Symposium explores the role of law school clinics in challenging overincarceration

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Maryland Carey Law continued its year-long commemoration of the Clinical Law Program’s 50th anniversary in March with a symposium exploring approaches law school clinics are taking to get more people out of prison. The day-long program, co-hosted with the Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, featured four panel discussions and a lunch presentation from formerly incarcerated individuals for whom the Clinical Law Program provided legal assistance.  

According to Professor Leigh Goodmark, co-director of the Clinical Law Program, the symposium was a perfect way to celebrate the Clinical Law Program’s anniversary. 

“For 50 years, the Clinical Law Program has been working to increase access to justice for marginalized populations, with a particular focus on the needs of people convicted of crimes,” said Goodmark. “As society’s focus shifts towards decarceration, given the work that our Clinical Law Program has done in that area, from Unger to parole to the Juvenile Restoration Act to the cases of criminalized survivors of gender-based violence, it is particularly fitting that Maryland Carey Law should lead that conversation.” 

Experts, activists, and non-profit leaders came from near and far to look at ways law school clinics are collaborating with local communities, non-profits, policymakers, and national reformers to challenge overincarceration. These include litigation under the federal First-Step Act and several state (and D.C.) Second-Look Acts; litigation to implement and expand the line of Supreme Court decisions that grant new hearing rights to incarcerated people who committed crimes as juveniles; representation in parole, commutation, clemency, and compassionate release proceedings; and through reform initiatives, including legislation. A thread running through the discussions was the historic and continuing systemic racism contributing to injustice and disparities in incarceration rates and overincarceration. 

The first panel, moderated by Lila Meadows, clinical instructor for the law school’s Survivors of Violence Clinic and staff attorney with the Gender, Prison, and Trauma Clinic, looked at decarceration reforms and legal representation in state release proceedings. Additionally, law professors and national advocates discussed how law school clinics and public interest organizations can partner. Panelists were: 

  • Amy Fettig, Executive Director, The Sentencing Project and former Deputy Director, ACLU National Prison Project 
  • Shobha L. Mahadev, Clinical Professor of Law, Children and Family Justice Center, Northwestern-Pritzer Law School 
  • Kimberly Thomas, Clinical Professor of Law and Co-director, Juvenile Justice Clinic, Michigan Law School 
  • James Zeigler, Founder and Director, Second Look Project 

The second panel, moderated by Maryland Carey Law Associate Professor Maneka Sinha, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic, focused on decarceration reforms and legal representation in federal release proceedings, as well as partnerships with public interest organizations and families of incarcerated and decarcerated people. Experts included: 

  • Judge Andre Davis ’78, U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit (retired)  
  • Vida Johnson, Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center; former Supervising Attorney, D.C. Office of Public Defender - Trial Division  
  • Mary Price, General Counsel, Families Against Mandatory Minimums 
  • Katharine Tinto, Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Criminal Justice Clinic, California Irvine Law School 

At lunchtime, attendees heard directly from four formerly incarcerated people who have become community leaders, mentors, and advocates. The panelists were released from prison as part of the 2012 Unger vs. Maryland court decision, which invalidated the convictions of 235 prisoners who had served more than 30 years as a result of faulty jury instructions. Professor Michael Millemann, one of the attorneys who, along with students in the Clinical Law Program, provided legal counsel to the panelists, moderated the discussion. 

“One of the many highlights of the symposium was the lunch panel presentations,” said Millemann. “All of these formerly incarcerated people are doing extraordinary work as leaders in their extended families, communities, and the state.” 

According to panelist Karriem El-Amin, the people in the Maryland Carey Law Clinical Law Program had a lot to do with that outcome. “When I saw someone who cared,” El-Amin said, “it stimulated my humanity...that’s when your heart starts changing.” El-Amin is now a career coach at Living Classrooms and a leader in the Unger reentry community. He was joined on the panel by three other leaders in the Unger reentry community: 

  • Kareem Hasan, community leader; juvenile counselor  
  • Walter Lomax, Executive Director, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative; criminal justice reform leader
  • Etta Myers, criminal justice reform leader 

After lunch, Goodmark, who also directs the Gender, Prison, and Trauma Clinic at Maryland Carey Law, led a discussion on decarceration, gender violence, and representing criminalized survivors. Panelists were: 

  • Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, Law & Social Work Service Program Manager, Maryland Carey Law 
  • T. Shekhinah Braveheart, Advocacy Associate, Justice Policy Institute 
  • Kate Mogulescu, Associate Professor of Clinical Law, Criminal Defense and Advocacy Clinic, Brooklyn Law School 

Professor Michael Pinard, longtime co-director of the Clinical Law Program and director of the Youth, Education, and Justice Clinic at Maryland Carey Law, moderated the day’s last panel on overcoming racism to decarcerate. Following the symposium, Pinard said, “We were fortunate to have some of the leading advocates, lawyers, and scholars with us for the day to share their thoughts on what we need to do to move away from our carceral culture. The conversations were robust, uplifting, and urgent. The mandate moving forward is clear and the momentum from the day will continue to push us all.” 

 He was joined for the final panel by: 

  • Kristin Henning, The Blume Professor of Law; Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative, Georgetown Law Center 
  • Olinda Moyd, Distinguished Practitioner In Residence, Washington College of Law; Adjunct Instructor, Howard University School of Law; former Chief Attorney of the Parole Division, D.C. Office of Public Defender 
  • Vincent Southerland, Assistant Professor of Clinical Law, Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic; Co-faculty Director, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, New York University School of Law 

“Everyone who participated or attended was reenergized and excited by what they heard about the creative work around the country to successfully challenge overincarceration,” noted Millemann, who also acknowledged the editors and staff of the Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, for their significant contributions toward the success of the symposium.  

Fasika Delessa ’23 is editor-in-chief of the journal, which plans to publish select work that emerges from the symposium. She is proud of how the day went. “It was an honor to welcome such a diverse group of community members inside of the law school to discuss the very real impact of the criminal legal system,” she said.  “Additionally, the voices of directly impacted individuals were at the forefront of the discussion, which, to me, is the law at its best.”