Connecticut’s new Chief Public Defender, TaShun Bowden-Lewis, always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
When the Norwalk native was a child her mother asked what she wanted to be some day. The question was met without hesitation, a definitive: “I want to be a public defender.”
Through her 25-year career as a public defender Bowden-Lewis became known as a consummate trial attorney – with the dream of holding the top job in the state’s Department of Public Defender Services (DPDS). Bowden-Lewis started July 1 as Connecticut’s sixth Chief Public Defender. She is the first person of color to hold the position in the state.
“I’m proud to be black and proud to be female,” she said. “The saying that representation matters is not a cliché. It is something real.”
In her new role, Bowden-Lewis manages DPDS operations, oversees Connecticut’s public defenders, and represents the division on numerous interagency bodies and before the public. Bowden-Lewis has been an associate professor, prioritizes community engagement, and is a member of many professional legal organizations.
“I always wanted to be a public defender,” she said. “My whole career has been serving this division and serving clients throughout Connecticut.”
Bowden-Lewis attended Georgetown University and Quinnipiac University Law School. She worked as an assistant law clerk, assistant public defender and then public defender in New Haven’s Superior Court before working for the Waterbury Judicial District for 15 years. In 2016, she became the acting public defender, the head of the office for the Judicial District of Waterbury, and in 2018, she was named permanent public defender for the entire district of Waterbury.
“I was very fortunate to get this opportunity to be the new Chief Public Defender. It has been an honor to be able to help my clients,” she said. “The majority of clients in this system are black or brown. To be able to advocate for men and women of all races is a privilege for me. It makes me proud to be able to help.”
A focus on morale and retention
Bowden-Lewis’ effervescent and enthusiastic personality, humility, and kindness shows when she talks about her work. She says she will focus on recruitment and retention to diversify at every level, rebranding the division, and being more engaged in the communities.
“We are experts and we do care. We are all in this together,” she said. “The final piece of that is revitalization. I’m overseeing over 400 people. Everything starts at the top. It is important that we are all affirmed and appreciated and that we keep morale up and keep doing what we do best – serving clients and their families.
“We are barred, excellent attorneys. We deal with more than 100,000 criminal, child protection, delinquency defense, and family support cases each year,” she continued. “We also have administration, paralegals, social workers, investigators. We are a full-service agency for our clients. Everything that is needed to have a great defense for our clients – we have it under our umbrella.”
“I have a very high opinion of her,” said Attorney Alix Walmsley, director of assigned counsel, OCPD, who has known and worked with Bowden-Lewis for more than two decades. “She is very dedicated, energetic and enthusiastic. She is not only a terrific attorney but she is also a great person and all of that will translate down. She’s very hard working, thoughtful and organized. She wants to hear people’s opinions. It’s very energizing to have her here. I think it’s going to be a terrific boon to the agency.”
Bowden-Lewis says increased community involvement tops her list of goals for the division.
“I’m humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to serve the communities in Connecticut. I’m just thrilled to be at the helm of this amazing division,” Bowden-Lewis said. “The clients we serve and their families mean everything to me. Being the Chief Public Defender is a tremendous opportunity to expand on what we have and do the best we can do.”
‘She’s going to give it her all’
Dr. Isabel Logan, Ed.D, LCSW, was starting out as a social worker when she met Bowden-Lewis in 1996. They worked together for 20 years in the New Haven court.
“She’s going to be fantastic. She’s a hard worker. She is fair and she is a true example of what a public defender should be,” Logan said. “She’s going to give it her all because that’s who she is. She has always given her clients everything she had, to make sure she represented them to the best of her ability.”
Logan is now an assistant professor in social work sociology, anthropology, criminology, and social work at Eastern Connecticut State University.
“I know she pays attention to detail. She thinks about things before she acts on them and she thinks about them from all different angles,” she said. “Not only is she going to bring the Division to the next level but I think it is going to be transformational.”
Over time as each agency grows it is important that it keeps up with the needs of society, and she is right on time and on track when you think of all our needs as a society, Logan said.
“I’m so excited to see the first African American Chief Public Defender and to be able to say that she is my friend. It brought tears to my eyes – I cried with excitement to see that she got appointed to this position. This is just what we need.”
The job has never been more challenging or more important.
“I am thrilled to be in this position. I don’t take it lightly,” Bowden-Lewis said. “Hopefully those coming after me in this position will be inspired, that with hard work, integrity, perseverance – they can do it, too.”
The appointment follows Chief Public Defender Christine Perra Rapillo’s confirmation as a judge of the Superior Court. Deputy Chief Public Defender John Day has served as acting Chief Public Defender in the interim.
“I don’t think there could have been a better person to take on this position, where we are in this country right now,” Logan said. “I was the first Latina social worker in the public defender’s office – and, for her as a black woman coming in. We have a seat at the table now.”