The abiding principle of clinical legal education is that students learn best—in the deepest and most engaged way—when theory is applied in practice and students reflect on their role as lawyers in the broader context of law and society. The Criminal Defense & Prison Advocacy Clinic (CDPAC) offers students an intensive experience in indigent criminal defense and prisoner advocacy. Through client representation, classroom lectures and discussion, simulations and exercises, small group “case rounds,” and individual supervision meetings, students will obtain a rich understanding of the culture and ethics of indigent criminal defense, and develop expertise in criminal trial advocacy and the representation of prisoners in administrative proceedings.

We live in a time of mass incarceration. The United States currently incarcerates a greater percentage of its citizens than anywhere else on earth—a total of 2.3 million people. The US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. When you include probation and parole, there are 7.3 million people under the control of our criminal justice system, or 1 in every 31 adults. Unfortunately, those who initially manage to avoid incarceration through probation often wind up serving time. Those who get out on parole often return to prison. Moreover, our incarceration practices have a disproportionate impact on certain populations. According to recent figures, one in two young African American men is either in jail or prison or on probation or parole in the District of Columbia.

Students in the Clinic represent indigent defendants facing trial in misdemeanor cases in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, and those convicted of crime in parole and probation hearings. Caseloads are flexible and attuned more to the quality of cases than to quantity, but the expectation is that students will maintain a caseload of at least two cases and a special ongoing “prisoner advocacy project” at any given time. Students are appointed to cases in the Superior Court at preliminary arraignment. The most common pretrial charges include assault, threats, drug possession, theft, unlawful entry, destruction of property, and minor weapons offenses. Students “first chair” these cases (act as lead counsel), supervised by Clinic faculty and fellows. Students in the Clinic also represent clients in parole revocation hearings before the U.S. Parole Commission. Parole cases, which include serious felonies, are assigned by the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS), and supervised by attorneys in the agency’s Parole Division. Students first chair these cases as well. Students also act as lead counsel in representing misdemeanor clients in probation violation (“show cause”) hearings in the Superior Court under the supervision of Clinic faculty and fellows.

Clinic students are expected to take on an additional project to enrich and broaden their clinical experience, and to help fill a need in the community. The projects include: working on a parole, clemency, or pardon application for a long-serving prisoner; working with a recently released prisoner on re-entry issues; and creating a student-run legal or educational project for prisoners.

During the school year, the Clinic meets for class twice each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Through a wide range of readings—case law, trial advocacy manuals, legal ethics treatises, law review articles, timely magazine and newspaper articles, literature, poetry, and cartoons—coupled with the regular use of movie and television clips, classes focus on topics such as the role and professional responsibilities of a criminal defense attorney; broader systemic issues (racism, poverty, violence, drug addiction, mental illness, the reliance on mass incarceration over any other anti-crime strategy); pretrial skills (interviewing, counseling, investigation, negotiation, and developing a case theory); trial skills (opening statements, closing arguments, witness examination); sentencing advocacy (developing a sentencing theory, collecting supporting materials, and drafting and delivering an effective sentencing argument); and the law of evidence, criminal procedure, parole, and probation in the District of Columbia.

Before the year is over, students will have interviewed and counseled clients, investigated cases, drafted and argued motions, examined witnesses, made bail and sentencing arguments, and in some instances conducted complete trials. Because each case is unique, and many factors are beyond our control, we ¬cannot promise that every student will have a trial. However, it is expected that most students will conduct a suppression hearing (challenging police conduct on constitutional grounds), most will have a probation violation (“show cause”) hearing (challenging probation officer testimony and engaging in sentencing advocacy), and every student will conduct a parole revocation hearing (examining witnesses and making argument). Moreover, every student will have an opportunity to devote themselves to an interesting prisoner advocacy project of their choosing.

Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic students accept full responsibility for their cases. Part of that responsibility is making effective use of the experienced lawyers and teachers whose role is to insure both that students benefit from an extraordinary educational experience and clients benefit from extraordinary representation. The students will be intensively supervised by Professor Abbe Smith, Visiting Professor Vida Johnson, E. Barrett Prettyman Fellows, and Adjunct Professors from the PDS Parole Division.

Working with poor people accused or convicted of crime is often exhilarating, sometimes grueling, and never boring. For some, it is life changing.