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Office Hours with Professor Babe Howell

March 20, 2018

Professor Babe Howell has been teaching Criminal Law, Trial Advocacy, Criminal Procedure, and Lawyering at CUNY Law for nearly nine years, work she approaches with a focus on the reality behind criminal law and our legal system – particularly the racial and class disparities. When not teaching, the self-proclaimed luddite can typically be found reading.


Professor Babe Howell with students

Professor Babe Howell, left, with members of the Class of ’18 in Albany last spring lobbying for education rights

If we asked you to pen your own introduction, what would you add to the “standard faculty intro” to give us the really important stuff?

When I went to law school, it seemed to me that my professors thought our system was good or even great. They may have been highly critical of the system but they shielded their views from the class. I try to be transparent about decisions that I find painful, dishonest, or distasteful. I also try to be egalitarian — my opinions are just those — and I encourage students to learn from and educate each other.

I love to mentor students and junior colleagues. I get this mentoring gene from both parents. My father is a black man who served in the segregated military during WWII, went from international development work into business, and has always helped minorities (whether women or people of color) to succeed. My mother learned programming and went back to work in her 40s to help put their five children through college, and she protected and nurtured those she eventually supervised. The two of them opened their home to refugees, foreign students, and others in need of help and are among the most social people I know.

My only real hobby is reading but I do it all the time.

What’s new and exciting in your clinic this semester?

My whole clinic is new and incredibly exciting. This year, we have paired Criminal Trial Advocacy with the Student Advocacy Project – a clinic representing Queens primary and secondary school students (K-12) in superintendent suspension hearings. CUNY 2Ls get to study and practice trial skills in the context of criminal cases, but then see those skills in action as they assist parents and kids in superintendent suspension hearings. The class is very demanding but goes right to the core of CUNY Law’s educational mission. I’m co-teaching the linked classes with alumna and Skadden Fellow Annemarie Caruso ’17, who is a former teacher and is engaged in a larger project to reduce punitive responses to children in schools in Queens. It’s wonderful and exhausting experimenting with Annemarie and the 2Ls in Trial Advocacy/SAP to juggle both simulations and suspension hearings.

Do you have any alumni in your inbox right now?

I have an email folder just for communications from alumni and love to hear from them!

I collaborate regularly with Anthony Posada ’12 who was a 1L in my lawyering seminar in the fall of 2009, my first semester at CUNY.  Anthony works at the Legal Aid Society and, after a few years in the criminal trial division, is now one of the leaders of the Community Justice Unit at Legal Aid. Like me, he is working with community groups to gain transparency on the ways in which the NYPD has moved from collecting data via stop-and-frisk, to collecting data based on allegations of gang and crew affiliation.

New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey ’12 (also a member of that first, fabulous lawyering seminar), had both Anthony and me to meetings to discuss his proposed criminal discovery reforms.  Jamaal also made time to join the Community Forum on gang raids in Bronx Eastchester Gardens last fall.

Sabina Khan ’13 stopped by to judge oral arguments and to inspire my current trial advocacy class last week. Sabina and a cabal of CUNY Law grads (Lauren Curatolo, Madeleine Portas) and others were responsible for bringing writs that prevented NYPD and NYC Departmentt of Corrections from incarcerating individuals on ICE detainers alone.

It was terrific to see the inseparable Jory Charles ’13 and Shawn Cohen ’13 honored at the Pipeline for Justice party last December.

I do get LinkedIn requests from students I love to hear from, including one from Dalourny Nemorin ’14 just this week, but haven’t succumbed to that platform yet. So email or call!

It’s Women’s History Month. What’s top of mind for you right now?

Every month, at the top of my mind, is the disproportionate targeting of people of color for conduct that is not policed in more privileged communities. I’m grateful that many women and allies are fighting the many injustices women face in our society but almost no other legal academic is questioning the mass surveillance and labeling of our youth, so I cannot shift focus in March.

If you could recruit anyone to guest lecture in your class, who would it be – and what would they talk about?

Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’d talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. I’m a geek and I think even lawyers – especially lawyers – need to understand science and need to be very curious. We won’t achieve justice following the rules that have given us a society that reproduces inequality in every generation. I try to encourage my students to think beyond the law that they see in the books and I’ve no doubt that Neil deGrasse Tyson would inspire us to do that. (To be clear, I don’t claim to understand astrophysics yet, but I like talks that push you far beyond what you know and even what you typically think about.)

Some of the best guests I’ve had have been those touched most harshly by the criminal justice system. Without choosing among them, many former gang members, convicts, and community activists are doing incredible work with vulnerable kids as credible messengers around the city and across the country to help them avoid the system and violence. I don’t care all that much about getting big names in criminal justice – we can read their books and articles or hear them on podcasts – but those who are doing the complicated work within communities are the best examples for our students.

The people can’t get enough True Crime – from podcasts to documentaries to the American Crime Story series, folks are eager to get the narrative behind the scenes of a case. If you could bring one case to the public, what would it be?

I’m working on that “one case” now and it’s taking the initial form of a rather dry report. I’m unpacking the results of the prosecutions that flow from the mass gang raids that the NYPD and state and local prosecutors have made in Harlem and the Bronx. Journalists are currently creating documentaries and podcasts to highlight particular stories but data complements these individual accounts.

Before teaching, did you have any other jobs or experiences that might surprise us?

I’m pretty much the typical CUNY Law person. I grew up wanting to do social justice work; I did social justice work before law school, and I kept doing it after law school. I did deliver newspapers beginning when I was 12 and opened a newspaper/stationery store on summer mornings at 6 a.m. when I was about 15. I sold a lot of cigarettes along with the Post, the Daily News, and the New York Times.

Do you have any morning rituals?

I set my coffee maker to go off about 15 minutes before I need to wake up, so I wake to the smell of coffee slightly before my alarm goes off.  I’m usually so busy during the day that I have no time for my gang policing and prosecution research. I’m trying to make it a habit to do gang research (now poring through a 10,000 page trial transcript) with my first cup of coffee, before turning to the New York Times, NPR, BBC, and the Washington Post for the news. After that, I’m done for the day with coffee and don’t get a chance to look at the news again until evening.

What can’t you let go of? Is there anything that holds you enthralled, that you want to keep on people’s radar, or that is keeping you up at night?

The gang stuff keeps me up twenty-four/seven. But I’m getting redundant.

I worry a lot about the fact that people never ever unplug. I guess that I’m a luddite but I think being quiet and thinking when alone, and being engaged and listening when with other people are important.

Do you have any favorite places on or around campus?

For the 10-minute get-away – there’s often a great exhibit in the small public gallery on the ground floor of the Citibank building. I walk through it whenever I’m headed to the 7 train or on a walk in the neighborhood. Most recently they’ve had fabulous photography exhibits and it’s always empty.

What’s one question you wish more students would ask you?

I actually encourage my students to ask questions of each other and of themselves (“put it on TWEN” will ring familiar to my students). We need to construct knowledge, work together as peers and colleagues, and particularly struggle to understand perspectives that are different from ours if we are to improve our world. If the prior generation had all the answers, things would already be fixed.








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