The University of Tulsa College of Law will open its new Public Defender Clinic in fall 2020. This latest addition to the college’s highly regarded clinical education program will be a unique partnership between TU Law and the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office.
“The creation of this clinic is the result of a long-time dream,” noted Mimi Marton, TU Law’s associate dean of experiential learning and the director of clinical programs. “Because of the exposure to and first-hand interaction with the public defender’s office and the work it undertakes, our students will be able to participate in yet another example of the gold standard in clinical education.”
Focus on commutation
The eight students accepted into the Public Defender Clinic for fall 2020 will focus on commutation. Over the course of a semester, they will undertake research and advocacy aimed at releasing from incarceration selected individuals who are now serving time in Oklahoma’s prisons for nonviolent offenses that, under recent legislation, no longer carry such stiff sentences.
The person who will teach the Public Defender Clinic is Glen Blake, an assistant public defender at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office. “With this new clinic,” Blake observed, “we hope that students will be able to get involved in every step of the commutation process as well as learn about Oklahoma’s sentencing laws. They will also gain practical knowledge of what being a public defender is all about.”
A graduate of TU Law himself (JD ’00), Blake has a wealth of public defender and commutation experience. The latter stems from his role as lead attorney for Project Commutation, which Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform launched in the spring of 2018. Under Blake’s watch, Project Commutation has led to the release of 140 people from prison. Another 120 have been recommended for release by the Pardon and Parole Board and are awaiting the governor’s approval. Approximately 50 more people are set for hearings and another 200 applications still in the works.
Project Commutation leans heavily on the expertise and elbow grease of TU Law students. Since its inception, 40 TU Law interns have served on the initiative. This spring, four from fall 2019 returned for a second internship, and the aim is to have 10 interns over the summer.
“Our TU Law interns provide invaluable assistance through the entire commutation process,” said Blake. “Their efforts span many functions, from the very beginning all the way through to the end.” The students’ main tasks include reviewing cases for initial consideration, making contact with the individuals selected, interviewing them, preparing applications, reaching out to family members, collaborating with re-entry coordinators to prepare re-entry plans and, at the second-stage Pardon and Parole Board hearings, serving as personal delegates who argue the legal basis for the commutation candidates.
The power to change lives
One of the students who interned on Project Commutation is Carly Greenhaw. Currently a 2L at TU Law, Greenhaw both expanded her knowledge and derived great personal satisfaction from her experience. “In addition to learning how to properly interview and orally advocate,” she noted, “I learned how to gain trust from prospective clients and listen to people’s stories without making them feel judged or ashamed. I also learned how to interact with family members that had a high stake in the process.
“My commutation work taught me how to juggle the interests of all parties in a productive and beneficial way. I grew in my understanding of the importance of not judging a book by its cover and giving to every single client the benefit of the doubt. Project Commutation encourages you to see the good in people again. This is a huge benefit to an attorney because it allows you to see beyond a client’s mistakes and truly get to the core of their story. This experience has been the confidence booster I needed to remind me that I can zealously advocate for another person and that I can, indeed, change people’s lives.”
Are you interested in combining your commitment to expanding access to justice while earning your JD at one of the country’s best value law schools? Consider applying today to The University of Tulsa College of Law.