Working For Justice


Two members of the class of 2004 reconnect by chance, and discover they are both working to reform the criminal justice system

Last November, Emily Follansbee ’04 attended a conference in New Orleans sponsored by the Second Chances Working Group, a collection of lawyers, policy experts, and other criminal justice advocates working to reform the nation’s sentencing laws and incarceration practices. During the dinner break, Follansbee, the Legal Director of the Texas Defender Service, happened to join a table with two other women, one of whom, she suddenly realized, was her Williston classmate Margot Isman ’04. The two had not seen each other since their days acting in school theater productions, two decades before.

“She was like, ’Margot?’ recalls Isman, now Policy Director for the Philadelphia-based Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project. “And I was like, ’What the hell?’ We recognized each other immediately.”

That chance encounter may have reunited the two classmates, but in a sense Follansbee and Isman were already working together. Though their specific concerns differ, each has devoted her career to remedying troubling inequities in the criminal justice system, in particular opposing the policies and institutional biases that tend to disproportionately punish those least able to defend themselves. “The system, in theory, should work,” explains Follansbee. “But in practice it does not, due to the disparity in advantages. Do you come from an underrepresented population? Are you a person of color? Criminal justice reform is so important.”

Follansbee’s focus at the Texas Defender Service is eliminating the state’s death penalty and other excessive sentences, along with representing death row inmates and assisting local attorneys in capital cases. Isman’s work at the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project focuses on Pennsylvania’s large population of children who are being charged as if they were adults, and therefore facing extreme sentences. Both women describe their work as being about humanizing people too often reduced to stereotypes by the legal bureaucracy.

At that unexpected dinner in New Orleans, Follansbee and Isman soon discovered that their lives also have a personal connective thread. Follansbee had recently had a baby girl, and Isman had just had twins. All were born on the same day in December 2022. “What are the chances?” says Follansbee. “It was wild.”

Here’s a closer look at what has led each woman to her current career in criminal justice reform, and how their time at Williston helped prepare them for the particular challenges of their work.

Fighting the death penalty in Texas

Emily Follansbee began her law career as a public defender in Colorado, having been inspired by a criminal defense clinic at the University of Oregon School of Law. “Giving a voice to people who society wants to ignore, standing up for them, making sure their rights are protected and they aren’t dehumanized in the sterile setting of a courtroom,” she recalls. “I started to feel like that aligned with my values.” But she acknowledges that another factor may also have nudged her along: her time on the Williston Theater stage. “They say that lawyers are just people who failed at acting,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a performance. You have to want to be in front of people, making your arguments.”

In her role today as Legal Director of the Texas Defender Service (TDS), Follansbee is again in the spotlight. Founded in 1995, the Austin-based organization has been a nationwide leader in the fight to end the death penalty, helping reduce executions and death sentences in the Lone Star State from a peak of 40 in 2000 to just a handful today. That success allowed the group in 2022 to expand its focus to the broader issue of disproportionate punishment. Texas, notes TDS, is “Ground Zero for mass incarceration on the planet,” imprisoning a quarter of a million people with sentences “that outlast any public-safety purpose.”

Follansbee joined TDS in 2021 and now lives in Austin with her one-year-old daughter and husband, Joey Cantu, a criminal defense lawyer whom she met when both were Colorado public defenders. Her organization’s attorneys and mitigation specialists assist with trials and legal proceedings, provide consulting services, and advocate for changes to criminal justice laws and policy. What appealed to her was the group’s mission, the idea that “everyone, no matter who they are, deserves empathy and dignity, whether or not they’ve been accused or convicted of a crime,” she says. “Those values,” she adds, “were instilled in me in my upbringing and at my time at Williston.”

Follansbee was a six-year day student, preceded by her siblings Marcia (Ward) Murray ’95 and Andrew Ward ’98. In addition to being active in theater, she was editor of The Log yearbook and a Gold Key Guide. “It was a really positive experience,” says Follansbee, who after Williston earned her B.A. in environmental studies at Union College. “Looking back at Williston through the lens of doing the work that I do, I feel very fortunate to have been able to have such an opportunity, knowing that so many others aren’t able to have that.”

Indeed, Follansbee’s work today has given her a firsthand understanding of a criminal justice system that she sees as dangerously broken. “For too many people, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, the criminal legal system is not fair and it is not just,” she maintains. “To try to make change from the inside sometimes feels like a very large mountain to move. But trying to get your client through that system—and getting wins—is uplifting for sure.”

And there are signs of progress. Through the work of TDS and other groups over the years, new laws and procedures have been put in place for death penalty cases in Texas. Nationwide, 26 states have ended the practice or put a moratorium on executions. All of that is encouraging, notes Follansbee, but work remains. “In Texas, there aren’t as many mechanisms for ‘second chance’ or ‘second look’ work,” she notes, referring to the post-conviction review process. “From our policy side, we’re trying to get involved and see what avenues we are able to create.”

“As someone working for an organization dealing with the death penalty, I’d ideally want a world where our services are no longer needed,” she continues. “But we also know that there are people whose disproportionate punishment amounts to another kind of death sentence—they will die in prison. We are trying to use our knowledge base, our history, our experience, to expand and assist that population as well.”

Defending young prisoners in Pennsylvania

To understand the work of Margot Isman ’04 and Philadelphia’s Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), you first need to understand the term “juvenile lifer”— people under age 18 sentenced to prison for life without the chance of parole—and know that Pennsylvania has more than any other state. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Montgomery decision that guaranteed a new hearing to juvenile lifers, Pennsylvania had sentenced more than 500 young people—the vast majority Black and Brown males—to die in prison. YSRP’s team of lawyers, mitigation specialists, and reentry coordinators worked to get these prisoners their day in court, and then offered support as they adjusted to life back in society.

But even as the juvenile lifers have successfully returned home, the Pennsylvania laws that led to their sentences are still sweeping many children into the adult legal system, which is where Isman—the group’s policy director since 2021—comes in. “In Pennsylvania, kids as young as 10 years old are automatically tried as if they were adults for certain crimes,” she explains. “That should make your heart sink.” Adding to the possibility of extended prison time for children are the state’s often-severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Most other states allow prosecutors discretion in deciding whether to try children as adults; Pennsylvania has what’s called “direct file,” where young people charged with certain serious crimes are by default treated as adults. They are, however, allowed a hearing to present their case for staying in the juvenile system, with its separate prisons and rules requiring release at age 21. YSRP provides assistance there, as well.

In her role as policy director, Isman lobbies to change these laws, most recently helping introduce a juvenile-justice reform bill in the state legislature, where it is now awaiting action.

She acknowledges that, despite statistics that show declines in numerous categories of crime, changing the public’s perception of young offenders can be a struggle. “Criminal justice reform was on the menu for a long time,” she explains. “And then in the backlash to the uprisings that happened after George Floyd was murdered, there’s been a swing back to tough-on-crime rhetoric, back to the ‘super-predator’ era of the mid-90s, and really deeply racist rhetoric about children and crime.”

As an advocate for those she sees being treated unjustly, Isman does not pull punches, citing, for example, how certain politicians have used youth crime to stoke white fear and resentment. That freedom to say exactly what she thinks is a facet of her job that she has come to appreciate. “It’s very satisfying and deeply important, particularly given my identity as a white member of society and a mother of white children, to be able to name explicitly what we see happening here,” she says. “To say: This is a racist policy that was designed to target and incarcerate Black kids.”

Isman developed some of her rhetorical skills at Williston, where she says she was taught to write by English teacher Lisa Levchuk and developed confidence in the spotlight through the theater program. A four-year day student from Hadley, she received numerous school awards and honors for her academic work and writing, including induction in the Cum Laude Society. After earning her B.A. in history at Stanford, she served as a legislative aid in the Massachusetts State House, then received her M.A. in international negotiation and conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. There, she met her husband, Sebastian Anti, now a professor at Bryn Mawr.

After graduate school, Isman and Anti lived in Nairobi, where for three years Isman worked with a start-up that helped non-profits use data to evaluate their impact. The couple returned to the U.S., where Isman joined the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute, eventually rising to Deputy Director. As a consultant to state governments on criminal justice reform, she was introduced to YSRP, which was looking to hire a policy director. She joined the group in 2021, and now lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, 3-year-old, and 1-year-old twins.

Fittingly, the value of family figures prominently in Isman’s work at YSRP. She notes that most of the group’s clients have a history of serious childhood trauma and come from environments marked by poverty and easy access to guns. It’s a combustible combination. “Teenagers do dumb things,” Isman says. “Everybody at Williston knows that! If you give them access to deadly weapons and very little support or structured ways to spend their time, when they make mistakes, the results are going to be violent. YSRP, in many ways, is trying to disrupt that cycle by taking young people under our wing and into our family. We are trying to treat kids in the system like the kids they really are.”