Hope, Justice, & Freedom: How Brittany Barnett is Changing the Criminal Justice System

24 July, 2020

Katie Wolf

Katie Wolf


Brittany K. Barnett was a successful accountant for an international firm. She switched to law and became a rising star in the corporate legal world, but something along the way moved her into a very different path.

She threw herself into pro bono work to free those serving life behind bars for non-violent offenses. Along with her colleague, MiAngel Cody, she has freed dozens of people. Seven of her clients received clemency from President Obama. Kim Kardashian West learned about her work and lobbied President Trump to free another client: a 63 year-old grandma (an ordained minister) who had already served 21 years behind bars for a drug offense.

But those are just the higher-profile moments of the years she spent in grueling labor to get people free. The American Bar Association has named Brittany as one of America’s outstanding young lawyers. Her story is shared in her forthcoming book, “A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom.” It’s part spell-binding legal drama and part emotional coming-of-age story. Van Jones has called it “an essential book of our time.”

Learn more about Brittany’s important work in this episode of the Filevine Fireside. Watch out for her new book releasing this September, and consider donating to the Buried Alive Project to help Brittany drive meaningful reform in the criminal justice system.


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Full Transcript


Katie Wolf:

Imagine that in only 90 days you are able to liberate 17 people from prison. Imagine these people were each serving life sentences without parole due to non-violent offenses. And imagine you didn't stop there, but continue to dedicating your life to "picking locks on human cages." Welcome to The Filevine Fireside. I'm Katie Wolf and today's guest is Brittany K. Barnett. Brittany Barnett was a successful accountant for an international firm. She switched to law and became a rising star in the corporate legal world, but something along the way moved her into a very different path. She threw herself into pro bono work to free those serving life behind bars for non-violent offenses. Along with her colleague, MiAngel Cody, she has freed dozens of people. Seven of her clients received clemency from President Obama. Kim Kardashian West learned about her work and lobbied president Trump to free another client, a 63 year old grandma, an ordained minister who had already served 21 years behind bars for a drug offense.

But those are just the higher profile moments of the years she spent and grueling labor to get people free. The American Bar Association has named Brittany is one of America's outstanding young lawyers. Her story is shared in her forthcoming book, A Knock at Midnight, A Story of Hope, Justice and Freedom. It's part spellbinding legal drama and part emotional coming of age story. Van Jones has called it an essential book of our time. Brittany K. Barnett is a star and I'm definitely feeling star struck today. Brittany, thank you so much for talking with.

Brittany K Barnett:

Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Katie Wolf:

You were only a law student when you encountered the case of Sharanda Jones. This is part of the story that you share in your book, but can you give us a little bit of that background and what the experience taught you about the criminal justice system?

Brittany K Barnett:

As you mentioned, I was a CPA and so I just knew when I went to law school that I was going to use that background to climb the corporate ladder and corporate law. But I've always been pretty passionate about the criminal justice system. I was very fortunate to have landed a job, my two L year for after law school. After that, I just started taking whatever classes I was interested in. I took a class, Critical Race Theory, SMU here in Dallas. In that class, we analyzed the intersection between race and the law. I was going to write my paper about the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine and how that disproportionately impacted people of color, in particular black people.

Brittany K Barnett:

But during that time, my mom had just gotten out of prison and I really wanted to use that paper not only to analyze the law and how it intersects with race, but also to just show the human element. I wanted real stories. I grew up in rural east Texas, and there was a childhood friend of mine, Kian Mitchell. He had received life in federal prison for drugs at 23 years old. It just rocked our community, but we kind of thought, okay, that's just rural east Texas justice. This case is an anomaly. I knew I wanted to educate my law school class about his case, but I wanted a woman too, because I had experienced maternal incarceration. I literally kid you not, I just did a Google search. I think I searched in woman life sentence federal prison, and this video of Sharanda Jones popped up.

Brittany K Barnett:

I was just so drawn to her case. I just saw so much of myself in her of being just a black woman from the south and not knowing that these life sentences were handed out beyond the Kion Mitchells of the world. I just became obsessed with our case. It tugged at my soul.

Katie Wolf:

It took several years, but you kept working at it. I guess, most people, when you have to write a paper for a class, you write a paper, maybe you find a really good story like that and write a really great paper. But most people don't then dedicate years of their life to pro bono work to actually get someone free.

Brittany K Barnett:

It took years, as you mentioned. I started really educated myself about her case in law school and the journey was just frustrating on how the law was just not in our favor. As lawyers, it blows my mind how we are forced to work within the bounds of laws that are outside the bounds of moral consciousness. Everywhere I turn, the law just was not in her favor or the law had changed, but it wasn't retroactive. Or she passed her statute of limitations to get back in. I mean, there was just hurdles everywhere.

Brittany K Barnett:

It took several years to the point that I graduated law school, went to practice corporate law, and I was working on her case pro bono on the side. It got to the point where was had to acknowledge there was absolutely no way Sharanda Jones was going to get out through the court. That's when we decided to start pursuing executive clemency from the president. President Obama was in office at the time and clemency just wasn't cool back. It was before he announced his huge clemency initiative. Clemency was rarely granted but it was the only option that was left. It took several years, almost a little over six years actually.

Katie Wolf:

Then, you didn't stop there. You helped found the Buried Alive Project and kept going. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what you've been able to do?

Brittany K Barnett:

In 2016, I became heavily involved in volunteering and helping lawyers represent people pro bono in Obama's clemency initiative. It was a huge initiative to help bring a sense of fairness to the justice system as it relates to crack cocaine offenses. I got to the point where I'm like, "Okay, I can't do this in corporate law." I was working till 10 o'clock at night a lot of times. There are mergers and acquisitions and working on these cases in the wee hours of the night. So, I resigned.

Brittany K Barnett:

I resigned from corporate law in 2016 to try to help get as many people as possible out of prison while president Obama was still in office and Sharanda Jones was one of them. Corey Jacobs was another of them, who was serving life for drugs. We worked really hard. A lot of people were freed. Then, in January of 2017, it was time I had to stop and was like, "Okay, Obama is gone. What do I do now? What have I done?" I've left my job. I started talking to Sharanda and Corey Moore. A I have very special bonds with my clients and I could hear the survivor's remorse in their voices of how they left behind so many people who were just as deserving to be free as they were. I knew I couldn't just leave this population of people behind.

Brittany K Barnett:

We decided to co-found the Buried Alive Project together. The Buried Alive Project, we're a nonprofit and we provide legal representation and free people serving life sentences for federal drug offenses. We worked also in the policies that put them there. We chose this particular population because Sharanda and Corey were serving life. I think what's important for people to know is that there is no parole in the federal system. A life sentence is a fundamental death sentence for drug offenses.

Brittany K Barnett:

When I think of life, when I think of federal drug conspiracy, before I became knowledgeable about the issue, I would think of large international drug trafficking cartel. That's not what's happening here in America. You have people getting fundamental death sentences for crimes that we're not going to sugar coat that; what we're arguing is that a life sentence is truly grotesquely disproportionate to the crime. We chose this population of people because I think people with life sentences are just often ignored. They're often left out of any relief in the law because others are looking at them kind of the same way. They got life. They must have been these major drug traffickers.

Brittany K Barnett:

It's a small group of people. It's about 1,600 people in federal prison. I mean, life for drugs. But we really want to work to just create a movement of lawyers that are helping to litigate this issue. Really show the power of lawyering. When I look at the current state of the world today and this country in particular, lawyers, we could be doing a lot more. I truly feel that progressive lawyering is a form of modern day activism. I feel that there is a moral failure of lawyers in America to just help change the discourse.

Katie Wolf:

One of the hashtags that I've seen with the Buried Alive Project is we free us. That hit me really powerfully because often even when lawyers are engaged in a progressive project, they often will swoop in as a savior figure to do something nice for someone else or even save someone's life. It's super, super powerful, but it doesn't carry that mindset of the community itself working toward its own liberation. I want to know if you have any thoughts about how lawyers can incorporate that aspect into the work that they do?

Brittany K Barnett:

I feel that, as Charles Hamilton used to say, "Every lawyer should be a social engineer for justice. Every lawyer should be a civil rights attorney." We have knowledge. I was a corporate lawyer. I still feel like an imposter litigating. But I did it. I work with corporate lawyers every day, even now that we're working, we're training them to take on these cases pro bono and we can do it. I think lawyers just having the mindset to know that a lot of the racial injustice we see today is due to racial bias embedded in the law and we are gatekeepers of that law. We often blame the police a lot. We often blame members of Congress a lot for passing these laws. But there's never any accountability on the lawyers or prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges. More than half of the Senate are attorneys. We just have to find it within us to know that we have the power to reconstruct the laws that are in place today that are so very oppressive.

Katie Wolf:

Now, someone listening to you might think, so you had this great, great job you were doing. You were rising through the ranks in corporate law. And you left it behind to found a non-profit. I've read elsewhere that a lot of places won't fund nonprofits that are providing "direct service" like you do. Do you have any encouragement or ideas for people who are maybe just a little too scared to take that sort of plunge?

Brittany K Barnett:

Yes, of course. Start with what you have, where you are. Everyone doesn't have to leave their jobs to help. I was a corporate lawyer for several years and helped free several people even as a corporate lawyer. I think many law firms, many state bars encourage pro bono work. That pro bono work, it can look different. It doesn't always have to be helping our friend form an LLC. It doesn't always have to be helping our friends put together wills and transfer real estate. That pro bono work can also look like volunteering at your local volunteer programs, helping with domestic violence and family law issues, traffic tickets, getting people out of prison. You don't have to leave your job.

Brittany K Barnett:

In fact, I thoroughly enjoy working with lawyers who are still at firms because they have a lot of resources that they can bring in that my little nonprofit just doesn't have. We've been successful in freeing a lot of people, but if we had 250,000 more dollars, we could do a hundred times more good. We can leverage those funds to, for every dollar donation we receive could turn into $5 of pro bono support, because we would have the capacity to train more lawyers who were doing whatever it is that they do and are passionate about. But there's always room and I would encourage lawyers to find that room, to do whatever it is.

Brittany K Barnett:

It doesn't have to be take a whole case. It could be just helping with some research or it could be helping your firm get other lawyers involved with the issue or your solo practice. There's always something that could be done and it doesn't always have to be leaving your job and starting a nonprofit. While I have a nonprofit, I also have for-profit endeavors because we have to have economic liberation as well. But with the nonprofit, like I said, I think that there are partnerships and synergies and alliances with firms and lawyers and all various practices to really contribute, to do the right thing, as it relates to social justice.

Katie Wolf:

Since you mentioned some of your for-profit work, I would love to ask you about the social impact investing that you do. Could you explain a little bit what that is and why it's important to you?

Brittany K Barnett:

Throughout this freedom journey, I say I helped save my clients' lives, but throughout it all they were helping to save mine. Each of my clients has taught me something about myself that money just cannot buy. Some of my clients have been the most brilliant people I've ever met in my life. This country is lacking of so much human potential. As I continue to do the work, I discovered that my definition of freedom was evolving. Freedom is much more than getting people out of prison. As I said before, we need economic liberation. I've learned that we can't keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to poverty. We have to have systems in place and opportunities available for them.

Brittany K Barnett:

With the investing that I do, for example, I've recently invested in a trucking company that was founded by a formerly incarcerated person. He hires people who were directly impacted by the system. That, to me is, is social investing. I love to see that. I love to be able to power entrepreneurs because in a twisted way, perhaps, but if you think about it and you take away the illegal product, drug dealers are entrepreneurs. A lot of them have the skills that are necessary to flourish. But they were in survival mode because of oppressed conditions and poverty. When you're in survival mode, your mind just isn't, it doesn't even have the capacity to think through how can I flourish? You don't have the opportunity or the resources.

Brittany K Barnett:

I have clients who have tech ideas. Ideas about apps they want to start to help people. I mean, using psycholinguistics, things I knew nothing about until they taught me from behind bars. But there's not many people, I would almost say probably hardly anyone in Silicon Valley, that's giving a million dollars to someone who just got out of prison for their tech idea. It should be. People can raise $400 million for tech that doesn't even work. Then, we can hardly raise money to get people out of prison, let alone to help them flourish and, and cultivate their entrepreneurial spirits.

Brittany K Barnett:

There just needs to be a paradigm shift. I'm hopeful that my investments can really help people flourish, but also help other people see this is a truly unique community of formerly incarcerated people that really has some tremendous ideas. Some that could even change the world. They just need for people to believe in them and to invest in them. I'm hopeful that we can see that transformation and paradigm shift in investing in this population of people. Not only investing, like I said, to get them free, but investing in cultivating their entrepreneurial spirits.

Katie Wolf:

As you're talking, I'm thinking about the recent revelations that Silicon Valley tech is re-entrenching racism into our societies. You have facial recognition software that mis-identifies black faces. Even soap dispensers that will only dispense for white hands because they never thought to product test them on black hands, and how this technology that's going to shape the future, if that can be created by the communities that are most marginalized and most oppressed, it could bake in liberation into the future instead. I think that's a fascinating work that you're doing.

Brittany K Barnett:

We just have to really just open hearts and minds and develop empathy. We know that this economy, our world, is tech driven. It's only going to be more so in the future. I mean, the things that are happening in Silicon Valley and in any tech hub, the artificial intelligence, is fascinating. It's going to shape our world. But you have, as you said, these products and these inventions that are going to shape our world, but we don't have a seat at the table. We, I mean, people of color, black people, black women, formerly incarcerated people, we don't have any say in shaping this future in tech that's going to deeply impact us.

Brittany K Barnett:

I have a friend of mine, he always says the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. They're just the furthest away from the power and the resources. With my investing and my corporate experience, coupled with my passion to transform the criminal justice system, I'm hopeful to be able to bridge that gap.

Katie Wolf:

Well, it's closest to the problem are closest to the solutions. That's a powerful idea. You've mentioned that your clients are facing, I think, to use the term grotesquely, disproportional punishment for what they have done. You also mentioned that the Buried Alive Project works on changing some of the policies that lock people up for life in the first place. What are some of your thoughts about the bigger policies that need to be changed? Some of the things that you've discovered throughout your work as a lawyer for folks that just those policies have to change.

Brittany K Barnett:

The main thing I've seen, and that should be at the heart of every discussion, is the human element. We have to understand and realize that people in prison are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters. It could be us if situations weren't different. For example, we work with organizations, many organizations that are policy driven. They write policy, they are in D.C., But they reach out to us at the Buried Alive Project for those human stories. That's a blessing because I'm so grateful that people are wanting to tell those stories that can really be used to help shape the law. Just looking at these stories and understanding that our laws are draconian and so some of the things we've been really pushing for I'll keep it at the federal level, which is where we work. For example, President Trump signed the First Step act in December of 2018.

Brittany K Barnett:

It's a great first step. There was one retroactive provision that we've been able to use to help free people. As lawyers, we've been able to use this limited piece of legislation to really litigate in the court and free people. But there were also three provisions in that bill that were great first steps, but they're not retroactive. For example, the Three Strikes Law. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but under Clinton, it was a big three strikes and you are out, which meant that if you had two prior drug felonies, your third one was a mandatory life without parole. No matter how old the two priors were, no matter what little quantity was there.

Brittany K Barnett:

My client Chris Young is a victim of the Three Strikes Law and his two priors were from when he was teenagers. One, he was 18 with six grams of crack one. One, he was 19 with less than 0.5 grams of crack. But the prosecutor in his sole discretion was able to enhance his federal offense based on these two priors and stuck him with a mandatory life sentence. The judge had no power in that situation. Prosecutor had more power than the judge. In Chris Young's case, Judge Kevin Sharp handed down a life sentence that he did not feel was appropriate, but his hands were tied by the law.

Brittany K Barnett:

Judge Sharp has resigned from the federal bench and now works with me to help free Chris Young. The irony about the First Step Act in Chris Young's case is that the First Step Act rolled back the Three Strikes Law. Now, there's no longer a mandatory life sentence in place and your two prior drug felonies have to have been serious. Meaning, you had to have gone to prison is one of the threshold. That means Chris Young is serving a life sentence today under yesterday's laws because that provision was not made retroactive.

Katie Wolf:

One powerful aspect of the work that you explore in your memoir is how your personal connection and your personal life story and experiences has shaped your ability to connect with your clients and to understand them and see them as full brilliant humans. I have to ask you, what do you think about a legal system that's so overwhelmingly white and male and from owning class backgrounds? Do you think that that really needs to fundamentally change before their clients can find justice?

Brittany K Barnett:

I think there needs to be a fundamental change, but I think there are things that can be done in the meantime. Just proximity, things are happening in our backyard that we don't see. As the great James Baldwin would say, "We don't see it because we don't want to see it." One of my heroes is Bryan Stevenson and in his book Just Mercy, he really goes deep into the power of proximity. No matter where we come from, we can always get proximate to suffering. We can always get proximate to people in prison.

Brittany K Barnett:

I have another, non-profit called Girls Embracing Mothers that for the past seven years, we've partnered with Texas Women's Prisons and taken girls to visit their moms in prison. One of the things I always encourage people around me to do when they say, "How can I help?" Come to me. Come with me. Come with me to the prison. Come with me to visit people who are incarcerated. I've had friends from very wealthy neighborhoods, wealthy families, go with me to the prison and they leave changed. One of my friends said, "Brittany, this was such a shattering experience for me. A stigma shattering experience for me because those women are just like me." She is such an amazing advocate for transforming the criminal justice system today. We have to get proximate, we have to get close.

Katie Wolf:

Maybe someone who grew up with a lot of privilege, maybe can't completely understand another person's story, but once you're close with someone, once you get that proximate connection, then you can empathize enough to really fight for them.

Brittany K Barnett:

Exactly. You realize your heart beats just the same.

Katie Wolf:

Beautiful. You do what I consider to be some of the most important work on the planet. You're literally liberating human beings. I want to ask you how you sustain your health and your energy as you do this work. If you have tips for others who might find themselves burning out or having difficulties.

Brittany K Barnett:

Yes, it is very challenging work and I am not the best at self-care and I'm getting better at it. I realized that self-care and caring for myself is a form of resistance and is radical. My co-counsel, MiAngel Cody, is another black woman from Chicago. We work hand in hand on several of these cases and she was my co-counsel on the 90 days of freedom and the 17 people we were free. Every Sunday, while we were doing the 90 days of freedom and we still do it today, we come up with a theme to meditate on, to keep our spirits lifted and to ensure we're protecting our energy. We meditate, we come out with themes to just keep us grounded, and that has been really helpful.

Brittany K Barnett:

That's been a really helpful to just have someone there that understands what's going on in your own body. Because we're putting our bodies on the line as we do this work, as we pick locks of human cages and do what we call as a liberation heist. That's been really helpful and so I just encourage people to know that the work that we're doing is revolutionary and self-care is revolutionary. We have to take care of ourselves to push forward because it's hard.

Brittany K Barnett:

Even as I talk to you today, Kate, I'm exhausted. With the current events of the world, it's just exacerbated that exhaustion. Then, I think of my clients that are set to die in prison. They check on me and they motivate me and they inspire me. Just keeping that in perspective, too, helps us and helps me to keep going.

Katie Wolf:

Your book, which is coming out on September 8th, the subtitle is A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. When I think about the war on drugs and the criminal justice system, those three words, hope, justice and freedom, aren't the first that come to my mind. Could you share what gives you hope?

Brittany K Barnett:

People that are directly impacted by the system, they give me hope. To know that Sharanda Jones had never gone to prison before. She'd never even been arrested or stopped for a traffic ticket before, and she finds herself set to die in prison for a drug offense. To know that she served 16 years and nine months of her life and she's the most positive person still to this day that I've ever met in my life. That gives me hope.

Brittany K Barnett:

Corey Jacobs served 18 years of a life sentence. He'd never been in any trouble before, either. He taught me to meditate from prison. We would meditate at the same time every day, me from my high-rise apartment in downtown Dallas and him in the depths of a maximum security prison in Indiana. It just is so freeing for me to be around people who have endured so much trauma and been victims of this wrong drugs for them to still be so positive and finding just the beauty. As we like to say, in Cory's whole theme of his life is he is living life after life. It's so beautiful. It's so beautiful and that gives me hope. Not just those. So have several other clients as well, who are free. Every time I talk to them, they're always just so happy. They're just happy to be free. As Ms. Alice Johnson, who you mentioned, she was just so happy when she got out to just walk barefoot in the grass.

Katie Wolf:

You also have a project called Milena Reign. Can you tell us a little bit about that and the power of story?

Brittany K Barnett:

With that project, I am working to really help give directly impacted people a platform to share their stories and cultivate their talents. There are some rich stories all across America, but even more so in the south. Being from the South and the rural South in particular, I just feel that our stories are often unheard or left out of national platforms. I just really want to help give people the resources and opportunity for storytelling.

Katie Wolf:

I'm thinking about that paper you wrote for your Critical Race Theory class and how I'm sure you had tons of statistics and all of the data, but you weren't satisfied until you had a personal story in there. The story of your soon to be client Sharanda Jones. What is your advice for attorneys in terms of how to tell their clients' stories in a way that's more powerful, more connected.

Brittany K Barnett:

Trying to put yourself in their shoes. I know that the power of storytelling helps us as lawyers every day in court, whether it's oral arguments, written briefs, clemency. There's an art in storytelling and being able to humanize your client is priceless. Being able to see yourself in your client is priceless. That comes from the proximity that we discussed, I fought for Sharanda's life as if it were my own, because it was. We are all one. To be able to see ourselves in our clients really goes a long way you when you start to articulate their story on paper in a persuasive way.

Katie Wolf:

Well, speaking of things articulated on paper in a persuasive way, I'm so excited for your book, A Knock at Midnight that is coming out here in September. We will link to that on the page with this podcast, as well as we'll link to the Buried Alive project and ways that you can donate to that. Do you have any final words of advice or actions that you would ask our listeners to take right now?

Brittany K Barnett:

Right now, especially given our current climate, I would just remind the listeners that there is nothing more urgent than freedom, and that freedom is liberation on many levels. Even myself, I found myself revisiting books and documentaries on Netflix. Ava DuVernay's The 13th Documentary is one of my favorites. It's so enlightening. James Baldwin's I Am Not Your Negro. Being able to just educate ourselves is adding this empowerment to people. I believe in adding empowerment to people to know that we, the people, we free us and that we can help transformative change.

Katie Wolf:

Brittany, I am so excited about the work you're doing. So grateful you took this time to talk with us. Please let us know how else we can support the work that you do.

Brittany K Barnett:

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.