Gender Violence Clinic Partners with Human Trafficking Clemency Initiative

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The Gender Violence Clinic, under the leadership of Prof. Leigh Goodmark, has joined the Human Trafficking Clemency Initiative (HTCI), a project aimed at assisting women convicted of sex trafficking in the federal prison system. The collaboration has added a new dimension to the work of our student attorneys as they confront legal barriers that victims of human trafficking face.

From its inception in December, 2017, HTCI has been driven by the women it is intended to help. It all began with a letter from a group of women in Tallahassee, Florida who had all been incarcerated for crimes related to their own trafficking. The women sent it to approximately 100 advocates, and the only one to respond was Kate Mogulescu, who has spent her career working on human trafficking and sex work at Legal Aid Society of New York (and now at Brooklyn Law School). But it was too much for one organization to handle, so she enlisted Prof. Goodmark and Prof. Jess Emerson at the University of Baltimore and together they formed the HTCI. Prof. Mark Osler at University of St. Thomas Law School later joined the group to provide his expertise in clemency work.

As of today, HTCI partners are Maryland Carey Law School, Legal Aid Society of New York, the University of Baltimore, Brooklyn Law School and University of St. Thomas Law School. Each member organization represents between 1 and 3 clients who are incarcerated in federal prisons for crimes related to their own trafficking and seeking commutations of their sentences. As HTCI’s mission statement explains, “each of HTCI’s clients has suffered abuse throughout their formative relationships,” has been “exploited prior to her arrest on the instant case,” and many “had been trafficked with or sought safety from their trafficker with the victim.” These elements often went unexplored or undeveloped in their initial cases, and HTCI hopes to address many of these crucial elements through the clemency process.

For Prof. Goodmark, this work is a natural fit for the Gender Violence Clinic because “all of these women are survivors of gender violence in various forms, and that gender violence had a profound impact on the choices available to them, which led to their incarceration.”

Clinic students have been working with three women—two in Florida and one in Alabama. In addition to navigating seven levels of Department of Justice review before clemency might be granted, students also have to deal with complications arising from representing incarcerated clients across the country, something that is all too familiar to current clinic student Joy Dodge.  Dodge reports that simply accessing her client has proven the most difficult and frustrating of her experiences. “All access to the clients – whether lawyers or family members—is controlled by the prison counselor, and so my communications so far have been limited to 15 minutes,” Dodge says. “If I had access, I think we could get all the information we need for her application in a phone call or two.” Last year, students travelled to Alabama to meet their clients, and students will do the same this year. 

Despite the frustrations, the results of this work have been powerful for everyone involved. Students report being drawn into interesting, compelling client stories with challenging legal issues, and the clients feel like they finally have a voice. Prof. Goodmark recognizes that “at the very least, our clients know that someone appreciates the injustice of their sentences and is fighting to get them changed.” But ultimately, she hopes “that we’ll be able to convince the President to commute these unjust sentences and that prosecutors will stop bringing charges against victims for crimes related to their own trafficking.”