Passion to help the underprivileged drives Kumar
By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor
Growing up in one of Toronto’s less affluent neighbourhoods has given her first-hand insight into the inequality found within our justice system, criminal defence lawyer Rashmi Kumar tells AdvocateDaily.com.
“The police frequently stopped young black and brown male students from my school, often for no apparent reason,” says Kumar, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP.
“Naturally, this resulted in feelings of distrust and resentment towards the police. In Grade 10, a police constable was stationed at our school for purposes of so-called 'crime prevention.' Ironically, it frayed the relationships even more.”
At York University, she majored in criminology and psychology, and completed an honours thesis in psychology, focusing on rape myths and juror perceptions of sexual assault complainants.
“In the process of completing my studies, I was exposed to the numerous ways in which our criminal justice system fails the most marginalized in our communities, particularly the black community. That's where my interest in law really sparked,” she says.
While attending the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Kumar took part in the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic, representing inmates at disciplinary hearings at nearby maximum- and medium-security institutions.
“Many of my clients were charged under the Correctional and Conditional Release Act for possessing contraband while housed in the institution. My role as their counsel was to ensure that any and all possible defences were presented to the decision makers, in order to keep my client’s prison record clean,” she says, noting that in-prison convictions may hurt an inmate's parole chances.
Kumar says when people find out that she is a criminal defence lawyer, they sometimes ask why she wants to work on behalf of those accused of a crime.
“I tell them that many of those facing criminal charges are the most vulnerable people in our community. Some have mental health problems, others are just down on their luck,” she says.
"Very rarely do you come across someone who is committing a crime because they like doing it, or think it's fun.”
Kumar, who is fluent in Punjabi and has working proficiency in Hindi, acknowledges the experience of growing up as part of a marginalized community in Toronto drives her work.
“I've tried very hard to acknowledge the privilege that I now have as a lawyer,” she says. “I want to give back as much as I can.”
At Hicks Adams, Kumar says her time is divided between trial work and parole hearings, “helping people get out of jail.”
She also acts as social media co-ordinator for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty.
Kumar says the group works on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians saddled with criminal convictions for non-violent, minor pot offences.
While the federal government has said it will suspend their criminal records, she explains that falls well short of a full amnesty.
“Bill C-93, as it currently stands, essentially moves the existing criminal records from one filing cabinet into another,” she says. “Most concerning is the fact that the 'suspended' records can be reinstated at a later time. It’s important to get these records completely expunged, as they hinder an individual’s ability to find housing, gain meaningful employment, and even volunteer with youth.”
Kumar says the war on cannabis hit racialized communities especially hard, with black Torontonians three times more likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana than their white peers, despite equal rates of use.
“There is inherent injustice embedded in the current Cannabis Act that continues to be enforced by our police services. All people deserve to be treated in a fair and equitable way.”