Jonathan Andrew Perez '00 is a senior assistant district attorney at Kings County District Attorney's Office in New York, where he works on many social justice initiatives.
He was previously employed as an associate at an insurance defense law firm in New York City, but when the firm dissolved, he decided to join the Kings County District Attorney's Office to gain experience as a trial lawyer. In that role, Perez worked in the Special Victims and Appeals units, where he tried a number of cases before becoming devoted full-time to Executive Policy projects. "At any given time, I handled approximately 100 cases - some taken to trial. I prepped witnesses, prepared and admitted evidence, held hearings on issues of evidentiary law in New York State, and worked with New York City detectives and police officers, seeking justice on behalf of victims."
Early in his career, Perez served as an adjunct professor at Hunter College, where he taught Multicultural American Studies.
He received his M.A. at the University of Virginia in English and American Studies, and did Ph.D.-level work at Rutgers, also in American Studies, and was a researcher at the Institute on Race, Ethnicity and American Culture. He was also a Congressional Aide to Congressman Raul Grijalva and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and worked on economic development policy at the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Following law school, Perez was a yearlong fellow at the New York Attorney General's Office.
Along the way, Perez has been writing poetry and contributing articles to a number of publications, while simultaneously working on a bigger manuscript titled, The Comic Book History: Epic. In a competition of more than 3,000 entries, he was the winner of the Split Lip Magazine 2019 Poetry Prize by Chen Chen for his poem "Reparation as Fable." You can follow him at his popular twitter account, @Hilliconjustice.
In the January 2020 issue of POETRY Magazine, you will find Perez's poem, "Bobolinks as a Flock of Signifiers." His latest project is a book of poetry, The Cartographer of Crumpled Maps: The Justice Elegies, which is "focused on the meeting of the pastoral, law, justice and the reclaiming of history for communities that have been on the wrong side of justice." His goal is to combine Comic Book myths of the Savior, Hero, and extra-worldly hero to interrupt critical moments in the history of systemic inequity in the U.S. His debut book is a culmination of all his internal narratives and pursuits throughout the years. In it, the narrator travels through early slavery accounts, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration, and maps a consciousness of communities in large urban areas that have been alienated, in form and geography, because of systemic inequity.
"In each poem, the Pastoral features prominently as a metaphor and a historical moment from racial oppression." The work, he hopes, will allow the reader to envision a reclaiming of the painful experiences that communities of color have been subject to, while also envisioning a rewriting of the history with a new future of both moral and environmental ownerships over the many landscapes that have marginalized and oppressed communities.
Perez spends his spare time as a Poetry Reader for The Rumpus Magazine, and he was formerly Poetry Reader for Palette Poetry. He also serves as an elected, three-year term-limited New York City Bar Association's Criminal Courts Committee Voting Member.
Perez entered Hotchkiss in 1996 as a prep. "I became aware of Hotchkiss while attending middle school at St. Bernard's in New York. I considered mostly boarding schools for secondary school because as an urbanite, schools such as Hotchkiss, Choate, Taft, and Exeter offered an escape from what appeared to me to be an increasingly-small New York City crowd of peers. Hotchkiss's strong record in academics appealed to me, and upon visiting, I was immediately drawn to the bucolic campus." Once at Hotchkiss, Perez found himself engaging with the community, the landscape, and the studies, but also felt like an outsider at times. Still, he credits Hotchkiss for learning how to push himself to achieve his dreams.
After Hotchkiss, Perez matriculated at Bowdoin College, where he really began to concentrate on poetry. Since then, he has been published in more than 50 journals and won major national prizes and recognition, "a feat I never would have guessed back in the day at Hotchkiss. Back then, the writing of lyric poetry offered an outlet to the many ideas I had that could not be told in colloquial form. I felt the inner working of racial anxiety, as well as my obsession with Comic Book Superheroes, American stories of justice, and the Pastoral. I knew that there was more to language that could encompass these unspoken movements and historical lineages."
Perez explains how his interest in law developed: "I taught English Literature for a time in private schools, such as Lycée Français de New York and Prep for Prep, and served as an adjunct professor in English Literature at Hunter College, teaching multicultural literatures to undergraduate and graduate students. I became very invested in constitutional law and civil rights and sticking up for people who did not have a voice in society, as I taught these classes and started thinking through the aesthetic of justice and the American concepts of freedom but also the long and troubling history of racial oppression and institutional bias."
"I worked at civil rights organizations and a law firm for a time after law school," says Perez, "but gravitated towards prosecution. It gave me a sense that I could make a real difference in society through prosecutorial discretion. I had been floating on different political staffs in New York and Washington, D.C. but always wanted to be on the front lines of justice."
In his current position at Kings County District Attorney's Office, he was recently selected to serve on committees for the implementation of criminal justice reform public policy by the executive team at the Office, and is leading a number of projects with other offices such as the Mayor's office. "Working in Court every day in a large community like Brooklyn feels like the front lines of justice. Outside of L.A. County, Kings County (Brooklyn) is the largest and most-high volume office in the country. As prosecutor, you are ultimately beholden to the idea of justice. Not necessarily to any one person or thing, but to an idea. You have to trust your instincts. Your legal pursuits involve human lives, and you cannot be afraid of the whole Judge-Court-Oral-Presentation mechanism that American Law calls on as its bread-and-butter. We have a truly democratic system with juries.
"I have learned the art of speaking to a jury, and trying a legal case taught me tough interpersonal skills, allowing me to practice the art of convincing and persuading jurors of the evidence, leading to the truth and to justice, a complicated and sometimes frustrating concept. Prosecutors represent the state, and you must ensure that everyone who appears before you receives a just outcome. This is not to denigrate defense attorneys, whom I hold in the highest regard, but prosecutors are beholden to an idea."
Recently promoted to Senior Assistant District Attorney, Perez realizes he can best help achieve justice and equity through the role of a prosecutor in the communities he serves. "My work is a real privilege. I was promoted based on my engagement with social justice and my office's roll-out of Justice 2020, a progressive policy agenda in line with other offices in the country at the cutting edge of criminal law. Without going into detail, I will say that much of this is comprised of social justice programs, diversion, and alternatives to incarceration to benefit the health of communities. I am working on a major build-out of an intricate study for our office and archive of all the kinds of systemic inequities in law, policy, and legislation that the criminal justice system touches in Brooklyn's history, from slavery to Jim Crow to the New Deal to the War on Poverty, in all 44 neighborhoods." Perez is building the first interactive online tool for the ADAs throughout the office to encourage learning how history informs their daily work. "It will be the first of its kind in the country," he says. "A typical day's work is varied, based on the interactions between policy and the specific goals of the office. I may be meeting with stakeholders in the community, attending events, sometimes in Court, and at times in the New York History Society's archives or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, doing critical research."
Somehow finding time to give back, Perez works to help minority candidates get into private schools and also supports them in other ways, such as after-school activities. He is president and founder of the "Old Boys Diversity Council" at his former lower middle school, St. Bernard's. The program focuses on networking and the opportunity to learn about different careers such as finance, investing, and business for alumni of color and those self-identified as diverse.
Perez encourages others to overcome obstacles, as he did, and never give up on their dreams. "Don't define yourself by a single characteristic, but instead remain well-rounded, pursue your dreams, and don't give up. For alumni who have benefited from the many opportunities Hotchkiss provides, and made it through the dense process of self-identification while being there, I think it is critical to give back and help those who follow."