Law students working in experiential clinics have secured the release of over a dozen incarcerated people while working on compassionate release cases.
After Washington, D.C. courts indefinitely suspended their misdemeanor prosecutions in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgetown University Law Center professors John Copacino, Abbe Smith and Vida Johnson shifted their students’ clinical work toward focusing on active compassionate release cases. These occur when a judge decides that a person’s sentence will be reduced if they meet certain criteria such as old age or medical conditions. Since April 2020, students and fellows at the Law Center have secured the release of 16 formerly incarcerated people, according to Johnson.
Prisons in the United States have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission, with an average infection rate of 34 out of 100 — more than three times as high as the U.S. infection rate — because of the facilities’ often overcrowded conditions, the near-impossibility of social distancing and ineffectual health systems, according to The New York Times.
Following the passage of a statute that allows application for reduction of sentences, students at the clinics have worked over the past year to write petitions on behalf of incarcerated people who would be medically vulnerable to the prison environment, according to Copacino.
“It’s interesting because there was no other vehicle after 120 days to challenge your sentence except for habeas corpus, which is really hard to do,” Copacino said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
After the D.C. Council passed the April 2020 statute on compassionate release, this allowed people to file motions on felony cases that specifically address clients with health conditions who would be at greater risk to COVID-19 in prisons. Compassionate release represents one of the few ways that incarcerated people can have their cases revisited other than habeas corpus, which occurs when cases are appealed on the basis of unlawful detention.
In addition to living in crowded spaces, people who are incarcerated frequently interact with people who are coming from outside environments, according to Johnson.
“All of our clients who are in prison live in a congregate setting,” Johnson said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “They are sharing rooms with other people, they are not in control of how they get food, they are not in control of when they bathe, they are not in control of how they access medical care. They are just kind of at the whim of others, and we’ve found that a number of the staff in these prisons haven’t even been wearing masks.”
Judges can reduce felony sentences under compassionate release if they determine that a defendant is not a risk to anyone’s safety and that this person has a debilitating medical condition from which they will not recover. In other cases, judges will reduce a felony sentence if the defendant is at least 60 years old, has served at least 75% of their sentence and has a serious medical condition that puts them at high risk for medical complications as a result of COVID-19, according to the statute’s compassionate release criteria.
The Criminal Justice Clinic and the Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic are both yearlong, 14-credit intensive programs at the Georgetown Law Center where enrolled J.D. student pairs represent people charged with misdemeanors.
Though the clinics’ students were expecting to advocate on behalf of clients charged with misdemeanors, the expanded D.C. Council law allows people to file compassionate release motions on felony cases, which address more serious crimes such as murder, rape or burglary.
This year, students in the clinics have gotten experience representing clients who have committed more serious crimes, according to Copacino.
“When they came into the clinic, we told them that we were switching to these compassionate release cases,” Copacino said. “One pair of students had a client who was convicted of four murders, 40 odd some years ago. They got that person out after serving 44 years for four murders. It was quite a switch for them but they’ve all adapted to it really well.”
The students prepare written petitions to submit to the court about their clients’ backgrounds, which include factors such as their personal history, context of the offense, their not currently being considered dangerous to society and their medical conditions, according to Copacino.
The clinics present opportunities for law students to get hands-on experience in the professional legal setting while representing the university’s values, according to William M. Treanor, dean of Georgetown Law.
“It’s not that they’re working with a faculty member who is the lawyer, the law student is the lawyer,” Treanor said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “The clinics provide an extraordinary opportunity for people to learn while doing.”
Within the J.D. students’ experiential work in representing clients, an important facet of their research process includes analyzing their medical records to demonstrate that their clients’ conditions make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Fourth-year students from the Georgetown University Medical Center have partnered with the clinics, according to Copacino. Medical students have supported law students’ advocacy for their clients by reviewing medical files and writing letters that attest if clients have certain preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to Copacino.
Students’ advocacy for clients during this year has almost literally become a matter of life or death for their clients, according to Treanor.
“All of us at the Law Center are so proud of what our students have done this semester, and it has made a difference in so many lives,” Treanor said. “While the pandemic continues, their focus on compassionate release is going to be key and lifesaving.”