people and communities they represent to advocate outside of court for broader systems change while fighting inside of court for individual justice.

And that founding principle has expanded to be less solely defender centric, but to also encompass the understanding that you can’t just do defender advocacy alone. Defender advocacy in its truest, best form is not only media-savvy defenders, but also greater trust and partnership and collaboration between these key groups.

NPPJ: What drew you to this work? 

Scott Hechinger, a former Brooklyn public defender, founded Zealous in 2019.

SH: I was a public defender for close to a decade in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, we started to utilize this range of non-traditional advocacy—advocacy skills that you don’t learn in law school or public defender trainings—to shift the narrative outside of the courtroom. And that included really thinking critically about the language that we used so that we don’t further entrench systemic injustice outside; how to proactively pitch to press instead of being reactive and saying either “no comment” or just being asked about connecting reporters with clients; engage on social media and start pushing back against this prevailing narrative that the status quo is working.

So we did a range of projects at Brooklyn Defender Services over the years where we helped support major change, from overhauling our bail laws and our discovery laws in New York to smaller—but no less meaningful—wins, like ending prosecutions for young single mothers who were leaving their kids alone for very short periods of time to run errands because they didn’t have enough money for childcare.

And out of this model, once we started seeing wins, obviously in collaboration with local organizations that have been doing this work for decades, defenders around the country started calling and saying, “What are you guys doing out there? Are we allowed to do that?” So we got initial seed funding in 2019. And instead of going out and having conversations with these folks one at a time, we flew 55 defenders from 42 offices in 27 different states to Brooklyn for an immersive training on this range of skills that they don’t teach in law school. And we built a curriculum in partnership with leaders in a variety of disciplines—grassroots organizers and people with direct experience, but also journalists, storytellers, and poets.

Soon after COVID struck, I decided that the demand was too high and this work was too important not to do full time. That’s how Zealous was formed. We’re independent, we’re growing and working on a range of issues with an extraordinary amount of amazing partners.

NPPJ: One of those partnerships with Texas Jail Project and Civil Rights Corps led to Shedding Light, a series that provides an inside look inside Texas jails during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us more about that project and its importance.

SH: Shedding Light is a first of its kind digital archive of the cruelty of pretrial caging in Texas during COVID with the goal to end pretrial caging. Over 100 letters and visualizations of audio recordings from 90 witnesses of their experiences were shared with Texas Jail Project. We joined forces with them and Civil Rights Corps to code the witness statements and then create an engaging online experience for people to hear directly from those hidden away.

One principle early on in COVID that became very clear is that defenders and other advocates who weren’t directly impacted talking about the brutal conditions that the people, who they knew and were representing, were facing inside jails and prisons, wasn’t doing the trick. The data—no matter how horrifying it was of people who were getting sick and dying behind bars—wasn’t changing policy.

And it occurred to us more than ever we need to connect the people with direct experience folks who are currently incarcerated, their loved ones or people who are otherwise impacted by the system outside of jails and prisons, directly to lawmakers, directly to the general public, directly to journalists.

It was hard before COVID because of administration, jail bars, prison walls. But given our relationships with all these incredible folks on the ground who had built relationships of trust with people on the inside, we thought we might have the ability to make that happen.

And so Shedding Light was ultimately a product of thinking of how we could leverage relationships, trust, design, art and communication strategy, as well as technology, to accomplish the goal of connecting people who are meant to be hidden away from those on the outside. How can we break down those walls?

Since launch, several media outlets have reported on various experiences shared from the project, but the most recent story in The Appeal on the brutal treatment of caged pregnant women may have been both the most upsetting and powerful. Most recently, these stories shared and made more visible to the general public and lawmakers were instrumental in supporting the recent successful local effort to kill an effort to expand pretrial caging.

Read more: An Inside Look at Texas Jails During the COVID-19 Pandemic

NPPJ: You mention a narrative that’s been driven largely by law enforcement for decades—more laws, harsher punishments equal public safety—but there’s a big push against that narrative now, whether through organizations like your own or by advocacy groups. How do you keep that fight and momentum going? 

SH: It’s an all-hands-on-deck, all-strategies-on-deck, all-messengers-and-voices-on deck fight. Right now, all across the United States, there is a push and a pull, a contraction between those fighting to keep that narrative and the folks pushing for transformation. Some might call it radical transformation, but it’s not “radical.” It’s literally the most rational and reasonable way forward—and the definition of insanity is knowing something is not working and yet choosing over and over again to do the same thing.

What we’re seeing is a move toward transformation around the country in the form of forward-thinking prosecutors, legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of controlled substances and pre-trial decarceration. And the sign that we’re on the right track is that we’re seeing those pro-carceral forces that have operated largely unchallenged over the last half century now really on the defensive.

It does feel like there is this momentum. When you see things like state leaders limiting local city and county officials in their discretion to do right, or you see kind of reactionary candidates like we just saw in Philadelphia in Carlos Vega running against Larry Krasner and fortunately losing in dramatic fashion, it means we’re doing something right. The fact that these conversations that we’re having are even viable, the fact that more philanthropists than ever before are focusing on criminal justice as a civil rights issue and not being scared to go beyond the “easy stuff” like non-violent drug crimes. What we’re seeing is a sign that we’re making great gains in the goal of shifting the narrative, which ultimately leads to true policy and legal changes.