When Jasmine Sankofa was growing up in Long Beach, California, raised by a teenage mother, she had no idea what a lawyer did.

Sankofa’s experience with law and the criminal justice system was associated with visiting her grandfather in jail — he had cycled in and out of penal institutions for years.

As a student activist at UC San Diego, she witnessed the power that lawyers wield when she and other students met with high-ranking University of California administrators to address the school’s lack of student diversity and the hostile campus climate. The meeting was held during the Black Winter of 2010, a reference to several racist events at the time, including the infamous Compton Cookout — a party held by UCSD students, many of them white fraternity members, to mock Black History Month.

During those discussions, Sankofa got her first glimpse of lawyers in action. “I never thought about going to law school before,” she said. “But just seeing people with law degrees and their ability to dictate what we as students could and could not do catapulted me into considering the law as a career.”

To address what she sees as human rights violations in the U.S., Sankofa has been using the power and skills she acquired at UCLA Law to research, write and advocate for criminal justice policies and reforms. Essentially, she is trying to change the way people think about criminal punishment and commonly held stereotypes about people in jail.

“Detaining people before they go on trial is a human rights issue, and there are international human rights standards that speak to that,” said the UCLA alumna. “We’re supposed to use pretrial incarceration as a means of last resort. But we’re holding people in jail prior to a conviction simply because they can’t afford to get out.

“When you see people in cages who have been cast aside, who have been cut off from their children, who are trying the best they can — it’s very emotional,” she continued. “After years of being on the inside, all they want is their freedom. And at the end of the day, you have yours.”

“Jasmine is a powerful advocate and a truly amazing human being,” said Tendayi Achiume, a UCLA Law professor and the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

“She is one of the most inspiring people I know, because she combines a sharp mind with genuine passion and a fearless commitment to racial and gender justice. The world needs more lawyers like her. Honestly, it was a privilege to have her as a student.”

Choosing a path to bring about systemic change

The first in her family to go to college, Sankofa charted a nontraditional legal path that would not center on the courtroom. She found her passion in legal scholarship, policy advocacy and human rights issues.

As a UCLA law student, she specialized in critical race studies and public interest law and policy, working at three legal clinics and interning at several organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services in Cape Town, South Africa. All the while, she held jobs to pay her bills, wrote law review articles and continued her campus activism, pushing for diversity and the establishment of an international and comparative law specialization at the law school.

With her law degree in hand, Sankofa joined the Women’s Law & Public Policy Fellowship Program at the Georgetown University Law Center, where she worked on changing policies that harm sex workers and people who use drugs. She mapped out strategies to end the criminalization of sex work and the possession of hypodermic syringes, and she pushed to expand access to naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

Working with service organizations and advocacy groups, she helped build a coalition to decriminalize sex work, met with legislative staff and conducted “know your rights” trainings.

Sankofa has spent the last two years as an Aryeh Neier Fellow for Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, talking to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers who are in danger of losing custody of their minor children while awaiting trial. In jail because they can’t afford bail, many have no way of knowing whether family court hearings or custody proceedings are scheduled.

In Oklahoma, for example, more women are incarcerated per capita than any other state. Sankofa wrote a bill, introduced in 2019, that would have required a judge to consider whether the defendant is the primary caregiver of children or a family member with special needs when setting bail or sentencing a defendant. Judges would have been required to release such defendants pretrial on their own recognizance or sentence them to an alternative to jail.

Although passed by the House, the bill never reached a final vote. Yet Sankofa’s extensive report — documenting the harm suffered by mothers of minor children who are entering or leaving pretrial detention in Oklahoma jails — is still being used to push for reforms.

Her work to change policies that impact women of color and LGBTQ people can be emotionally draining. “It can weigh on you,” she said, “but I am always inspired by their resilience.” Luckily, she has the support of her husband, who was formerly incarcerated and is now a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, and her mother, who went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s to become a marriage and family therapist.

As she contemplates what’s next, her calling continues to be keeping families together and people out of jail. “I want to help transform a system that directly impacted me and my family,” Sankofa said.