Ana M. Bermúdez ’86, P’22 on social justice in the criminal justice system

This episode of the Women’s Voices Amplified podcast features a conversation with New York City Department of Probation Commissioner Ana M. Bermúdez ’86, P’22 on the essential link between criminal justice and social justice, how her experience at Brown shaped her, and the importance of using our voices.

Recorded in mid-April 2020—in a time of national reckoning around anti-Black racism and health disparities exposed by COVID-19—this conversation between Bermúdez and Women’s Leadership Council member Tanya Hernandez ’86, P’20 tackles such topics as prison reform during COVID and an examination of how our racial, gender, and sexual identities inform how we are perceived.

“To me, the work of criminal justice has to be the work of social justice. I wish I could rename our department the Department of Humanity because I think the criminal justice system, the way we’ve constructed it, really strips people of their humanity in many ways. We've done a lot of work in reshaping the work.”

After her graduation from Brown and then Yale Law School, Bermúdez began her professional career in family court with the Legal Aid Society. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Bermúdez and her mother had frequent conversations about creating a more equitable society. These ideals informed a 20-year career in law and justice, in which Bermúdez has always focused on strengths-based approaches to advocacy for children and teenagers.

The Women's Voices Amplified podcast features incredible women from all corners of the Brunonia ecosystem sharing their insights on the big questions of work, life, and living in today’s world.

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Ana M. Bermúdez ’86, P’22


New York City Department of Probation Commissioner Ana M. Bermúdez ’86, P’22 on the essential link between criminal justice and social justice.

Tanya Hernandez ’86, P’20: Welcome! Ana Maria Bermúdez, it's a delight to have you here on the podcast.

Ana M. Bermúdez ’86, P’22: Thank you.

Hernandez: As a commissioner of probation in New York State, did you find that there was greater political pressure on you with the public debate about releasing prisoners in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis?

Bermúdez: It's been interesting because it's provided us with another way to positively impact the system. Because we now are moving towards creating units for being able to use electronic monitoring, which we before had not done.

But now that it makes sense to do it, so that we can safely have people out of Rikers Island, in particular, and have them be able to be home, especially the people who had been sentenced to local jail time who can safely be supervised at home. We're starting to do that to alleviate some of the pressure on the jail system. That's added an opportunity for us.

In the juvenile field, we worked really closely with the law department, who are the prosecutors in family court and administration for Children's Services who oversee the detention facilities, we've gotten a lot of the young people out of the detention facilities as well. So, yes, there's been a lot of having to coordinate with other folks to make sure that we can do all of that safely.

Hernandez: Well, you know, as you describe it, it sounds very much to me that it's in keeping with your, sort of, social justice approach to the work as a commissioner. And, you know, of course, it reminds me of being at Brown, you know, the taking on a big job, but also taking it on with a social justice mission. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? About your social justice approach and how it connects to your former life at Brown?

Bermúdez: I think it all connects actually. Everything connects. To me, the work of criminal justice has to be the work of social justice. And so, for us, I joke around a little bit, but not really, I wish I could rename our department the Department of Humanity. Because I think the criminal justice system, the way we've constructed it, really strips people of their humanity in many ways.

And so, for us, it's been really important, we've done a lot of work in sort of reshaping the work. We've developed a bunch of taglines, if you will, that convey that message. When you get on probation, you get a folder for all your paperwork. In the front it says, “your new now.” So it's sort of the time, it's a stage of opportunity, we want it to be a stage of opportunity to find your way towards better sustainability for yourself and/or your family.

You know, infusing all of that in our case planning process, so that the case planning process is rooted in people's strengths and people's aspirations, right. It's an aspirational and future thinking process, rather than just a checklist of have you gotten arrested, are you going to work, are you going to school, are you, you know, and really have it be grounded in engagement. We're trying to embody the Bryan Stevenson approach of like, people should not be defined by the worst mistake they ever made, right.

And so, this could be your brother, your sister, your daughter, your cousin. And that's, when we're doing case reviews, we ask that. So like, if this were your brother or your sister, is this outcome what you would want? Like, what else would you try, right.

To try to get somebody reconnected to institutions, for example, that can help them out, like school and employment, and so on and so forth. So that's really critical, you know, to me. And I try to infuse it in every aspect of the work that we do.

Hernandez: As you describe it as like, the Bryan Stevenson approach, the author of "Just Mercy," and a huge proponent for having a humane understanding of how things should operate within the criminal justice system, trying to infuse justice into the criminal system.

I wonder whether your position that being, the first Latina, the first openly gay commissioner, whether these ideas have been met with more resistance or less resistance given your particular personal position as a sexual minority, a race minority, ethnic minority. I'm just curious of how that position has affected the social justice mission that you've always had to begin with.

Bermúdez: So, it's interesting because I'm kind of one of those people that just marches forward. And then when I have time to reflect I'm like, hm, I wonder if that particular situation was affected by my being a Latina, being, you know, gay, whatever. How it manifests itself mostly is that, I'm not the first person people think of interviewing for a news story, let's say. It's the other folks that tend to be male, et cetera, when you go to panels. Now at least we're getting Black men on panels, you know, and that's progress, right. But it's still, you see, when you look at criminal justice webinars, the voices of women are really not there. And I think part of it is because of a gendered view that if you're humane, or if you're whatever, and it's a man expressing it, wow, it's like the dad who is very involved, right. Brownie points, 'cause it's a guy.

And I'm gonna be blunt about it — if it's a woman, and it's soft on crime, and, you shouldn't say those things in public. I get a lot of advice, you know. When people ask me, what is it that gang members need, like an anti-gang initiative. Do you know what my response wants to be? Love, love. You know, and acceptance, and opportunities, and resources. And people look at me like, what is she saying? Whereas I have a former colleague, who is now leading an agency somewhere else, who is a fantastic person, he talks about that. And that is a very different absorption by the public, you know, from that. I get a little bit of benefit of the stereotype of lesbians being like, oh, the tough ones, because then people are like, oh, we may not wanna mess around with her. But I'm just an outspoken Puerto Rican, too. You know, (chuckling) so, that's all wrapped up in the package.

So I have to really think about what I'm gonna say before I say it a lot. Because of, I have to think, if this is coming from a woman, if this is coming from a Latina, it affects how the message is received, I think.

Hernandez: Was that, in some respects, familiar terrain for you, having already made many, many years before, as a young adult, the transition from coming from Puerto Rico to go to Brown University, you know, on the mainland, so to speak. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Bermúdez: You know, when I went to Brown, I came from Puerto Rico, a very sheltered environment. And in a place where, as much as there's, you know, of course, racial issues, and social justice issues, and whatever. You know, in Puerto Rico at the time, the constructs that were put forth about inequality indifference was socioeconomic analysis, for the most part, right. And coming to the US, it was a much more racial lens that looked into everything. And coming in, I never had had to sort of assert my Puerto Rican-ness. So I had to learn really fast (chuckling) about, you know, intersectionality. I wasn't out at Brown, so I was also exploring my sexuality, so it was all wrapped up in a lot of fun stuff, and difficult stuff. So, I had to learn a lot very fast about, okay, what am I really saying and how is this received based on the fact that it's coming from someone who looks and sounds and is like me.

So yeah, that education was from the get-go of coming to Brown definitely. And I had very good friends who, you know, were able to call me on stuff, as well as, “do you understand that comes from a very naive perspective about the world?” And so I'm like, I guess so, but, you know.

Hernandez: Well, you know, it's interesting that you describe it that way because I recall reading in the M.M. LaFleur article that profiled you, you mentioned that your mom in Puerto Rico was a real big influence on your ideas about social justice, even before getting to Brown. And so, I think it would be very illuminating for us to hear a little bit more about that for the people who didn't read the M.M. LaFleur article.

Bermúdez: When you Google me apparently that's one of the first things that comes up, it's a little, you know, a little embarrassing, 'cause it's out of my comfort zone. It's the one thing when people ask me, what have you ever done out of your comfort zone? That is it, that article. (laughing) But what's interesting is that, my mother's social justice, at the time that I was in Puerto Rico, I saw it very much as part of her religious ideology, right. You know, in terms of she's Catholic, we were raised Catholic. It was about, kinda how, she did have a commitment to social justice in the sense that she believed and instilled in us that we were all responsible for creating a better world for everybody. So that's kind of like, that was the grounding piece in many ways. And that you had to work towards improvement in people's lives, that that was the highest calling you could have in life. And if it was up to her, we would've been nuns and priests. But since that was not in the cards, you know, (chuckling) definitely dedicating your life to others was really important.

And the other piece that was also important that I have taken with me and has been a grounding piece in social justice and criminal justice is that you're no better than anybody and there's good in everybody. So those pieces really grounded me in the areas of study, in the types of work that I did, focusing on teenagers also, because they were, to me, a lot of times, the most marginalized group. When there was inequality, people didn't like to work with teenagers. You know, they were like, they're nasty, or whatever, and the little kids are great. You know, when you looked at where funding went to elementary school, the young people, and then the teenagers with potential. And to me, I couldn't abide by, "there are some kids who have no potential" — that was not okay. Because my parents always believed in me, always said, you could do whatever you set your mind to, but life doesn't really work that way for a lot of people.

So, I had to make sure, to me, that people who set their minds to something could do the “something” they wanted to do. And so, that's kinda the background there, I think.

Hernandez: Interesting. You know, when you mentioned earlier the, getting exposed and knowledgeable about issues of intersectionality and that raised for me the question as to this long professional career you've had in criminal justice, and trying to make the world a better place, and to give people a second chance, and to have them be viewed as human beings and treated accordingly, whether the intersectional position of the young women has been particularly problematic? I guess I've heard a little bit about this idea about adultification of young women of color. And I wondered how that or any other intersectionality plays out in what you've seen in criminal justice in the work you've been doing.

Bermúdez: It is all over the place. It is incredible. Because the treatment that young women get, God forbid they get arrested for fighting. I'm telling you. A lot of judges are male, right. And you've got this whole thing of, when boys get arrested for assault, the boys-will-be-boys kinda thing versus if a girl is aggressive, or whatever, they don't really care why. It kinda doesn't fit the stereotype of young women. And therefore, the more counter-stereotyped they are, the more gender nonconforming — I don't mean only in sexuality, but gender nonconforming in behavior, in attitude, in whatever it is. I think those young women faced harsher treatment in the system, for sure. I don't even have to tell you the disproportionality of young men of color coming in the system. And young women are the same thing, you know, in terms of, almost 100% girls of color.

We have a coalition in New York City, we're trying to work a lot for the younger crowd in the juvenile justice system to really try to end incarceration for young women, for teenage girls. You see it too in the types of crimes that come in. Sometimes because you get a lot of mother/daughter conflict that ends up in front of the police, unfortunately, a lot. And then they get arrested for, you know, certain acting out behavior. You also have young women who, their coping mechanism to conflict is to stay away from home for a few days. And that's their style of conflict management. And then they get the AWOLs, the repeated runaways, so then they end up getting locked up more. So the layers of responses to gender behavior in the system is quite significant.

Hernandez: Given the huge plate that you've got with all of these social justice issues in this position of yours as commissioner, what's a typical day like? I mean, 'cause that's a lot of fires to put out! (laughing)

Bermúdez: Everyday is different, obviously, there's no question about that. My position is an appointed position. At one point, I had to accept that if all I did was issue memos, or even tried to change practice through memos, or going out into the world and saying what probation should be like, and this and that, and I didn't spend a lot of time actually trying to change the day-to-day practice of a probation officer, it would be for naught. Because I'm gone and there go all the memos, right. So, because I also love to teach — I call myself a lawyer by profession and an educator by avocation — I have spent a tremendous amount of time actually directly training probation officers on the work. And when I came to probation, I was already trained in restorative justice practices, and motivational interviewing, and a bunch of stuff. So, I teamed up with our training unit. And I've done a lot of the trainings for the officers to really model what it looks like in real life, both in public and in whatever policy memos I write.

I'm usually in an office in the field and I meet with the various units, people who are, or hold office hours if you will, in the borough, walk around, meet people, talk to people, really ask them if what we're trying to do is challenging or not, what things they need to be able to do it, that kinda stuff. So, I think the most important part of my job, really, is to be really grounded with the day-to-day work of the probation officers. But that's really hard, too. Our agency's about 1,100 employees. So, the team that I have is phenomenal, phenomenal.

The good thing there, too, is that the two deputy commissioners for juvenile and adult are people who are homegrown from the department, so no matter what happens to me, they stay. The worst thing that can happen to them is a demotion because they have civil service titles and longevity and all that stuff. So they cannot be fired. And they're total champions of the work the way we're doing it. And so, I feel good about the potential end of my tenure here, with the end of [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio's tenure, that the department will continue in the same course that we've set it.

Hernandez: Another, sort of, question I wanted to ask you. In the work that you're doing with all this educating in the Department of Probation, are the vast majority of these civil servants women? I've always wondered about that. Just anecdotally, I've interacted with many more women probation officers than I have men, but that's not a random sample at all. And so, I'm just curious about that gender dynamic?

Bermúdez: Yeah, we have about, oh gosh, I used to know these numbers, I'm sorry. But slightly more than half women than men probation officers. But not a vast majority. What's interesting though is that when you look in the juvenile division, that dynamic changes completely. It's mostly women. We're always trying to transfer guys from adult to juvenile, trying to recruit more men into juvenile, because it's seen as women's work.

Hernandez: Mommy taking care of the children.

Bermúdez: Exactly. "Real probation work is with the adults." Mind you, our adults start at 16. Still even with the raise of the age, you know. But let's cut those out, 18 and up, the 18 to 24s, are just as teenager-ish as the ones who are younger, as you probably know from your son and my daughter. So it's not like it's that different. But it has a different...when we get new classes of probation officers, very few of the men say they’d rather be placed in juvenile.

Hernandez: Interesting. Has your approach to doing this work in criminal justice, because, you know, being commissioner didn't come overnight, you've been developing a professional expertise for quite some time. Did it at all change for you when you became a parent?

Bermúdez: Yes. I think having kids, in a way, validated the work that I'd been doing. Because I see, first of all, they're no different in many ways, you know. They have a privilege that a lot of the teenagers that I work with do not have. So given how their brains work, had they been here instead of there, they would've been in the same boat probably. People bring their own temperaments and whatnot, but social forces and economic forces create the issues that we see in the criminal justice system in ways that the system doesn't want to acknowledge or recognize. And so, that gets, I think, in the way of people exercising humanity in all of this. Because it's as if, were they really to want this, or not want to be in the system, they would be able to. So it's been an interesting connection between being a parent and the work that I do.

Hernandez:  I've been dwelling in a lot of the heavy issues, social issues of today. So to lighten things up a little bit, well, let's reminisce together. What are your fondest memories of Brown, or a favorite professor, you know, the good ol' days, when we actually were able to interact with people. (laughing) Closer than six feet.

Bermúdez: Well, Brown was, the campus was great. One of my favorite things was when professors moved the classes to the green, you know. I had never experienced change of seasons, so I hadn't realized that there was actually a bodily reaction and a psychological reaction to spring. And that was always fascinating. I loved it, I loved spring.

I majored in healthcare organization and policy. It was called then, health and society and then it had sub-concentrations. And now I think it's called something else completely. But Professor Monteiro, who I think is now the head of the whole thing, and Professor Fulton, were two people who were, you know, instrumental in my development. And Professor Fulton, in particular, when I went to Brown, I had never studied fully in English. Of course I knew English enough to be there. But my classes in Puerto Rico, some of them were, most of them were in Spanish and some, even though we used textbooks in English, shifted back and forth.

And so, especially around writing, I was, let's just say, less than confident in myself. But he saw something. He decided to recommend me for the writing fellows for my junior year. And I was shocked, I was like, what? Me? And based on that, I love editing, even my own work, which now is less intimidating. Because now I have this freedom that I just write and then you just edit, you edit, and edit, and edit, and then it becomes better. Or, you know, all I ask of my staff when I need to write a speech or whatever, is just give me a first draft and I'm good. So, there were things about myself that I discovered at Brown that were unintentional and that, you know, other people around me were really great about.

Also I took a comparative child psychology class. And it was one of the few Latina professors we had. Gosh, now I can't remember her name. But she was also somebody who greatly influenced my, you know, my interest in teenagers, and child development, and how we get to be who we are, that kind of stuff. 

And I played volleyball, I was on the volleyball team. I was a walk-on. Those were years you could do that—oh, there’s a tryout. Oh, sure, I'll go try to see if I can play volleyball. So, I made the team. You know, I was on the bench most of the time, but it was fun, it was great, it gave me an immediate sense of connection and a group connection. And so, interestingly enough, through Facebook, I've reconnected with a lot of my former teammates, which was great.

Hernandez: Well, I know that you're a parent of a Brown student. But do you still also maintain connections to Brown as an alum, you know, separate from the child? (chuckles)

Bermúdez: Yes, actually, before the child even uttered the words, "I want to apply to Brown," I was already doing alumni interviews of perspective students, I did that for a few years before she applied.

I think there was a point in time that I just, I thought I should really reconnect both to law school and to Brown, because those were, of course, such formative years I wish I could go back to Brown now. I think they should have parent courses, you know? Because I think that would be awesome. And going back there and revisiting certain things. My nephew's also at Brown and he interned at probation. And he, of course, had just taken the city politics class and he was asking me about what I thought was the type of governance we had in New York City, I'm like, you know, I never studied that, can you send me your notes? He sent me his notes. (laughing) So I'm now reviewing his notes to see if (gasps) I wonder what we're doing, you know. Because nobody in city politics really thinks would be interesting to backtrack to see, you know, what things have worked best or whatever. It's very interesting.

Like you said, both of the schools that I went to had this emphasis on blending theory and practice, that theory cannot live without practice, practice cannot live without theory. And I think that's what I've carried with me in all the jobs that I've had is what is the theory framework here, what is the culture we want, or what is the approach we want in the work, and then how do we practice that. And then I'm not married to any particular way of doing it so long as we're keeping that ethos, or that approach. If somebody has a better idea, great, I can think of this one, you can think of that one, let's try it out, let's figure out what it is. And that way if people want to do something, they can think, okay, does this advance or is this within the framework that we're trying to operate in? And if it is, go do it, don't ask permission, just go.

Hernandez: Well, you know, it occurs to me that this is a celebration of the 50th year of the Open Curriculum at Brown. And we have lots of things that we say that's wonderful about the Open Curriculum as far as, you know, fostering intellectual curiosity, and adventure, and risk taking. But your, sort of, reflections about how important it was to have a foundation in theory meeting with practice, I wonder, for you, do you think that's also, in some respects, something that is very much generated by the Open Curriculum as well?

Bermúdez: That's interesting, I hadn't thought about it that way. But yes, because that goes to the breadth of things and the way that I think each concentration organizes the types of courses you need to take to be able to concentrate on it. Because in health and society, I had to take very concrete classes like statistics, and a practicum, and so on and so forth, but also then you had sociology classes, psychology classes. And mixing that all together was really critical. One of the things that Brown did for me was generate an ability to connect ideas that don't seem to be related at all. And then all of a sudden you have people connecting, or you're taking this class that you thought was irrelevant to your concentration, and all of a sudden it's like, oh, but wait, you know, this is the same philosophy, or this philosophy can apply to this as well, and what if we would apply it there. And I think that experimentation of thought is just what makes it such a great experience.

Hernandez:  Now, before we bring this to a close, I want to just give you an opportunity. Is there anything I haven't asked you, but knowing that this is a conversation that will extend beyond the two of us to many other listeners, connected to Brown and not connected to Brown, that you would want them to know, that you'd wanna share with them? Something that you'd like to impart knowing that there's a large public listening to what you have to say at this very moment in the podcast.

Bermúdez: I think the biggest thing is to not be shy about expressing your ideas, your thoughts in whatever it is you do. Because oftentimes we silence ourselves, or we think, "well, what if somebody takes it the wrong way, or somebody doesn't think I'm smart if I say this, or what I said before about what if they think I'm soft on crime?" You know what, your convictions are important and people need to hear you. Then if there's a fallout after, we deal with it afterwards. There are very few mistakes, other than unfortunately causing the death of someone else, that you cannot fix, or try to manage, or learn from. 

The other piece that Brown also instilled in me is to be a lifelong learner, always learn from something. From mistakes you make, from things that you at first don't think you might understand, but just try, one thing you can take away from it. And those are things that, if we do that regularly, I think we get along better with others and that we could work together better for the good of our society.

Hernandez: Oh, that was lovely. And I put you on the spot too. (laughing) Thank you so much, this has been an absolute joy reconnecting with you. And I wish you all the best in all the really important work that you're doing in criminal justice and as commissioner.

Bermúdez: Thanks. And whoever is listening who wants to reach out and get in touch with me, I'm always happy to connect with people.

Hernandez: Thank you very much.

Bermúdez: Take care, guys.


The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.