Leading the Way on Bail Reform

Andrea Woods (’09) advocating for bail reform with the ACLU.
Andrea Woods (’09)

January 03, 2024
Lucy Klebeck (’23)

How does an English and psychology student find her way leading bail reform with the ACLU?

Today, Andrea Woods (’09) is championing the rights of low-income people and People of Color within the criminal justice system. But getting to this place included volunteer placements, leading as GSBA president, participating in retreats and service immersions and more while in college.

She says a clear line is evident between her time at Gonzaga and her current career.

“The social justice teachings that you can't just help but absorb as a Zag inspired my first steps, and those steps led me to where I am today,” Woods states.

After graduation from Gonzaga, Woods joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) following role models and friends who had done the same. During her first year she worked as an organizer with death-row survivors. This experience served as an eye opener to systemic problems within the criminal legal system and solidified her intent to pursue law school.

In 2011, Woods was one of few to receive a Gates Public Service Law Scholarship to the University of Washington School of Law. She then worked at a public defender’s office in Alaska where she was exposed first-hand to the impact of bail hearings on mass incarceration.

Woods represented people at daily hearings, getting about two minutes per defendant. She realized that “when we look at people like they are ‘less than’ or dangerous, we can make that a self-fulfilling prophecy by sticking them in jails.” 

When she saw the opportunity to work professionally in pursuing bail reform, she took it.

This is how Woods ended up at the ACLU as a staff attorney within the Criminal Law Reform Project. Here, she worked to secure a whole-scale reform of the bail system in Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee. Woods references the saying “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” as the reform was the product of years of work with partners based in Memphis.

During the COVID pandemic, Woods worked to improve conditions for medically vulnerable people in the Shelby County Jail, which is how she gained familiarity with the justice system and county government in Memphis. This built a foundation for the success of the bail system reform a few years later.

Andrea Woods (’09) advocating for bail reform with the ACLU.
Woods appears at a 2020 press conference announcing a lawsuit in support of the Nashville Community Bail Fund.

Convincing people to make changes like this is never easy. People are often afraid of change, of political pushback and of things going wrong. To this, Woods speaks of keeping an open mind: “There are so many creative people building solutions, like restorative justice models that look completely different than what we think of as criminal justice.”

In American culture, people are taught that incarcerating people is synonymous with public safety, but Woods believes if this were true, the U.S. would be the safest country in the world. Rather, it is necessary to invest in things that will make our communities better and more whole, such as education, housing, mental health resources and substance addiction care.

It is also vital to elevate the voices of those who have been marginalized and criminalized.

“There are numerous court opinions emphasizing that it is unconstitutional to jail people just because they’re poor; there are ample research studies demonstrating that when you do that, it has negative effects for the individuals and society as a whole,” but what seems to actually achieve change are first-hand accounts from people who have experienced incarceration firsthand. 

“Real, first-hand accounts are the things that a resistant politician can’t argue with.”

Woods mentions Kalief Browder’s story as an impetus for the modern resurgence of the bail reform movement. Browder was held in solitary confinement for 700 days for allegedly stealing a backpack (he maintained his innocence) and was incarcerated because he could not afford bail. Ultimately, he took his own life due to the resulting trauma from that experience. True stories can be incredibly powerful, and they require a great deal of courage to be shared, which means they are not taken lightly.

Woods’ dream is to see a world where no one sits in jail pre-trial. She is continuing to work to implement the new system for bail reform in Memphis, is on cases in Texas and Alabama, and is litigating in the 4th and 10th circuits. Woods believes that letting people face charges outside of jail would allow for a much-needed decline in mass incarceration throughout the U.S.

She says, “We don’t have to choose between justice and safety. We can have both.”

Woods as a Gates Scholar