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commutation

TU Law to open Public Defender Clinic in fall 2020

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.

Glen Blake, assistant public defender, Tulsa County Public Defender's Office
Glen Blake

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.

Results-driven internships

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.

University of Tulsa College of Law student Carly Greenhaw
Carly Greenhaw

“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.

TU Law students and faculty expand access to justice in America’s Heartland and beyond

In popular culture, lawyers are not infrequently depicted as motivated primarily by a quest for billable hours. The recent Netflix hit Better Call Saul is an entertaining example of this stereotype.

Reality, of course, is more complex. Stepping inside The University of Tulsa College of Law – one of the Top 100 law schools in the United States – offers myriad instances of people who are committed to using their legal expertise in the cause of social justice and community support. Many of TU Law’s students and faculty members work year after year for the betterment of vulnerable, underserved people in Tulsa and further afield.

A commitment to public service

“TU Law has a long history of public service,” observed Lyn Entzeroth, the dean of the college. “Corporate law and litigation are, certainly, essential elements of students’ preparation. In addition, however, many students and faculty use their legal knowledge and skills to increase access to justice for individuals and groups who face barriers, such as limited economic means.

“While our clinical education program is at the forefront of such training and activity, students also find and create many social justice and community support activities through internships, externships and volunteer projects undertaken by TU Law’s numerous student organizations. I am so proud of the fact that, in 2018, TU Law students contributed 3,752 pro bono and public service hours.”

 

In this article, we shine a light on five initiatives that showcase various ways TU Law community members are rolling up their sleeves and making a positive difference:

  • Project Commutation
  • Expungement Expo
  • Terry West Civil Legal Clinic
  • Immigrant Rights Project
  • Assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico

Project Commutation

TU Law students have taken part in Project Commutation for the past two years. Spearheaded by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the initiative involves several partners, including TU Law, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office and Family & Children’s Services.

Project Commutation arose as a result of the 2016 passage of State Questions 780 and 781, which reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors. TU Law students’ main tasks were to sort through thousands of pages of records to identify likely candidates for commutation, and then travel to every prison across Oklahoma to meet and develop a plan with those who stood a particularly strong chance of being granted early release. As a result, in 2018, the governor of Oklahoma set 29 inmates free. This year, TU Law students’ Project Commutation efforts contributed to the record-breaking release of nearly 500 prisoners.

Expungement Expo

“Students at TU Law constantly find ways to give back to our community because they recognize the influence that a helping hand can have on an individual,” remarked Madison Cataudella, the president of TU Law’s Public Interest Board (PIB) student organization. PIB is a student-run organization at TU Law that involves students in community service, public service and pro bono work as they progress through their legal education. Students assist underserved and underrepresented individuals and groups across Tulsa. One of the mainstays of PIB’s community support is getting involved in Tulsa’s Expungement Expo.

For the past three years, Tulsa’s Expungement Expo has delivered information and assistance to people who have been charged with a nonviolent offense in Tulsa County, helping them to determine whether they qualify to have their records expunged. When undertaken outside the expo, this can be an enormously daunting and expensive process.TU Law students at the 2019 Expungement Expo

Students from TU Law’s PIB volunteer at the expo alongside Tulsa attorneys and representatives from community organizations, including the Tulsa County Clerk’s Office, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office and Still She Rises.  TU Law students’ main activities are to help maintain the flow of the hundreds of people who attend by checking them in and steering them toward the correct individuals with whom they need to consult.

“Nothing fills my cup more than pouring into other people,” remarked Cataudella. “I did not get to where I am today without several other people in my life guiding and mentoring me. In turn, I want to be an encouragement and guide to those around me. In fact, many of us went to law school aspiring to help our surrounding communities. The Expungement Expo gives people hope and a renewed view of themselves. It gives a person an opportunity to be defined by more than a single act.”

TU Law’s legal clinics: expanding access to social justice

US News & World Report ranks TU Law’s clinical education program 74th in the country. The college’s clinics prepare students for personally meaningful and socially impactful careers, while expanding access to legal services to Tulsa’s underserved populations.

Terry West Civil Legal Clinic

Dignitaries at opening of Terry West Civil Clinic The most recent addition to this dimension of the college is the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic. Named in honor of TU Law alumnus Terry West (JD ’66), this clinic was made possible by a grant from Sarkeys Foundation. The clinic’s inaugural director is Roni Amit, an international access-to-justice and human rights expert who has worked both in the United States as well as Africa and the Middle East.

In a recent interview, Amit laid out her vision for the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic, which had its grand opening in September 2019 and will officially begin its work in January 2020: “This clinic is intended to make justice real for marginalized people. The promise and potential of legal rights often remain inaccessible to those lacking political and economic capital. I hope to develop the clinic and TU Law as an integral part of the community and an important resource for community members in accessing their legal rights. This engagement will also teach students – who will act as counselors, advocates and problem-solvers for clients – to actively use the law as an instrument for social change.”

Immigrant Rights Project

Another of TU Law’s clinics is the Immigrant Rights Project (IRP), co-directed by Mimi Marton, associate dean of experiential learning, and Robin Sherman. This clinic is a one-semester, six-credit opportunity for students to represent non-citizens in immigration matters. IRP clients include persons seeking asylum in the U.S. as a result of persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries, as well as noncitizen victims of domestic violence and other crimes, unaccompanied noncitizen minors or other noncitizens subject to removal and immigration detention.

Jared Cannon, MaryJoy Chub and Anthony Agostino (students in the Immigrants Rights Project clinic at TU Law)In summer 2019, IRP students focused on serving the needs of noncitizen immigrants who were being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Tulsa County Jail. The first two weeks of the clinic were spent introducing the students to immigration law and developing techniques and approaches for interviewing clients. Over the next four weeks, the students held consultations with ICE detainees aimed at clarifying each individual’s circumstances and then counseling them on their various options. IRP students also advocated with ICE officers.

For TU Law student Jared Cannon, “Working in the IRP clinic made me more empathetic. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the current state of immigration, the related laws and the archaic nature of the processes detainees confront.”

Assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico

During the past few years, students involved in TU Law’s clinical education program have journeyed to the Karnes County Residential Center near San Antonio. There, they provided assistance to women and children seeking asylum in the U.S.

Tents, laundry and fences at the Matamoros refugee and asylum-seekers campIn November 2019, Marton, Amit and Clinical Instructor Robin Sherman led a group of students and a Spanish-language interpreter who is a staff member at TU Law across the border to Matamoros, Mexico. There, under a mile from Brownsville, Texas, lies a non-United Nations refugee camp of approximately 2,000 people surrounded by 10,000 more refugees and asylum seekers living in conditions of squalor and violence.

The NGO Lawyers for Good Government paid for the airfare, lodging and most meals for the TU Law group as well as representatives from their partners Domestic Violence Intervention Services and New Sanctuary Tulsa. Each day, the Tulsans crossed the bridge into Mexico, encountering the abjection and despair – in Sherman’s words, “a whole other level of hopelessness” – that infuses the lives of the families residing in the Matamoros camp.TU Law students and faculty members in Matamoros, Mexico

Working steadily throughout each day and evening, the TU Law students conducted in-depth interviews with camp residents. Their main goals were to help them establish what their options were for seeking refugee status in the U.S. and to prepare the documents required at immigration meetings in the U.S. immigration agents’ “tent courts.”

Beyond the value of developing their research and interviewing skills as well as delivering practical guidance for people desperate to escape the harsh conditions of life in Matamoros, Marton noted that the students were able to “bear witness” to the brutality and brokenness of the current refugee and asylum system. “The experience in Mexico also caused them to challenge and rethink their identities as advocates and lawyers,” she remarked. “What, after all, does one’s ‘professional identity’ mean when you are supposed to be helping but encounter a system that is so stacked against success and conditions that are so chaotic and dangerous? What is a lawyer’s role in such a context? These are one type of important question TU Law students grapple with in the course of their involvement with our clinics.”


If public service through the law interests you, consider earning a juris doctor (JD) from The University of Tulsa College of Law. We are a Top 100 law school that’s ranked No. 10 in the nation for job placement and No. 74 for our clinical education program.