When Forbes contacted Daniel Harawa, ’09, to let him know they were honoring him, he was surprised and humbled. To be named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for law and policy was not something an appellate lawyer for the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office expected.
“It was a thrill,” Harawa said. “I’m just glad that you can do this type of work and be honored by someone like Forbes. So much of what public defenders do across the country gets undervalued or overlooked.”
Harawa works on the public defender’s appellate team and collaborates with trial lawyers when presenting the constitutional issues often at play during an appeal.
When he argued his first case a month out of law school, he was only provisionally licensed to practice and found himself in front of a nine-judge en banc panel at the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals. His case was asking the court to overturn its own 140-year-old precedent that had established a prohibition on people with mental illness entering into contracts.
"It was terrifying,” Harawa said. “I don’t recommend starting your law career that way.”
Nonetheless, Harawa was successful. The precedent was overturned, and the system shifted for the better as a result.
Harawa said he always wanted to be a lawyer. While at Richmond, he spent four years researching juvenile justice issues and alternatives to incarceration as a research assistant to associate professor emerita Joan Neff. Through a Burhans Civic Fellowship awarded by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, he helped set up the first Virginia Victims Assistance Academy. After law school at Georgetown University, he clerked for Judge Roger Gregory of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. And he completed an externship with the public defenders’ service of Washington, D.C., which helped him find his passion within the field of law.
It’s not a politically popular job, Harawa said, but that makes him want to do it more. The job gives him perspective on the type of reforms he’d like to see: changes to how we conceptualize punishment and treat offenders.
Harawa first meets his clients on the back end of the conviction process. There are a lot of pressures against reversing a conviction. Public defenders also work in a politically charged area of law given the outside pressures of a prosecutorial instinct to be tough on crime, the war on drugs, and other social factors that value law and order over the human costs of prosecuting crime.
“There’s more than just punishment at play when we’re dealing with someone who has violated the law,” Harawa said. “I’d like for us to think of more than just incarceration as a solution. The toll of being prosecuted is something we underestimate. You see cases where you wonder whether prosecutorial discretion was best used.”
The majority of Harawa’s clients are African-American men, and he is aware of the systemic inequalities he sees all the time on the back end of the justice process. In that environment, Harawa said, it’s critical to take into account factors that intersect with the criminal justice system, like mental health, substance abuse, poverty, and racial bias in law enforcement.
He counts his office as one of the luckier ones around the country. It has more resources and smaller caseloads that allow him to focus on the best work he can provide to clients. He stays hopeful because of the time and presence he can give his clients.
“Being somebody’s advocate at one of the most difficult times of their lives inspires me to continue doing the work I do,” Harawa said, “with the hope that I can help shift the law in a way that brings the justice system into balance.”