By Leslie Brown, Department of Public Defense
As a young woman just out of college and well aware of institutionalized racism and its generational impact on black and brown people in America, La Rond Baker decided to use her degree to teach GED and Adult Basic Education classes at the King County Correctional Facility. Even so, she was struck by what she saw in the jail – by the stark racial disparities between the jail population and the general population of Seattle.
Two years later, La Rond went to work for Powerful Voices, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on developing young women’s social justice leadership and advocacy. There, she worked with young women in juvenile detention and again saw how various institutional systems – from education to foster care – failed young people in incredibly vulnerable positions.
Law school was the next logical jump, she said. “As much as I loved direct service and recognize its importance, I realized I wanted to use my skills to work for systemic and institutional change.”
Today, La Rond (the “d” in her name is silent) is the Department of Public Defense’s new special counsel for affirmative litigation and policy, where working to address systemic change is part of her job description. Though here less than two months, La Rond has already begun working in collaboration with DPD supervisors on the use of restraints at the Involuntary Treatment Act Court, on an amicus brief on jury pay, and on mental health and transgender issues at the King County jail. She’s representing a family in an inquest over a police shooting, helping to develop DPD’s new role in that process.
“There’s no shortage of issues to work on,” she said.
La Rond obtained her JD from the University of Washington in 2010. Shortly after law school, she became a staff attorney at ACLU of Washington, where she was lead or co-counsel on several high-profile cases and quickly developed a reputation as a thorough and aggressive litigator.
As an ACLU attorney, La Rond worked on two voting rights cases (Montes v. City of Yakima and Glatt v. City of Pasco), successfully challenging the cities of Yakima and Pasco for the way they were diluting the Latino vote. Shortly after a federal judge ruled in ACLU’s favor, three Latino candidates won seats on the Yakima City Council, a first in the city’s history.
She waged a successful battle on behalf of Muslim inmates at the Pierce County Jail who were being denied certain religious freedoms (Tarrer v. Pierce County). She tried the Trueblood case, along with Anita Khandelwal and several other attorneys, helping to successfully challenge the state’s failure to provide timely competency services to defendants ordered to receive mental health treatment.
She might have happily stayed at the ACLU for several more years, were it not for a watershed moment – President Trump’s travel ban. Inspired by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s determination to stand up to the Trump administration, La Rond saw that one could do meaningful and important work in government. “It was impressive. I had never thought of being a government attorney until that moment.”
Shortly thereafter, La Rond joined the Civil Rights Unit of the AG’s Office and continued to use her legal skills to effect change. One of her biggest cases was against GEO, the private company that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma (it recently changed its name to the Northwest ICE Processing Center), challenging GEO’s practice of paying detainees $1 day, instead of minimum wage, to perform work profiting the corporation. The case continues to move forward after a federal judge this month refused to dismiss it, the third such ruling.
However, since those days in the King County jail, La Rond continued to feel drawn to criminal justice work. Thus, when she learned that DPD was looking for a special counsel focused on litigation and policy, a position that would entail addressing systemic issues that keep poor people and people of color ensnared in the criminal legal system, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Addressing the failings of the criminal legal system is one of the greatest ways to address racial disparities, because involvement in the criminal legal system is what leads to exclusion from basic economic opportunities – from housing, from educational opportunities, from jobs. It also rips families and communities apart,” she said.
Throughout her career, her civil work has often overlapped with criminal defense. She’s glad to now be joining the fight. “This is the job I went to law school for,” she added. ”I’m excited to be here.”