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New Criminal Justice Reform Clinic Opens

September 03, 2015

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    Executive Bobbin Singh ’11 and Professor Aliza Kaplan
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    Students working at CJRC

Serving Students and the Community
by Chelsea Sandbloom ’17

This fall a new legal clinic welcomes Lewis & Clark Law School students interested in the intersection of integrative advocacy and criminal justice reform. Launched by Professor Aliza Kaplan in collaboration with the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic is the first law clinic of its kind in the state and is funded through grants, individual contributions and donations. It will take a holistic approach to criminal justice reform.

OJRC is an independent 501(3)(c) not-for-profit organization that works on criminal justice issues, including the Oregon Innocence Project.

“The idea for the new clinic felt organic because law students have been involved in OJRC and the Oregon Innocence Project since the beginning, volunteering hundreds of hours per year and doing amazing work,” says Kaplan. “Providing our students with a clinical setting and a corresponding seminar in which to gain supervised legal and professional experience is a win-win for everyone. Partnering with the law school seemed to be the next logical step.”

According to Bobbin Singh ’11, executive director of OJRC, Lewis & Clark law students have contributed nearly 2,300 pro bono hours this past year to OJRC and the Oregon Innocence Project, and have volunteered over 14,000 hours since 2011. The new clinic will allow students to gain even more legal experience, with participants spending the entire academic year delving into relevant issues.

“The clinic is a structured outlet for students who are interested in criminal law and social justice,” says Singh. “Hands-on learning will emphasize criminal justice reform and advocacy, allowing students to feel that they are a part of something a little bit bigger.”

Students who participate in the clinic make a yearlong commitment and will earn three credits each semester. They will take a weekly seminar taught by Kaplan on topics such as race and policing, mass incarceration, causes of wrongful convictions, prison issues, and the death penalty. Participants will also report to supervisors and other students about their work. Local attorneys, former clients, and allied professionals will provide guest lectures.

“Students will conduct research, help write reports and briefs, and interact directly with clients, lawyers, and experts around the state and country on various criminal justice issues,” says Kaplan. “These opportunities will give students practical knowledge and experience in the criminal law and social justice arenas.”

Zachary Winston ’16 has been volunteering with OJRC since the spring of 2014 and with the Oregon Innocence Project since its inception in the fall of 2014. His story is one of the more unusual. “My experience with the law started with an arrest and felony conviction. After spending seven months in jail, where I witnessed many injustices within the system, I promised those around me that I would do something to help cure those injustices,” says Winston. “When I first arrived at Lewis & Clark, I was concerned there would not be a lot of criminal law clinical opportunities. The emergence of OJRC and the clinic make Lewis & Clark a major contender for prospective students interested in the criminal justice field. This clinic will allow the school and students to serve the community and work on reforming Oregon’s criminal justice system.”

“The Criminal Justice Reform Clinic is a great fit for the law school, because our students have a real interest in learning more about and participating in the criminal justice system. It will provide students with opportunities to be on the ground working on numerous issues and directly with different types of clients and in different contexts,” says Kaplan.

Upper-division students who participate in the new legal clinic will choose to work with one of three projects:

  • The Oregon Innocence Project provides direct and advisory legal services to individuals claiming innocence, as well as to their attorneys. It also promotes local and statewide legal reforms aimed at preventing wrongful convictions.
  • The Criminal Justice Project focuses on OJRC’s Eighth Amendment, death penalty, and amicus work. It considers an array of strategies under the Eighth Amendment (and state equivalent provisions) for qualified prisoners, including identifying legal grounds for sentencing reductions, clemency petitions, and compassionate release applications based on serious medical conditions. The project coordinates and conducts research on the administration of the death penalty in Oregon that supports litigation and policy reform. It also provides amicus assistance on the state level in cases that present significant social justice issues related to criminal defense, juvenile justice, or innocence.
  • The Reentry Law Project supports Mercy Corps’ Reentry Transition Center by filling the unmet legal needs of individuals returning to the community from incarceration, with the goal of reducing recidivism and improving public safety. In coordination with existing Reentry Transition Center programming, this new OJRC project will provide pro bono legal assistance directly to clients.

Dana Goetz ’17 started working at OJRC in May 2015. Although Goetz came to Lewis & Clark for its prestigious environmental law program, she is passionate about criminal law and wanted to spend her first summer researching Oregon’s death penalty. “OJRC addresses pressing and important legal issues. Professor Kaplan is great at working with students to facilitate research on specific topics and providing feedback,” says Goetz. “I’m excited to participate in the clinic to continue the work I’m doing this summer and to learn about more issues in the criminal justice system from Oregon’s top criminal law attorneys and experts.”

OJRC opened the doors of its own space in in the Barn Nonprofit Center in June 2015. The OJRC is one of several nonprofit organizations housed in the “Barn” which is located at the corner of Northwest 6th Avenue and Glisan Street in the historic Old Town district of Portland. Previously, Singh had an office at Lewis & Clark, while the Oregon Innocence Project had an office at the Metro Public Defenders. The new space allows students, professors, attorneys, and volunteers to now work in close proximity. Furnishings were donated by Gevurtz Manashe; Perkins Coie; Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt; and Wieden & Kennedy. The space can accommodate approximately 15 students and includes six private offices for the attorneys and other staff members. It also incorporates a large boardroom-style table and a small kitchen.

“My goal is to work with Professor Kaplan and Oregon Innocence Project/OJRC staff attorneys Steve Wax and Julia Yashimoto ’13 to make sure that the students have the tools and support they need to do the work,” says Singh. “We will continue to build out the impact of the clinic and refine it to make sure it’s a great learning experience for students.”

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