Nila Bala, Distinguished FASPE Alum 2020
By Eric L. Muller
This year’s award recipient, Nila Bala, stood out as a leader from the moment she stepped into the first session of the 2012 FASPE Law program. She brought a brilliant and distinctly humane intellect to every discussion and engaged every one of her colleagues with curiosity and warmth, even—perhaps especially—in moments of sharp disagreement, of which her cohort had more than a few. Few moments on that trip compared to the transcendent, sorrowful beauty of Nila’s solo voice in the sanctuary of the Jewish Center in Oswieçim when we gathered in the evening for contemplation after a hard day confronting the horrors of Auschwitz. It is a moment we suspect many of that year’s Fellows carry with them to this day.
Nila’s career has been a model of commitment to improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society. As a public defender first in Santa Clara County, California, and then in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, Nila helped juvenile clients get a clean start in adult life by sealing the records of their adjudications and worked to eliminate the scourge of cash bail, a system that places countless poor defendants on a straight path to criminal convictions, fines, fees, and incarceration.
After her years as a public defender, Nila wanted to have a broader impact on reforms in our criminal justice system. It was her unique way of accomplishing this goal that we think demonstrates the unique contribution FASPE can make to the development of new generations of ethical leaders. Nila’s own views on strategies for reform are on the left side of the policy spectrum. And many—indeed, most—advocates would seek to embed themselves with like-minded people, viewing policy debates as an us-against-them contest. Nila did just the opposite. While she could easily have affiliated with any number of organizations of the left, Nila chose to join the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank in Washington, DC, where she heads up its efforts in the areas of juvenile justice and offender reentry, the transition from life in jail or prison to life in the community. Her current efforts focus on giving offenders a true second chance in life by automating the process of clearing their criminal records.
Her time at R Street has been active and highly public. She has provided testimony to legislative bodies and published crisp, well-argued pieces in an array of publications including local and regional newspapers, Newsweek, The Hill, and, most recently, The New York Times.
We find Nila’s approach inspirational. Rather than just talk and plan with people she agrees with, Nila is spending her time engaging in a sustained way with people who see the world differently. Nila believes that she will have a greater chance of achieving meaningful reform by working across ideological lines rather than with them. Especially in the strident and partisan times we are living through, Nila’s strategy strikes us as courageous—the wise and constructive choice of a true ethical leader.
- “FASPE – Fellowships for the Study of Professional Ethics”: https://mailchi.mp/faspe-ethics/ethics-in-the-news-june-12891252