By: Jimmy Biblarz J.D. ‘21
The informal slogan I heard from respondents was “Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.” In Pulaski, Tennessee, private probation has wreaked havoc on the community. A federal-class action lawsuit which claims that two private probation services companies have extorted money from impoverished people to generate profit, is trying to change that.
I spent a week in Pulaski, Tennessee working with Civil Rights Corps, one of the three groups of lawyers bringing the suit, was extraordinarily rewarding and educational on four levels. 1) issue exposure (private probation), 2) legal investigative and evidence gathering skill-building, 3) legal strategy skill-building, 4) exposure to inspiring mentors and a unique organizational model.
(1) Before this trip, I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. We dove right in to the issues, and were tasked with driving around Tennessee (over 200 miles on some days) looking for people who had been affected by the scheme. While the amounts people couldn’t pay were seemingly small (often just $45/month), for individuals on fixed incomes, these amounts were prohibitive.
(2) I was doing the type of legal work you don’t often get exposed to as a 1L – the actual work of putting a case together. Over the course of the week, I spoke with directly impacted people, interviewing them about their experiences with the criminal legal system. I honed my interview skills in a very short amount of time – I thought through how to get people to engage with me across a wide social distance, and developed strategies for getting people to talk to me who were rightfully mistrustful of any and all “authority.” I had to work to build trust; these people were rightfully suspicious of anyone knocking on their door. I saw firsthand just how nuanced individual stories are, and how critical individual facts are to the stories lawyers try to tell. I will remember these conversations in future brief writing and less “on the ground” work.
(3) Not only was the week built on direct client interaction work, there was time for other legal skill building. I started to learn the rules of reciprocal civil discovery, and how they come into play in class action lawsuits.
In particular, I feel lucky to count Alison Horn, an Investigative Supervisor, and Jonas Wang, an Attorney, as friends and mentors. I went out investigating with Alison on the first day, and I quickly saw what a skilled interviewer and evidence collector she is. I learned just how essential the facts are to a case. Jonas is an incredible attorney – he is able to see the forest and the trees at the same time, and to think two steps ahead of whatever we were doing. He is patient and thoughtful, a careful writer, and clearly deeply committed to individual clients.
Civil Rights Corps is an amazing organizational model, combining direct service with impact litigation. I was inspired by how unwilling the organization is to lose sight of the actual people affected by the issues they’re working on. This spring break experience gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.