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New law school courses, clinics delve into criminal justice issues

‘I think the overall issue is that we’re losing sight of the purpose of pretrial detention, which is to protect the community,’ says attorney Zina Makar. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Zina Makar, who used grant money to file writs of habeas corpus to challenge bail determinations, will lead the University of Baltimore School of Law’s new Pretrial Justice Clinic. ‘It gives our clients a better chance of true justice through the criminal justice system,’ she says. ‘Any time money is involved, it is going to unfairly affect people of low incomes. The Pretrial Justice Clinic hopes to remedy that situation.’ (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

As conversations about police conduct, racial disparities and flaws in the criminal justice system have been taking place in Baltimore and around the country, colleges and universities have launched courses aimed at examining the root causes of these societal issues and encouraging students to look for solutions.

That includes the city’s two law schools, which this fall are taking another step to encourage their students to consider the ways in which they can impact the system as future attorneys.

A new law clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law will focus on bail reform and other pretrial issues, while a new “legal theory and practice” course at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law intends to examine what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“We’ve been thinking about the course for a while, just because the issues really bridge so many areas of law, whether it’s criminal justice, alternative dispute resolution, juvenile justice, civil rights — so many aspects of law that we’ve been talking about in Baltimore and around the country,” said Michael Pinard, a UM Carey Law professor who is teaching the pipeline course along with professor Deborah Thompson Eisenberg. “We got to the point where we said, ‘We really have to teach this course, offer this course and play a role in these efforts in Baltimore and beyond, because the issues are so critical.’”

Zina Makar, who is leading the Pretrial Justice Clinic along with UB Law professor Colin Starger, has been working on bail reform efforts since graduating from UM Carey Law in 2014. Through an Open Society Institute of Baltimore fellowship, she used writs of habeas corpus to challenge bail determinations, which will make up part of the responsibilities of students in the clinic.

“It’s essentially leveling the playing field from the onset of cases, not just through the trial,” Makar said. “It gives our clients a better chance of true justice through the criminal justice system. Any time money is involved, it is going to unfairly affect people of low incomes. The Pretrial Justice Clinic hopes to remedy that situation.”

Starger, who has been working on criminal justice reform issues for decades, said the ongoing momentum surrounding these topics has led to increased public awareness and a strong desire for change. Tackling one aspect of the “many-headed Hydra” of mass incarceration, as he described it, is the clinic’s focus.

“This is the first time you’re seeing a phrase like mass incarceration being used by mainstream politicians across the political spectrum,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are seeing pretrial justice as a very important part of that — everyone that’s in this position is legally innocent; they haven’t been proven guilty.”

Addressing pretrial issues

There will be four, third-year UB Law students taking part in the inaugural Pretrial Justice Clinic. The students’ “bread and butter” work will involve representation of clients in challenging bail determinations, Starger said, including interviewing relevant parties, filing habeas petitions, drafting litigation documents and attending hearings.

Students will also conduct intake screenings with a focus on two main types of cases.

“One will be outrageous individual injustices, where we think the record is being read all wrong and somebody is not nearly as dangerous or as much of a flight risk as the bail that’s set would indicate,” Starger said. “Others will be where we see legal issues that arise that reflect larger problems, such as where we see a practice of prior arrests that did not result in conviction being used as justification for saying someone is dangerous.”

The goal is for students to learn which cases can be effectively challenged using the habeas mechanism, Makar said.

“As a clinic, we’re not volume-based,” she said. “We want our students to be creative and think of ways to address volume effectively and efficiently through one specific case or one specific project. Part of their job is to determine what cases are good candidates for a habeas petition.”

The clinic’s participants will also conduct advocacy work to support reform efforts focused on addressing mass incarceration, such as considering methods of improving transparency in bail data, as well as ways of raising questions about the efficacy of monetary bail as an institution.

Dismantling the pipeline

At UM Carey Law, the school-to-prison pipeline course will allow 12 second- and third-year law students to combine representation and advocacy with development of conflict resolution skills, Eisenberg said.

“One of the goals — we call it a ‘legal theory and practice’ class — is to learn about the problem and then also get experience in using a range of lawyering strategies to understand the problem and attack the problem,” she said. “Litigation alone may not be the best way to attack a problem, so in addition to doing traditional litigation, they’re also looking at legislation or policy and working with education and advocacy groups to help bring extra force to that effort.”

The course broadly covers the link between public school discipline, such as suspensions, the presence of law enforcement in schools and the juvenile justice system. It also will delve deeply into issues of race and poverty as they connect with the school-to-prison pipeline. Students will get a combination of reform work and representation experience under their belts and will reinforce the work of the law school’s Center for Dispute Resolution, known as C-DRUM.

C-DRUM has been in Maryland schools for more than a decade, working with teachers, administrators and students to develop more effective conflict resolution strategies, Eisenberg said. C-DRUM’s work is closely linked to the new course’s mission, as the students will examine how lawyering strategies can contribute to the effort to keep kids in school.

Pinard said students in the new pipeline course will first be examining the wealth of activist work that has sprung up around criminal justice issues recently in order to determine the best way to participate from a legal perspective.

“One of the important components to get across to students is that we really have to look at what is going on in Baltimore and in Maryland with regard to advocacy around these issues,” Pinard said. “We want to be sensitive to the great work that’s being done and figure out how we can contribute, so part of what we’ll be doing is listening and observing.”