A lawyer and criminal justice reformer, Janos Marton '96 began to explore his passion for activism at a young age. In second grade at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, he was signing up his classmates for various environmental causes. “Our teachers worked hard to teach us not only basic academic skills but also about morality and civics,” he recalls fondly.
Janos loved learning about history, particularly the civil rights movement, and now as a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, his dual passions have converged. Janos says that perhaps the most important lesson he gained from St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s was the importance of giving back to your community. “It’s so important to remember how far you can get by caring about the people around you and showing a little kindness,” Janos says.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path in the legal and political arenas? What drew you to a career of advocacy? Are you most proud of any specific work or particular projects?
A: Since elementary school at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, I’ve been drawn to activism—I remember signing classmates up for environmental causes back in second or third grade. As someone who came of age in New York City during the 1990s, when police could be very aggressive with young people of color, criminal justice naturally interested me.
After working on organizing political campaigns during and after college, I came home to New York City to attend Fordham Law School. My goal was to become a civil rights lawyer, and after doing that for a few years, I became involved in larger criminal justice advocacy campaigns. I am most proud of my work leading the Campaign to #CLOSErikers, which resulted in New York City agreeing to shutter the notorious Rikers Island Jail Complex and dramatically reduce the number of New Yorkers held in jail pre-trial. Since then I’ve worked on similar campaigns to improve criminal justice systems in other parts of the country.
Q: Can you talk to us about your involvement in the “decarceration” movement? Why is decarceration critical? How did this issue enter the forefront for you?
A: For 50 years this country experienced a rise in mass incarceration, watching the number of Americans in jail and prison soar. The decarceration movement is committed to reversing that and delivering public safety through building stronger communities and investing in schools, healthcare, and jobs rather than prisons. I’ve played many roles in this movement—as a lawyer suing for violations of peoples’ rights, as an insider trying to improve our city government, and as a campaign director trying to change local policies. It’s hard to undo 50 years of bad policy, and it’s challenging to work in a space where many people have experienced the trauma brought on by jail and prison. But this work is also really inspiring; in particular, some of the formerly incarcerated leaders I’ve worked alongside have imprinted on me the importance of redemption and believing in peoples’ capacity to change.
Q: You are a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, which is really exciting! What issues are you most invested in?
A: A district attorney should be in touch with the community, and value freedom, compassion, racial equity, and opportunity. That means treating people like individuals and holding them accountable in a way that will turn their lives around and end the cycle of harm. I believe that as New Yorkers, we are privileged in many ways—we are a city with many resources, thousands of non-profits, the best universities and hospitals. As we design a world in which we divert people from prisons towards mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, or job training, what better place to lead than Manhattan?
Q: How did St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s influence your career path? Were there any teachers or classes in particular that shaped you?
A: St. Hilda’s was incredibly important to my development. I loved many of my teachers, and I know all of them worked hard to teach us not only basic academic skills, but about morality and civics. My first teacher, Sister Helena Marie, taught us Classic Mythology so well that I still remember those stories today. (I played Paris in the Trojan War.) I remember discussing the Gulf War in fourth grade, debating the death penalty in fifth grade, and most of all, learning Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Ms. Graves’ second grade class. Even the music we learned was infused with civil rights anthems. I also learned a lot about teamwork through sports, and I thank Coach Sheehan for those lessons.
Q: What advice would you give current St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s students?
A: Ask questions! St. Hilda’s is a nurturing place, and such a safe place to learn. Today’s students have more information about the world at their fingertips than we could ever imagine, but they should engage their teachers and fellow students to make sense of it.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice or life lesson you received at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s?
A: The value of community. St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s is a small school, and you need to be kind with your classmates, kids in other grades, and your teachers to have a good experience there. In a world that’s increasingly hostile, particularly online, it’s so important to remember how far you can get by caring about the people around you and showing a little kindness.