Benton learned about the organization and its unique mission at a presentation at Vanderbilt Law School led by Still She Rises Tulsa Executive Director Aisha McWeay ’09. McWeay moved to Tulsa in 2019 to join the organization as its executive director. She had previously worked for 10 years at the Metro Nashville Public Defender’s office, where she was promoted to deputy public defender in 2017.
“As soon as I left Aisha’s presentation, I checked to see if Still She Rises Tulsa had an internship available,” Benton recalled.
Last summer Benton worked remotely on court-cost motions, helping clients whose criminal cases had already been resolved apply to for waivers of court costs. “Some indigent clients end up owing thousands of dollars of court costs that they can’t afford,” she said. “I had a great opportunity to get to know clients, talk with them about how their lives looked, and learn how we could best explain to the court why their court costs should be waived.”
Benton points to three law school experiences that set her on course to work for a holistic criminal defense organization: her first-year Criminal Law class with Professor Terry Maroney, in which she read a Department of Justice report on conditions in Alabama prisons; an internship with a human rights nonprofit organization in London, England, after her 1L year; and her work with clients in Professor Cara Suvall’s Youth Opportunity Clinic as a 2L.
Her original plan to focus on international human rights violations shifted as she conducted research for the African Court of Human and People’s Rights Monitor in London during summer 2019. “I kept reading about inhumane conditions of confinement in other nations, and they didn’t sound all that different from conditions in prisons in the U.S. described in the Department of Justice report I’d read,” Benton said. “I realized I could do the work I wanted to do here at home.”
Her focus shifted to better advocacy in the criminal justice system as she interviewed clients of the Youth Opportunity Clinic who felt they had received inadequate or indifferent representation in criminal proceedings. “They felt their attorneys had not amplified their voices and had not allowed them to be heard, and I wanted an opportunity to do that,” Benton said.
Still She Rises Tulsa was founded as a project of the Bronx Defenders, which provides holistic legal defense services in Bronx, New York, in response to a startling fact: Oklahoma incarcerates significantly more women than any other state. Indigent clients who are mothers benefit from a holistic approach to legal representation because their involvement with the criminal justice system may cause them to lose custody of their children or to face eviction. The organization became an independent 501(c)(3) in July 2019.
During her summer internship with Still She Rises Tulsa, Benton sat in on intermediary family hearings to expand her knowledge of family law and the impact of a mother’s involvement in the criminal legal system on children. After graduation, Benton will join a team headed by McWeay that, in addition to criminal defense lawyers, includes civil and family lawyers, impact litigators, client advocates, investigators and resource specialists. Staff members work collaboratively to address each client’s goals, recognizing that many of those barriers exist in the myriad systems outside of the courtrooms.
“What I was most surprised to learn in law school was about the gaps between the law, what people think about the law, and what it actually looks like in practice,” Benton said. “This is perhaps most stunning in places where there are gaps in access to justice, but there are many areas where rights are not as easy to enforce as people think.”
“Kira has been a dedicated and committed public interest leader throughout her time at Vanderbilt. We could not be more thrilled that she will be joining the innovative team at Still She Rises after graduation, and we look forward to seeing the impact she will make on the clients and communities she will serve,” said Spring Miller, Assistant Dean for Public Interest.
Benton completed the law school’s Pro Bono Pledge program, through which students commit to volunteering 75 hours of work during law school, as a 2L and then again as a 3L. At VLS, she was a Justice-Moore Family Scholar, a Chancellor’s Law Scholar and served as president of the Legal Aid Society. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics and anthropology at the University of South Florida, where she was a National Merit Scholar and served in student government.