A New UW Program Lets Students Prosecute People for Minor Crimes
A vocal group of students and alumni at the University of Washington School of Law (UWSL) is protesting a decision to give law students the power to prosecute people for nonviolent minor offenses, such as driving with a suspended license and violating court orders, through the King County prosecutor's office. Law school administrators argue that the school's new criminal prosecution program, slated to begin in January, will provide invaluable experience: "The basic idea is that it gives students a chance to get out into the community and learn by doing," explains UWSL dean Kellye Testy, who notes, "We've gotten positive feedback about this clinic—a whole lot."
But the clinic's critics, many of whom are people of color studying at a predominantly white law school, point out the obvious: Minority suspects are charged with crimes at disproportionately high rates, and a criminal prosecution clinic will induct students into an orderly system of institutionalized racism.
"It's basically the antithesis of social justice," explains Johanna Gusman, 29, who graduated this month from UWSL and helped organize the group of current and former students objecting to the clinic. "It certainly runs counter to the school's public motto of creating 'leaders for the global common good.'" In addition to concerned undergrads, 40 alumni also sent a letter to the school on April 23, stating: "This decision puts UWSL firmly on the wrong side of history, in opposition to the civil rights struggle of our time—the growing movement against mass incarceration and criminalization."
Law clinics give students practical experience working in specialized areas of law. Each year, UWSL offers about 13 clinics to its third-year law students, which range in topic from tax to the Innocence Project, which exonerates wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. Typically, each clinic consists of one instructor—in the form of a watchful attorney—overseeing eight students. The low student-teacher ratio makes clinics incredibly expensive to produce. Student participation in clinics isn't mandatory, but it is "highly encouraged," notes Deborah Maranville, who runs the law school's clinic program.
Criminal prosecution clinics are rare at universities in the United States. At the time of its unveiling in March, details on the UW criminal prosecution clinic's structure and goals were scarce. "It had no syllabus, no teacher, no structure, no guidelines," says 28-year-old Stephen Coger, a third-year law student. Details on the clinic are still being hammered out, but administrators say that it will most likely include eight students prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanor crimes—including drunk driving—for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
But some students complain the university is taking a lopsided approach. The UW is not offering a complementary program to defend people accused of crimes. In fact, the university suspended a workers' rights clinic when the prosecution clinic was announced (administrators say that the workers' clinic is only on a temporary hiatus while its instructor takes a sabbatical). Coger says, "There was nothing about the clinic that addressed or even acknowledged racial disparity."
Two years ago, the US Department of Justice noted that "Seattle Police Department officers may stop a disproportionate number of people of color where no offense or other police incident has occurred." Just last year, senior King County deputy prosecutor James Konat resigned after being censured by the state supreme court for using racially charged language, making an "inappropriate appeal to racial prejudice," and talking about the "black code" during a murder trial.
And while King County doesn't track defendants' ethnicities for the roughly 15,000 misdemeanor and felony charges it files annually, a 2011 report compiled by a coalition of judges, law professors, and attorneys called the racial and ethnic disproportionality in our state criminal justice system "indisputable." In 2005, for instance, their Preliminary Report on Race and Washington's Criminal Justice System found that in Washington, black people were jailed at 6.4 times the rate of white people, while Latinos were jailed roughly 1.3 times more than their white counterparts. The report also notes that just 30 years ago, our state "had the highest rate of disproportionate minority representation in its prisons."
Those statistics have names and faces for students like Gusman. "We envision putting our families in jail," she says. "Then we're faced with the idea of our school directly having a hand in jailing poor people and minorities. Imagine if we said, 'Okay, you can do this clinic, but you can only prosecute misdemeanor crimes in the Madison Valley area.' It would be shut down immediately. It wouldn't fly. So my question is, is this clinic really appropriate for a public university?"
At a private university, it was recently deemed inappropriate. Faculty at Seattle University School of Law overwhelmingly voted this spring to kill an identical criminal prosecution clinic proposed by the King County prosecutor's office, citing, among other things, the school's commitment to social justice. (In one e-mail exchange between SU faculty, obtained confidentially by The Stranger, a faculty member argued against "providing clinical resources to an office that overwhelmingly prosecutes poor people of color.")
Still, proponents of the UW clinic argue that the program will allow students to change a broken criminal justice system from within. "Frankly, if people are concerned about reforming the justice system, as I am, the place to do it is in the prosecutor's office," says King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg, whose office will be responsible for directing the clinic's students. "Not by boycotting the system, not by saying we're evil and shouldn't be taught on campus. We need to engage the bright minds on campus and get them into reform."
Dean Testy adds that the school is "on the same page ideologically" as students. She agrees that the best way to effect change is by educating the next generation of prosecutors on the social, racial, and economic inequities prevalent in the criminal justice system and then immersing students in that flawed system. "We want them to learn by doing," she says.
Still, minority student groups have organized against the program and contacted alumni and public defenders to do the same. While canceling the clinic seems unlikely, minority student groups are lobbying the school for a criminal justice clinic to offset it. Students also want UWSL to develop a diversity plan that details how administration will help faculty foster thoughtful discussions on race and social justice within the context of their law classes (they also want the school to hire a critical race theorist).
Since the controversy erupted, UWSL has convened a 14-person advisory committee to oversee the clinic's implementation—including several students of color and a sociology professor who specializes in issues of racial disparity. In addition, Maranville, who oversees the clinic, says that all students who participate will be required to take a class that addresses systemic issues in the criminal justice system.
"No one here has any interest in making racial disproportionality worse," Testy adds.
The assurances ring hollow to Gusman and her peers. "Criminal law classes at UW have a reputation for being terrible," Gusman says bluntly. "It seems that issues of law, social justice, and racial disproportionality are secondary, if not tertiary, to other issues. UW law professors just don't know how to talk about race. How can we trust them to do this clinic right when they can't even do this in our criminal law classes?"