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By Leslie Ridgeway

When USC Gould’s Post-Conviction Justice Project got its start in the early ‘80s, clinical programs in law schools were scarce. Forty years later, PCJP is one of the most enduring and influential clinical programs in the nation. It has led the way in parole reform and shaped and fought for legislation and policies, creating meaningful second chances for incarcerated women and youth offenders. For hundreds of law students and the faculty who mentored them, PCJP has inspired a lifelong passion for the pursuit of justice. 

“Our program grows students into lawyers,” says Professor Heidi Rummel, PCJP’s co-director, who came to USC Gould in 2006. “The law students take ownership of all aspects of their cases, from client relationships to legal strategies to meeting court deadlines. They come to us as students and leave ready to practice law.”  

For many students and alumni, PCJP put a human face on the criminal justice system. Robert Dugdale (JD 1993), a former federal prosecutor and now partner at Kendall Brill & Kelly LLP, represented a PCJP client at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island to help him tell his story to the parole board. Working closely with the client – a man convicted for his involvement in a double homicide, who had been in prison longer than Dugdale had been alive –  taught Dugdale that a person is not defined by a decades-old act. 

“You have a perception of what someone must be like after reading a cold record detailing a client’s crime,” Dugdale says. “But then, after actually meeting the client and getting to understand how people can change over time, you learn that in most cases, people, regardless of their past mistakes, are not irredeemable.” 

Breathing life into classroom theory through legal practice

PCJP, along with other clinical programs at USC Gould, owes its existence to Yale Law School’s Denny Curtis, clinical professor emeritus who founded PCJP in 1981 to represent clients serving federal sentences at nearby FCI Terminal Island. Curtis joined current PCJP co-director Michael Brennan and Clinical Professor Lee Campbell, then at USC, and over time, helped recruit professors William Genego, Carrie Hempel, Denise Meyer, Noel Ragsdale, and Chuck Weisselberg, who supervised and mentored students with direct responsibility representing clients. Students fought for justice for their individual clients and also gained a deeper understanding of legal and social issues in the criminal justice system.  

“The idea is to have students understand substantive legal principles and the obligations of lawyers through seeing, first-hand, how the law operates on your clients; what needs to change, and how, from an organizational and structural point of view, to bring about change,” says Curtis. Clinical legal education, he adds, was “really a question of helping students to learn how to practice law, how actually to make things happen for the benefit of your client, and how law worked on the ground. That had not usually been part of law school.” 

In the 1970s, when he started at Yale and then in the 1980s at USC, “no one knew what clinical education was. Law schools now compete with each other on the strength, efficacy and reach of their clinical programs. It’s such a constitutive part of the law school experience.” 

Yale Law professor Judith Resnik taught at USC in the 1980s and 1990s and noted early wariness of clinical programs in law schools.   

“Many law schools were deeply skeptical of these programs. Now, 40 years later, the clinical visionaries have been proven right,” she says. “Clinical programs are now seen as ordinary staples of law school education. It’s not at all surprising that a thoughtful, useful way of providing education has expanded and is deeply integrated into the law school structure.”  

Parole reform successes: A hallmark of PCJP’s work

In 1994, in response to changing federal laws, PCJP’s focus shifted from representation of clients serving federal sentences to women serving indeterminate sentences at the California Institution for Women. Brennan, together with Hempel, who joined PCJP in 1993, recognized a pressing need for representation and reforms for women who had been convicted of serious crimes related to a history of intimate partner violence. 

“There were serious problems with medical care at CIW, and there were many women with life sentences who needed assistance with parole and habeas petitions,” says Hempel, now associate dean for clinical education and service learning at University of California, Irvine School of Law. “They became the focus of our work. Most of those women were people who had been battered or sexually assaulted throughout their lives before they were incarcerated.” 

To address the medical care issues, PCJP co-counseled with several organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children to bring a successful lawsuit against California’s three women’s prisons for failure to provide adequate medical care. 

Obtaining release on parole for clients was a bleaker prospect. Since the late 1980s, California’s parole release rate had been less than one percent. But PCJP students continued to fight for their deserving clients’ releases, in administrative hearings and in court challenges. Finally, in 2008, PCJP won a landmark victory in the In re Lawrence case and dramatically changed outcomes for California life-term prisoners.  

As Brennan explains, PCJP filed a habeas corpus petition challenging the Governor’s fifth reversal of a parole grant for longtime client Sandra Davis-Lawrence. To everyone’s surprise, the California Court of Appeal adopted PCJP’s novel legal argument and granted the petition, releasing Lawrence after 24 years in prison. The California Supreme Court’s decision affirming the Court of Appeal changed the landscape for parole in California and spread hope throughout the prison system that true rehabilitation could earn release on parole. In the 10 years prior to the Lawrence decision, PCJP won release for eight clients. Since Lawrence, more than 150 PCJP clients have been released through the parole process. 

“California moved from releasing less than 5 percent of prisoners to more than a third of eligible prisoners, and retained a one percent recidivism rate,” Brennan says. “That was the biggest change in the law that we were involved in. Obviously it was pretty gratifying.”  

Many PCJP students over the years have argued cases before various California Courts of Appeal, as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, now an associate justice on the Washington Supreme Court, remembers long days and nights of preparation before arguing a civil rights case for a PCJP client before the Ninth Circuit. 

“It was a wonderful opportunity for me,” she says. “It changed my law school experience from books and classroom performance to learning how to represent a client.” 

Fighting on for fairness and justice

One of PCJP’s longest-lasting efforts took place during the 1980s, when students represented some of the 125,000 Cuban refugees from Mariel Bay following the mass emigration known as the “Mariel Boatlift.” Suspecting some of the refugees were criminals, federal officials indefinitely detained them in U.S. prisons, including FCI Terminal Island. Weisselberg, hired at USC Gould in 1987, supervised PCJP students representing the refugees who were detained at FCI Lompoc over a period of 10 years. 

Today, PCJP students and faculty continue to fight for second chances for deserving clients and advocate for fairness in California’s criminal justice system. They conduct workshops in prisons across the state to motivate and educate people who have been incarcerated since they were teens. PCJP students, faculty and former clients travel to Sacramento to testify at legislative committee hearings and meet with legislators on important policy reforms.  

Not even the coronavirus pandemic can stop PCJP students from winning cases. Simone Rudolf-Dib (JD 2021) made several quick adjustments when the California Board of Parole Hearings moved to virtual parole hearings. On short notice, Rudolf-Dib represented her client at his parole hearing via Skype. 

“Working with a client to prepare them for a parole hearing is always a great educational experience, but this hearing stands out because of the way it taught me to adjust to new circumstances and work under unexpected conditions,” she says. Best of all, the board granted the client parole. 

Weisselberg, founding director of the Center for Clinical Education at UC Berkeley Law, applauds USC Gould for its continued support of PCJP and clients who often have no other legal avenue. 

“I’m pleased that the school has maintained its commitment to a population of clients who really need legal assistance and can’t find it elsewhere, and that students continue to have the opportunity to learn law and practice while representing these people who sorely need their help,” he says.

Pictured: Heidi Rummel, co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, in a meeting with then-student Alex Kirkpatrick (JD 2017) and client Marvin Mutch. With PCJP’s representation, Mutch won parole after serving 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.