Premal Dharia, the founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative, is joining Harvard Law School as the inaugural executive director of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration. Formerly a public defender and civil rights attorney, Dharia has spent the last two decades fighting against injustice in the criminal system. She will bring the work and strategies of Defender Impact Initiative with her to the new Institute.
Co-led by its executive faculty director, Professor Andrew Manuel Crespo ’08, the Institute’s mission is to end mass incarceration in the United States. To do so, it will combine a movement-centered, action-oriented organizing and advocacy program with a bold and ambitious innovation institute. A unifying theme of the Institute’s work will be helping to build widespread community power to promote the radical democratization of the criminal legal system.
The Institute will work to reimagine the role law schools and lawyers can play in challenging the carceral state. This includes developing novel strategies and advocacy with the guidance of, and which center the lived experience of organizers, activists, and those directly impacted by the system. Recognizing the importance of making space for a new generation of leaders, the Institute will draw together organizers, scholars, activists, policymakers, lawyers, and students who are committed to new approaches to ending mass incarceration and to undoing the effects of decades of unjust criminal laws and policies.
For nearly fifteen years, Dharia worked on the criminal legal system’s frontlines, representing individual clients as a public defender, first as a trial and supervising attorney at the nation’s leading public defense office in Washington, D.C., then at the federal public defender in Baltimore, and finally at the military commission in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After nearly a decade and a half representing individual clients, Dharia leveraged her substantial expertise toward the broader fight for systemic justice as the Director of Litigation for Civil Rights Corps.
In 2019, Dharia started building a new organization to incorporate public defender advocacy into the broader push for systemic criminal justice change. She was a Criminal Justice Fellow at the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the Women Donors Network, which supported the launch of the Defender Impact Initiative (DII) and Dharia’s investigation into the intersection of reflective democracy and the criminal system. Through DII, Dharia has worked to reimagine the role of public defenders as systemic change agents.
“Premal Dharia is the perfect person to co-lead this exciting new project,” Crespo said. “I could not imagine a more thoughtful, more experienced, or better partner in this essential and exciting work and could not be more thrilled that she is coming on board. Harvard is lucky to have her.”
Dharia echoed these sentiments. “I am so thrilled to build and lead, along with Professor Crespo, this new Institute, and to meld the work of DII into it. This Institute will break new ground. It is unique, bringing together the experience of seasoned advocates, organizers and movement leaders with new, innovative ideas. I’m honored to have the opportunity and eager to get started.”
The Institute to End Mass Incarceration will fully launch at the end of this academic year, in the early summer of 2021.