Criminal law is a perennial area of interest for law students. Within this realm, the growing area of criminal justice reform is of particular interest to many aspiring attorneys. Fueled by an increasingly broad understanding of the complexities and challenges of the criminal justice system, many students now enter law school eager to join the effort to seek system reform. For many of these students, the traditional roles of prosecutor or defense attorney may not provide the right fit and/or opportunity to enact the change that they are seeking. Thankfully, as the criminal justice reform movement has gained momentum over the years, opportunities to work in this field have grown to include new avenues. This article details a number of ways in which students and attorneys can impact and reform the criminal justice system from many different angles.
A number of organizations offer opportunities to advocate for change within the criminal justice system at a legislative level. Whether it be advocating for or against the passage of certain laws, these organizations target their reform efforts to the underlying policy forming the framework of the criminal justice system. Opportunities in this vein can be available both with organizations who advocate directly for certain policies and within the offices of legislators who have identified criminal justice policy/reform as an area of interest and priority.
Other organizations offer opportunities to engage in reform efforts focused on impact litigation. By participating in large civil lawsuits aimed at affecting the rights of many, these organizations are able to shed a light on -- and hopefully change -- certain issues within the criminal justice system. In the past few years, advocacy organizations have pursued impact litigation efforts on topics such as bail reform, sentencing issues, and prison conditions, among others.
The expunction process offers an opportunity to assist those caught in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system in a simple, yet very important way. Frequently, expunctions are granted in cases where an individual was arrested but never charged, had charges dismissed, or was charged with certain juvenile offenses. Yet the process of seeking an expunction can feel overwhelming and confusing without legal assistance, and prospective expunction applicants are frequently unable to pay an attorney to assist them. Opportunities to assist individuals with their expunction applications are available through various legal clinics and pro bono projects often housed within a law school or local bar association.
For those jurisdictions in which a sentencing commission exists, working with such a commission may provide an opportunity to impact the policy underlying the sentences of those convicted. Traditionally, sentencing commissions have been established to develop, implement, and monitor some form of sentencing guidelines for their jurisdiction. However, we are now also seeing commissions created to focus on the development and analysis of sentencing policy as opposed to specific guidelines. Working with such organizations can provide excellent insight into the sentencing process as well as opportunities to impact the policy underlying existing guidelines.
Progressive Prosecutor Offices
In the last few years, a handful of prosecutor’s offices across the country have seen attorneys with public defense backgrounds running for, and sometime winning, the elected District Attorney seat. These prosecutors are joining the ranks of a growing “progressive prosecutor” movement that is attempting to reform the criminal justice system from the prosecutorial angle. These progressive district attorneys often refuse to seek death penalty sentences, enact in-house conviction integrity systems, and reset office priorities and policies with regard to minor drug offenses, bail, and civil forfeiture. Working with such offices would provide an attorney with the opportunity to work for criminal justice reform from a different angle.
Holistic Defense Organizations
On the defense side, holistic defense organizations offer opportunities to approach criminal defense in a unique way. Touting their broader approach to representing clients, these offices provide more wide-ranging services to their clients than the traditional public defender’s office might, often enlisting a collaborative effort of multiple social services. Such defense organizations center on the concept that the best way to advocate for their clients is to holistically provide for their legal and social support needs and place emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches and a robust understanding of and connection to the community served.
“Specialty” Courts/Pre-trial Diversion Programs
A number of jurisdictions are utilizing certain “specialty” courts or pre-trial diversion programs for cases involving special circumstances so that a totality of such circumstances are taken into account during adjudication. Examples of such courts include “drug courts” for individuals battling addiction, “mental health courts” for individuals navigating various mental health issues, and “veterans courts” for individuals who have served in the military. These courts and programs tend to employ a more collaborative approach to the cases set before them, utilizing cooperation between prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as relevant social workers and treatment professionals.
Across the country, a number of organizations are working to address the issues incarcerated individuals face upon release from prison, including those issues that affect their ability to secure housing and employment. Often these organizations simultaneously aid such individuals in finding work while addressing systemic issues that preclude such individuals from making a successful reentry upon release. This area of focus offers opportunities for both practicing attorneys, as well as those for whom a law/policy/social work hybrid position might be the best fit.
Actual Innocence Work
Since the advent of DNA testing and evidence, a number of organizations have taken up the banner of reopening cases and overturning wrongful convictions. These actual innocence organizations also frequently focus their efforts on working to change issues within the system to prevent additional wrongful convictions from occurring. Working with such organizations frequently involves navigating complicated issues of appellate criminal procedure.
For those individuals under age 18, being charged with an offense involves a separate juvenile justice system. However, because of the complicated nature of charging and punishing children, this system is as equally riddled with challenges ripe for reform efforts as its adult counterpart. A number of organizations provide opportunities to impact issues within the juvenile justice system, including offices centered on juvenile defense and those addressing the school-to-prison pipeline issue.
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm cause by criminal behavior. Many organizations working in this vein attempt to achieve restorative justice through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet. As such, many of the aforementioned organizations could foreseeably play a role in restorative justice efforts, adding another layer of potential criminal justice reform attainable through such opportunities.
As the world of criminal justice reform has expanded and developed, so too have opportunities for students and attorneys to get involved in new and unique ways. Exploration of such opportunities will allow a young attorney to not only better understand the criminal justice system overall, but also to more broadly envision where they might be best suited to work for change.