During an internship at the Orange County, Ca., Public Defender’s office, Rachel Rossi was sent to the local jail and told to ask people who had been arrested what they need. “‘Do you need medication? Is your family OK? Are your kids OK?’ In that role and seeing the racial disparities of people who are in the system, but also seeing just the humanity of the people, it sold me that this was where my passion, my fight would be,” Rossi told the Los Angeles Times. She went on to become a public defender in Los Angeles and help Congress write prison reform legislation that reduced mandatory minimum sentences, and later became the Justice Department’s first hate crimes coordinator.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is naming Rossi to lead the reconstituted Office for Access to Justice, an Obama administration program to ensure poor defendants get legal representation in civil and criminal cases. She will be the first former public defender to hold the job, and one of few in recent history to ascend to such a prominent DOJ role. In the past, the office has worked on bail reform and pushed state and local governments to lower legal fees in child custody and other civil cases. The Office of Access to Justice was created 2010, but was all but shuttered during the Trump administration. President Biden issued an executive order requiring the Justice Department to devise a plan to expand legal services to indigent defendants, who often receive inadequate or no legal services in civil litigation. Rossi wants to expand the office to ensure interpreter and translation services are available, and to address justice issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as providing access to counsel for those facing eviction. The office will also focus on giving more guidance to prosecutors on pretrial intervention.