More reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Students Elydah Joyce and Crystal Zook share their experiences from fall ’21.

Re-ignited Goals

Elydah Joyce, ’23

I had no expectations of what my first clinic would be like at Temple Law and I ultimately was blown away by how engaging, hands-on, and enjoyable the work and class time were. Even when I was not feeling the best on a given Wednesday, the two hours of our class brought me into a great mental space, where I felt like the goals I had in entering law school (ones that have been a bit squashed by the law school grind) were re-ignited. The team I had to work with was fantastic, and it was such a refreshing experience to be placed with a passionate, effective and driven group. I feel like we collectively accomplished and learned a lot more than I could have expected from a few months of research and writing. Thanks to both the classwork and the clinic work, I have a deeper and broader understanding of collateral consequences and the USA context on incarceration issues. I am so happy to have had the chance to be part of this clinic and stand by my opinion that Professor Sibley could pursue a Netflix special that is both comedic and educational on prison abolition (or celebrities’ heights).

Reflecting on the Roles that a Lawyer Can Play

Crystal Zook, ’23

I chose to participate in the Systemic Justice Clinic because it was important to me that I have a practical element in my third semester of law school to help remind me of all the reasons I came into law school in the first place. My experience in the clinic did exactly that. The seminar challenged my thoughts and assumptions about how specific aspects of the legal system work, and about how law, power, discretion, systems, and justice operates more generally.

Both the seminar and the project aspect of the clinic encouraged me to think beyond the “normal” portrayals and understandings of what lawyers do and the interventions lawyers can be a part of in the community. I learned the importance of really stepping back to understand an issue and its context, to better understand community needs and norms, and to really reflect on the role a lawyer can and should play.

Reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Kayla Fisher and Michael Geoffino share thoughts on their work in the Systemic Justice Project during fall 2021.

Working Alongside Community Leaders

Kayla Fisher, ’23

The systemic justice seminar offered a unique opportunity to merge legal theory with practical application. As a student, I have actively sought experiences which will help me to learn more about Philadelphia. Through this experience, I have learned more about the city’s thriving anti-gun violence movement, and I worked alongside thoughtful and genuine community leaders. It was incredible to meet and share ideas with leaders of various organizations. Hearing their visions for a safer future provided an opportunity to see how legal theory and policy must be informed by lived experience.

This course challenged me to think of lawyers as a critical, not central, component of the greater project of empowering the community. The collateral consequences of policing and mass incarceration are vast (and can often feel overwhelming), but this clinic and seminar highlights how lawyers can intervene by reducing harm and providing tangible support in the lives of those who simply need legal support. Overall, this clinic and seminar provided valuable lessons which I hope to carry forward with me into my career.

Students Encouraged to Think Critically

Michael Geoffino, ’23

As a 1L, I was frustrated with how often our legal education was about learning the rules without seriously looking at the results of the rules and the implications of these results. In this clinic we spent a lot of time looking at the rules surrounding our criminal justice system and incarceration as well as discussing the policy and implications under them. The readings and discussions were often challenging and critical, and the projects were both interesting and practical. I really enjoyed taking this clinic, it felt like a space where students were encouraged to think critically about the law and discuss their own opinions and conclusions. This class was an exciting change of pace from the typical law school class.

Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

Welcome to Prof. Shanda Sibley

We’re excited to welcome Shanda Sibley, who joined the Sheller Center this fall as Assistant Clinical Professor of Law. Prof. Sibley’s clinic, which will start in the spring, will focus on collateral consequences for people involved in the criminal legal system. Collateral consequences are penalties imposed on people in addition to the official sanctions for their actions – e.g., loss of civil rights (such as the right to vote), restrictions on employment and housing, ineligibility for public benefits, mistreatment while in prison, fees and costs of all sorts, and much more.

These consequences, which number in the tens of thousands on both the state and federal level, affect people who are incarcerated as well as those who have returned from incarceration, and in some instances even apply to people who were not actually convicted of a crime. And predictably, poor communities and communities of color are most affected.

Prof. Sibley’s interests grow out of her practice as well as her scholarship. Before coming to Temple, she was an acting Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Lawyering at New York University School of Law. Prior to that, she was an appellate public defender representing indigent criminal defendants in New York City. Her earlier experience includes litigation and transactional practice at two international law firms, and a clerkship for the Honorable Eric L. Clay of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

As Prof. Sibley points out, “When people are released from prison, we tell them that they need to change their lives in order to succeed. Then society puts thousands of roadblocks and barricades in their way, and yet we blame them when they fail again.” She is committed to trying to make change through policy advocacy and community engagement. We and our students are thrilled to have her with us and are looking forward to being involved with her clinic.

Reflections on Reentry Court

In the Sheller Center’s Federal Reentry Court clinic, supervised by attorney Maya Sosnov, students work with people who are returning from incarceration. Here are some excerpts from students’ comments about their experiences.

Brian Mahoney, on what students actually do:

Law students in the Reentry Court help relieve post-incarceration poverty. They assist participants to restore their driving privileges, reduce outstanding debt, establish affordable payment plans, combat identity fraud, and to challenge other legal barriers … Students also help restore participant dignity by forming meaningful relationships with participants and by advocating vigorously for their rights in private and public forums. You won’t save the world as a student advocate in the Reentry Program, but you will make a meaningful difference.

Stefanie Sherr, on a comment from a client:

One experience really stood out to me when I was helping one of the participants with an identity theft issue, and things were a bit frustrating and slow moving.  This  participant sent me a text message about how much he really appreciated my help, and I was really happy to be able to help him.

Nina del Valle, on trust:

New participants on their first day are asked to come up to a podium and speak to the judge. The last time this occurred for the participants was when they were being sentenced. Participants are often hesitant to trust the reentry team when they tell them that we are here to support their successful return into the community. Over time, you see the changes in the participants because … through our actions participants see that there can be another side to the criminal justice system that is here to help.

Sarah Figorski, on the obstacles facing returning citizens:

This experience has completely opened my eyes to the many legal roadblocks and personal setbacks that stand in a person’s way when reentering back into society. I have personally assisted clients in working through various issues in traffic court. I have handled trials, worked out agreements with the District Attorney, opened up old cases for appeal, and reduced ticket prices. I have assisted other clients with debt issues by performing extensive research for them to help them understand complicated issues that they would have otherwise been left to deal with on their own.

TJ Denley on the clients and on the significance of the experience:

I have done intakes and assessments, filed motions, developed strategy, and even argued in court for my client. I have met some amazing clients, men who want to change their life, so that instead of living the nightmare, they can begin to live the dream…. The clinical has given me a wider perspective on the criminal justice system, as well as more confidence in my ability to represent my clients.

And Laurel Kandianis on what matters:

The work of social justice does not always entail speaking to a large crowd or arguing in front of the Supreme Court… Sometimes it is about working to correct the small inequities unnoticed by the people who do not suffer them. In Reentry Court Clinic, my work has consisted of attempting to push back against these small inequities. I have spent most of my time in traffic court and on the phone with various Pennsylvania bureaucracies, attempting to weave through the maze of obstacles between my clients and their licenses.

Not having a license can cripple a person’s ability to re-integrate back into society after release from incarceration….  Working to help clients regain their licenses is not high-profile, ground-breaking work. But it is for that reason, I’ve come to believe, that the work is important.

 

A twofer: Sheller Center students help bring about criminal justice reforms

“Advocates have been pleading with the Philadelphia court system to end its policy of keeping 30 percent of all posted bail — even when a defendant is acquitted,” the Inquirer noted last week. And, the article reported, the advocacy has finally succeeded: the courts have agreed to stop the practice.

Among the advocates who helped make it happen were John Farrell, Paige Joki, and Adorah Nworah, law students in the Center’s Justice Lab. Their 2017 report, The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, written on behalf of Redeemed PA, took a close look at Philadelphia’s bail system. What they found was that a person charged with a crime “must pay a fee in order to pay for their freedom regardless of guilt or charge withdrawal. Thus, a person can be found innocent of a crime but be in jail for months and forced to pay the state for the privilege of having been wrongly accused.” That shocking practice is now history.

Also last week, the courts eliminated a policy that allowed for the automatic detention of people on probation who are charged with violating probation conditions or committing new offenses. More than half of those in jail in Philadelphia are there because of these “detainers,” which are often applied regardless of the severity of the alleged violation. This problem was the focus of advocacy led by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and supported by another Sheller Center team – Tracey Johnson, Liz Casey, and Liam Thomas. The implications of the change aren’t yet completely clear, but it’s a big step forward. Congratulations to the students and to Prof. Colleen Shanahan, who supervised their work.

Guest post: Nick Kato on #DebtFreeJustice

Nick Kato (2L) and Prof. Colleen Shanahan recently attended #DebtFreeJustice, a national meeting on juvenile fines and fees. Nick is part of a Justice Lab team working with the Juvenile Law Center on juvenile costs. He shares his impressions below. For more on the meeting and the issues, visit BerkeleyLaw.

Prof. Shanahan is second from left, and Nick Kato is in the back row, left of center. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Law School.

In February, I attended a national convening on juvenile fines and fees at Berkeley Law School. Advocates from across the country discussed the disparate impact of court-imposed fines and fees, and how burdensome costs defeat the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative goals. As part of a nascent but dedicated movement, advocates explored how to build off successful reforms in Philadelphia and California, including Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration.

The convening was especially valuable to me as a student because it provided a glimpse into the decision-making process for various advocacy options, ranging from impact litigation to community organizing and impact litigation. Being a part of the convening left me optimistic that advocates around the country can support each other’s efforts to create a more just and rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Our unfair system of cash bail

The time has come to end the use of cash bail in Pennsylvania, says The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, a new report from the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab and Redeemed PA, a community organization.

According to the report, the cash bail system discriminates on the basis of poverty, not dangerousness (as one interviewee noted, “Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t”). And the result, for people who cannot afford even low bail, is not just loss of liberty; pretrial detention also makes it harder for them to assist in their defense, thus unfairly increasing the likelihood of conviction.

According to the report, the cost of keeping people in jail who don’t need to be there runs into the millions of dollars each year. Cash bail doesn’t accomplish its goal, since the likelihood that a defendant will return to court is not enhanced by the setting of a high bail figure. The system is also unnecessary: under state law, the most dangerous defendants can be detained without bail in any event. (And there’s other strange stuff; did you know, for example, that you’ll forfeit a percentage of your bail even if you’re found not guilty?)

Effective alternatives, including validated risk assessment tools and innovative supervision programs, are now in use in cities and counties around the country.  Pennsylvania should follow the lead of those jurisdictions, say the report’s authors — students Adorah Nworah, Paige Joki, and John Farrell.

Discussions about cash bail are already underway in Philadelphia, which — as part of its criminal justice reform plan — has undertaken to “establish a robust range of alternatives to cash bail based on risk level.” And both candidates for District Attorney have been addressing the subject; Beth Grossman (R) reportedly supports the continued use of cash bail, while Larry Krasner (D) states that he will implement alternatives for those charged with nonviolent offenses. Hopefully, the findings of the report will contribute to these discussions — in Philadelphia and statewide.

Ripple effects from “advocacy in action”

We’ve shared lots of information about the Justice Lab effort that, in collaboration with many partners, led the City to decide to stop charging parents for the costs of their child’s incarceration. But Monday’s panel discussion about this example of “advocacy in action” brought out an additional point: social justice efforts can have a ripple effect.

L to R: Prof. Colleen Shanahan, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, parent Kameelah Davis-Spears, student Wesley Stevenson, YSRP Co-Director Lauren Fine, and students Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger. Photo by Abraham Gutman.

Thus, the fact that City Council, the Department of Human Services, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Temple law students were able – despite their differing roles — to cooperate in achieving this policy change had implications beyond the issue of incarceration costs. In a sometimes fractious political environment, “it showed,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said, “that we can work together.”

Likewise, Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents may have implications for other counties, since the State is now considering revising statewide guidance on the issue.

And there’s more: the discussion is also no longer just about charging parents of incarcerated children. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stated he’s “in it for the long haul” of questioning the array of fines and fees that further impoverish people whose incomes are already too low.

It’s an encouraging set of ripples. And it was encouraging, too, to hear Councilman Johnson say that often in government, “the best common sense comes from the activists.”