And Justice for All
May 23, 2016
Lewis & Clark’s newest legal clinic offers law students a unique opportunity to work at the intersection of advocacy and criminal law reform.
Just outside Wilsonville, Oregon, about an hour’s drive from Portland, stands the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in the state.
Last February, after passing through the prison’s metal detectors and being ushered into a large room typically used for religious services, Laney Ellisor found herself sitting amidst a group of felons who’ve dubbed themselves the “long-timers club”: women convicted of a variety of serious crimes, including murder, who are serving sentences of at least 20 years, and, in some cases, life.
Ellisor, a second-year law student in Lewis & Clark’s new Criminal Justice Reform Clinic, had traveled to the prison with 10 other students and Professor Aliza Kaplan, director and founder of the clinic, which launched last fall. With the prison chaplain and Kaplan facilitating the conversation, the students heard the five women describe their experiences with the criminal justice system: how they got themselves into trouble, what their trials were like, how they were adjusting to incarceration, and their hopes for their lives.
Its hybrid structure makes it “a one-of-a-kind clinic, with nothing quite like it in the country.”Bobbin Singh J.D. ’11Executive Director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center
All of them took full responsibility for their crimes, and all agreed that they deserved significant prison sentences, Ellisor is quick to emphasize. However, she adds, “They personified a lot of what’s deeply wrong with the criminal justice system.” Most had been represented ineffectively by overworked public defenders; been prosecuted under Oregon’s controversial Measure 11, which provides lengthy mandatory minimum sentences; been victims of gender bias in sentencing; and failed to receive prison services such as substance-abuse or anger-management classes, she said. “They all talked about how they felt completely warehoused, their lives considered irredeemable,” Ellisor recalls.
At the end of the four-hour meeting, the women thanked the students for listening to them; the students, in turn, voiced gratitude for the inmates’ openness. Ellisor found the experience not only deeply emotional but one of the most important she’s had as a student. “It felt validating, in a sense, because we’ve learned about these issues from professors, books, and news articles,” she says. “But sitting before me were five women who had lived these things I was studying. They made it so real.”
At a point in time when public attention is focused on the American criminal justice system—with frequent news stories and popular TV programs about wrongful convictions and other breakdowns in the system—the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic is garnering strong interest from students excited about the opportunity to make a significant difference not just in the lives of individual clients but also in the state’s legal system.
The clinic is a collaboration between Lewis & Clark Law School and the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), a nonprofit that works to promote civil rights and improve legal representation for historically underserved populations. Its hybrid structure makes it “a one-of-a-kind clinic, with nothing quite like it in the country,” says Bobbin Singh J.D. ’11, who founded the OJRC in 2011 with Erin McKee J.D. ’11. “To my knowledge, what we’re doing is unique and innovative, an entirely different model,” says Singh, who now serves as the nonprofit’s executive director.
A Win-Win Collaboration
From its beginning, the OJRC offered volunteer and externship or internship opportunities. Lewis & Clark law students responded enthusiastically, and their commitment grew in terms of both numbers and hours. Singh says that in the first four years of the OJRC, more than 60 law students have put in 14,000 hours of pro bono work. “Their interest showed the law school that there was a real need for hands-on educational opportunities in the criminal law realm,” says Kaplan, who sits on the OJRC board and was among its earliest supporters.
But there was a need for even more. “We realized there was so much criminal work that nobody was doing in Portland and around the state,” says Kaplan. The OJRC was aware of a number of unaddressed needs, especially around key issues such as the death penalty, mass incarceration, juvenile justice, innocence work, and reentry after incarceration.
From these needs, the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic was born. Launched in fall 2015, the clinic offers second- and third-year law students clinical credit for working on real cases and major projects under the supervision of highly experienced lawyers including Kaplan, a national expert on wrongful convictions and innocence work. Students learn to conduct investigations; do legal and fact research and analysis; write motions, briefs, and reports filed in state trial and appellate courts; interview and advise clients; attend legislative hearings; argue motions and petitions in court; and more.
“From a legal perspective, there are a lot of criminal justice issues in Oregon that no one has ever dealt with and people don’t talk about,” says Kaplan. “Along with my students, I feel incredibly fortunate that we can look into these issues, address them, and really make a difference in the state by creating a more transparent, just system for everybody.”
Since the clinic is housed in the OJRC downtown office, students also learn how to run a successful nonprofit, including how to handle media relations and legislative advocacy, and they benefit from the OJRC’s large network of lawyers and volunteers. “As they’re learning and doing these hands-on projects and improving their skills, they’re also in community with other students, lawyers, nonlawyers, and volunteers, all working toward criminal justice reform and social justice in Oregon,” Kaplan says.
“I didn’t know very many people at the clinic before we started last fall, and now a lot of them have become my closest friends,” confirms Ellisor. “It’s a close-knit group.”
The OJRC also benefits from the dedication of students. “A lot of our capacity is created by the law students, so their ability to participate in the clinic profoundly impacts our ability to do the work,” says Singh.
Whether students are interested in careers in prosecution, defense, policy work, or another legal field entirely, Kaplan’s goal is to educate the next generation of public interest lawyers while assisting individual clients and addressing big-picture reforms. It’s a win-win for everyone.
“Like every state in the country, Oregon has flaws in its criminal justice system, whether it’s eyewitness misidentification or using bad science in criminal prosecutions,” Kaplan says. “When we write amicus briefs, we’re educating courts on issues they’re ruling on regularly. When we work on clemency petitions, we’re making the case that someone has transformed his or her life and is deserving of another chance. And when we help people coming out of prison, we’re doing it because they deserve a chance to get on with their lives.”
“All the issues we work on go toward creating a more just system, and they are all interconnected—how someone gets into prison, what their experience is while there, what happened at their trial, what happens when they get out of prison,” she adds.
The clinic, a yearlong commitment, had a dozen students during the 2015–16 academic year and has already accepted another class of 12 for 2016–17. (This year, students received six hours of credit; next year, that will increase to eight credits.) In addition to the 15 hours a week that each student works on clinical projects, they also attend a weekly seminar taught by Kaplan and guest lecturers that covers lawyering skills and such substantive criminal law issues as habeas corpus law, mass incarceration, faulty forensic science techniques, and various causes for wrongful convictions.
On a recent winter day in the OJRC offices in a former factory in the Old Town district, students were interviewing witnesses by phone, drafting motions on laptops, or meeting in small groups to discuss case strategy. Chelsea Sandbloom was reviewing a 30-page questionnaire from an inmate who hopes the Oregon Innocence Project will help prove he is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. “I’m doing things second-year law students don’t usually get to do, like interviewing witnesses on murder cases or sex abuse cases,” says Sandbloom, who has worked on 15 other similar cases this year. Although ultimately she doesn’t want to practice criminal law, she adds that the clinic has provided her with “great hands-on experience that will translate to any job in the legal world.”
Currently, law students can choose from three clinic projects:
The Oregon Innocence Project (OIP), which Kaplan cofounded in 2014, assists people who claim they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Six clinical students worked this year in the OIP under the supervision of its legal director, Steven Wax, former chief federal public defender for Oregon, and its staff attorney Brittney Plesser J.D. ’15. Among other things, students received substantial training and experience in criminal investigations including reviewing scientific evidence and interviewing witnesses and lawyers. Since the OIP is inundated with requests for assistance, the students are invaluable, Kaplan says, noting, “We could not handle all our inquiries or our cases without them.”
The Criminal Justice Project is a “catchall,” in Kaplan’s words, where students work under her direct supervision to advance various aspects of criminal justice reform including appellate advocacy. This year, five students worked on a yearlong, data-driven study of the cost of aggravated murder cases in Oregon, collecting data from the state Department of Corrections, the state Department of Justice, defense attorneys, and courts, and interviewing judges, court reporters, and others.
Whatever the results (the project is about halfway through), the information will be invaluable to public debate on capital punishment in the state. “No one’s ever really determined how much our aggravated murder cases cost,” Kaplan says. “We can all have views for and against the death penalty, but let’s look at it from a different perspective and see what we learn.”
In addition to the aggravated murder project, students have also drafted clemency petitions and submitted several amicus briefs; soon, a juvenile justice project will be launched, Kaplan notes.
The Reentry Law Project, supervised by Julia Yoshimoto J.D.’13, provides legal assistance in a wide range of civil matters ranging from family law to housing to immigration for clients of Mercy Corps Northwest who have been recently released from prison. The goal of the project, which had one clinic student this year, is to reduce recidivism and improve public safety by addressing the unmet legal needs of people who are reintegrating into their communities after being incarcerated.
The demand for next year’s slots greatly exceeded the supply, and Kaplan is delighted but not surprised by how popular the clinic has quickly become. Not only are the issues interesting and important, but criminal justice is a practice area that offers a broad range of exciting career opportunities around the country, whether on the prosecution or defense sides, in policy work, or in related areas.
I think students going to law school these days want to change the world— and the clinic is showing them that it’s possible!Professor Aliza KaplanFounder and Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic
“I have students who have said, ‘I want to be a death penalty lawyer in the South’ or ‘I want to be a prosecutor in southern Oregon.’ Well, all right, we’ll try to help you get there. Or they’ll say, ‘I came to law school to be an environmental lawyer, but now I want to be a criminal justice lawyer’—I have a lot of those,” Kaplan says. And then there are the students, like Sandbloom, who know they do not want to practice criminal law but find the clinic invaluable.
“I think all of our students have had a really incredible personal and professional experience,” Kaplan says, adding that the law school has been exceptionally supportive since she first proposed the clinic. “Without question, our students work on amazing issues, do incredible work, and feel part of a community.
“I want students to realize you can work on things you’re passionate about and still make a living,” she adds. “I think students going to law school these days want to change the world—and the clinic is showing them that it’s possible!”
Elaine McArdle is a Portland-based writer who often writes on law-related topics.