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Reforming Criminal Justice, Law Degree in Hand


Deema Nagib is a woman on a mission.

Born in Dubai, she came to the United States to study psychology in 2010, and when she graduated from New York University in 2014, she set her sights on law school. Working with marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable populations had always appealed to her, and she felt that a law degree would be the best way to effect change on their behalf.

At the suggestion of a classmate, Nagib joined the student group Advocates for the Incarcerated in her first year at Fordham Law. The group revived a tradition of constructing a life-size mockup of a solitary confinement cell at the school and invited formerly incarcerated people to come talk about their experiences. Firsthand stories like these are critical, she said, in getting others to understand what conditions are like in prison.

“No matter how many times people hear about it or how many times you have the conversation, there will always be someone who needs to hear directly from the person who experienced it,” she said.

Nagib quickly realized that she wanted to work on criminal justice reform. She visited Rikers Island dozens of times last fall as part of an externship with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoner’s Rights Project. She and her colleagues presented workshops and educated incarcerated people on their rights. Nagib said this information is often not passed on by public defenders—a calling that she recently considered, and which she saw up close during a summer internship in New Orleans.

After graduation, Nagib will work with a program that serves people who have been charged with violent crimes and focuses on alternatives to incarceration. It aims to divert people who have been responsible for harm away from jail while being mindful  of survivor needs. The program promotes a racially equitable response to violence, Nagib said, and survivors approve of the approach about 90 percent of the time.

That’s because survivors of harm are pragmatic about what’s most likely to keep them safe, and they tend to understand that sending a person to jail won’t do that, she said. Rather, the incarcerated person will be traumatized, denied access to loved ones, and won’t have the wherewithal to accept accountability for their actions.

“Many people who have been harmed have also had family members or loved ones go to prison, so they know how much that breaks somebody. It’s a combination of pragmatism and a nuanced understanding of how the system works and who it targets,” she said.

What she’ll miss most about Fordham is the space that she and her classmates created for people who want to be challenged and challenge others about criminal justice reform. These difficult conversations are more important than “just patting ourselves on the back because we’re here doing public service work,” she said. “We need to consistently critique ourselves and the choices that we make, to think strategically about what we’re doing and whose voices we’re affirming and whose we’re not.”


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