Defender advocacy as part of larger social movements
The Criminal Defense & Advocacy Clinic (CDAC) cultivates best practices in working with people who have been criminalized and in situating defense work as part of larger political and social movements. CDAC takes a deep and critical look at the practices and assumptions considered normal or acceptable in the criminal legal system, particularly with respect to survivors of gender-based violence, family abuse, and sexual exploitation. Clinic students, in collaboration with clients and coalition partners, will work to break down silos, shift power, reject traditional carceral responses, and advocate for responses to harm that promote healing and accountability, rather than simply retribution.
Led by Professors Kate Mogulescu and Elizabeth Isaacs, CDAC projects vary each semester, but the clinic’s flagship initiative is the Survivors Justice Project (SJP). SJP is an interdisciplinary collective of activists, lawyers, researchers, social workers, and students – many of whom are survivors of domestic violence and survivors of long-term incarceration. SJP, which launched in 2020, focuses on the decarceration of domestic violence survivors by ensuring robust implementation and expansion of the New York State Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Through SJP, students work with survivors of violence who are currently in prison on resentencing applications and hearings, clemency petitions, parole advocacy, and other forms of post-conviction relief.
Clinic participants develop mastery of criminal procedure law and process and explore larger questions involving the complex intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, immigration status, and incarceration in the criminal legal system. CDAC students are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and observations with survivors to help shape the kind of lawyers they want to become. Clinic participants learn to think about cases, and the needs of the people they are working with, comprehensively, guided by problem-solving and consistent reflection. Through this practice, the clinic engages in critical analysis of the criminal legal system—its practices, larger trends, and intentions, and where to situate/how to approach reform.
Clinic students handle all aspects of each case, including interviewing, conducting investigations, developing mitigation, coordinating resources and referrals, drafting pre-trial motions, engaging in negotiations, and advocating in court at hearings and sentencings. Students have primary responsibility for the case and client communication and appear in court pursuant to a student practice order.
Launched in 2017, clinic projects vary according to where the need is the greatest. Clinic clients primarily identify as women and range in age from those arrested as teenagers to individuals who have served decades in prison. Over 90% of clinic clients are women of color.
In its first two years, the clinic handled dozens of misdemeanor prostitution-related cases adjudicated in diversion courts and navigated clients through the process, leading overwhelmingly to dismissal of the charges. In addition, litigating under New York State law, clinic students prepare motions for post-conviction relief for clients who have experienced human trafficking and were compelled to engage in conduct that led to their own arrest and criminalization. Students work with clients to vacate prior convictions and clear criminal records. To date, the clinic has helped survivors of trafficking clear nearly 400 convictions from their records.
Currently, through the Survivors Justice Project, clinic teams work with survivors of domestic violence seeking resentencing through the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (SJP), landmark sentencing reform legislation enacted in New York State in 2019. The clinic filed some of the first resentencing applications under the new law, resulting in several significant reductions in prison sentences for survivors, including the first sentence reduction on a homicide offense, the first sentence reduction granted over a prosecutor’s objection, and the first sentence reduction granted on an indeterminate life sentence. Depending on clinic capacity and student availability, clinic students may have the opportunity to continue to assist with client representation and SJP projects beyond the clinic semester for advanced credit.