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Pretrial justice, from Maryland to Malawi

Project to focus on collaboration between law, other disciplines

Pretrial justice, from Maryland to Malawi

Project to focus on collaboration between law, other disciplines

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At Chancellor College in the southeast African country of Malawi, a legal clinic focused on bail issues and pretrial representation gives students at the nation’s only law school firsthand experience in the field.

Thousands of miles away, at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, professor Douglas Colbert’s Access to Justice Clinic has much the same goal — educating students who are passionate about improving legal representation for indigent defendants.

In about six months, an interdisciplinary team of students led by Colbert and Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, program manager for Law & Social Work Service at UM Carey Law, will travel to the city of Zomba for several weeks as part of a new program, the Malawi Bail & Mitigation Clinic Project at Chancellor College.

The goal is to examine the consequences of lack of access to legal representation, pretrial detention and jail overcrowding, from both a legal and social services perspective, Colbert said.

“We’re not traveling there to tell other people what they ought to be doing, but rather to listen and share ideas from our own work here,” said Colbert, long known as one of the prime advocates for the right to counsel at bail hearings in the Maryland. “I’m absolutely certain that we will come back with new ideas for how to address pretrial overcrowding and health conditions in Maryland.”

Although many details have yet to be finalized, the program will be packed with workshops, site visits and collaboration between the Malawi faculty and students and the four to six Maryland students who participate, he said.

“I think it will range from actually traveling and observing jail conditions, to both attending joint classes and hopefully teaching parts of different classes,” Colbert said. “I envision [the students] devoting extensive time to research and to proposing ideas to reduce serious jail overcrowding and delays in trials. It’s a combination of learning by experience and researching existing issues and collaborating with the Malawi people on the ground.”

Applications are currently available for interested students, most of whom will likely hail from UM Carey Law and the University of Maryland School of Social Work, although students from other disciplines such as medicine and pharmacy are also welcome to apply, Bowman-Rivas said.

The emphasis will be on solving problems by drawing from multiple fields, Colbert said.

“The law student learns that legal problems often require collaboration with social workers, and vice versa,” he said. “Students from different professional schools will engage in joint brainstorming, and that really is the preferred way of addressing systemic issues.”

For Bowman-Rivas, a clinical and forensic social worker, that means showing students from both disciplines how their fields interact in real-world scenarios.

“There was some interest by people at [Chancellor College] in integrating behavioral health professionals into their legal work — that’s kind of where I’m focusing,” she said. “The more that we can accustom people to working together while they’re still in school, hopefully that carries over.”

The project is funded by a grant from the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Center for Global Education, and Colbert said he anticipates that it will be just the first step in a continuing partnership. One possibility for the future is an exchange program between the two schools, Bowman-Rivas added.

For now, though, they’re concentrating on arranging the logistics of the stay and narrowing the field of interested students to the few who will be selected, Colbert said.

“Putting together a team of people who are truly committed to learning and to doing becomes our chief goal,” he said. “Students who choose to travel to Malawi — as opposed to Paris — make a very strong statement about their commitment to the international arena.”

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