Heather Warnken Advocates for Marginalized Baltimoreans Harmed by the System

The executive director of UBalt's Center for Criminal Justice Reform addresses inequities to ultimately make communities safer.
—Photography by Travis Marshall

When Heather Warnken was named executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s (UBalt) new Center for Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) at the beginning of 2022, it was a homecoming in more ways than one. Not only was Warnken born and raised in Baltimore and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, but her father, Byron Warnken, spent four decades at UBalt’s School of Law.

“It was always very meaningful for me to come back to Baltimore to this dream job, but the significance of that deepened,” Warnken says, when her father passed away shortly after her appointment.

Warnken, an alum of the U.S. Department of Justice and Berkeley’s Warren Institute, has focused her career on addressing the harm caused by the criminal legal system and promoting healing within marginalized communities, work she continues at CCJR.

“Our mission is to advance public safety and address the harm and inequity caused by the criminal legal system,” says Warnken. “Working toward a more fair and equitable society and criminal legal system will not just address those harms, but will ultimately make us safer.”

This translates into policy reform work and student-facing work at the law school, where they’re training the next generation of lawyers.

“Our student fellows are researching and writing,” says Warnken, “and helping to shape laws in real time in Maryland on these issues. We really view our responsibility to be of service first and foremost in our own backyard.”

Warnken and her crew keep extraordinarily busy—as of April, they’d filed testimony on over two dozen bills, including the Victim Compensation Reform Act of 2024. She describes the center as doing “multi-system, collaborative, problem-solving across what are often such siloed spaces.”

Says Warnken, who was recently named to the Task Force to Study Transparency Standards for State’s Attorneys by Gov. Wes Moore, “I love bringing a collaborative lens to the policy reform work we do.”