Sarah Johnson named Defender of Distinction 2020
Sarah Johnson began her career as a public defender in the St. Louis City Trial office in 2009 and soon learned that she was drawn to the practice of juvenile law. This year, she is being honored as the Missouri State Public Defender Commission’s Defender of Distinction for exemplifying the ideal of public defense.
As Missouri’s director of juvenile defense and policy and the head of the Children’s Defense Team in St. Louis, Johnson is proud of the work they are doing to amplify the voices of young people. Children’s defense teams are specialized juvenile units in St. Louis and Kansas City dedicated to representing children in delinquency proceedings.
According to Johnson, practicing juvenile law “is complex not only in the many arenas you must be familiar (think education law, adolescent brain development, care and protection issues, mental health diagnoses, juvenile rules, statutes, guidelines), but also because a child’s future hangs in the balance.” Johnson said she is humbled to receive the award.
“While there are many days when the work is incredibly hard and sad, we also have our victories,” Johnson said. “I am excited to continue to push our system forward in terms of policy, best practices and helping others to recognize that adolescent brain development is a ‘window of opportunity’ according to adolescent development psychologist Dr. Larry Steinberg.” When asked what drives her passion for her work, Johnson said that her hope is that kids feel like they are understood that than they know they have an advocate.
“If a child feels like they are heard, feels like the process is fair, feels like their attorney fought for them and what they wanted, a child can move forward with their life and learn from their mistakes,” Johnson said. “This award to me is also a signal that the work is far from over; we have made steps in the right direction, and we have a long way to go. I am excited to continue to ‘get in good trouble, necessary trouble’, as the late Representative John Lewis said,” Johnson concluded.
Click here to learn more about The Missouri Bar’s annual awards.