Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: SPO

Balancing Optimism and Realism in Attenuated Wins

By Alev Erhan

During my first year of law school, I was eager to get away from the HLS bubble and our classroom hypotheticals by meeting and helping people in Greater Boston. I was thrilled to be selected into the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP), which provides representation and advice to tenants of affordable housing who are facing eviction or subsidy termination.

 

Just over a month into my first semester, upon mindlessly refreshing my inbox, I saw that I had been assigned to my first case and promptly forgot how to breathe. I was to advocate on behalf of a mother facing eviction from public housing for allegedly allowing her daughter’s father to stay in her apartment more days than the arbitrary maximum allowed by her lease. My initial shock at the absurd disproportionality between the violation and subsequent penalty was soon diminished by the understanding that my client’s experience was apparently a fairly standard type of case for TAP, for which there is a fairly standard legal solution. I prepared to suggest to my client a “No Visit No Reside” or NVNR agreement in which tenants agree that a particular person no longer visits or (you guessed it) resides in the unit. Though seemingly straightforward, these agreements can be sinister in that they often involve one member of the family being kicked out of the residence, many times forcing parents to ask their own children to leave, in order to prevent the eviction of everyone on the lease.

 

The next day I met with my client for the first time, waiting until the end of our discussion to launch into my carefully scripted spiel about a possible NVNR. Within seconds her eyes shot wide open and she rolled her chair back, repeating “no, no, no” so vehemently I was reeling to somehow take back every word that had come out of my mouth. Despite diminished odds that my client would successfully overcome eviction proceedings without signing this agreement, our role was to advocate for her goal—and her goal was to ensure that her daughter’s father would still be able to visit the unit while maintaining her tenancy. I never met my client’s daughter but over the following months she became very present in my life, from the late night phone calls from my client I couldn’t bear to ignore to the sense of injustice I felt every time I thought about the case.

 

All our preparatory work with TAP was leading up to an ‘informal conference’ hosted by the housing authority to supposedly reach a settlement favorable to all parties. While the more ‘formal’ administrative hearings already lack many aspects of due process a person should be guaranteed in court, such purportedly informal meetings are often nothing more than a conference table in which attorneys can wield their gross power imbalance and the threat of eviction to present tenants, who rarely have legal representation, with coercive agreements.

 

At our conference, my client had two representatives from Harvard Law School (myself and my supervisor), a psychiatrist, and two social workers in the room advocating to keep this young girl’s father in her life. Our request was merely that he be able to visit the apartment on occasion. In response to our concerns, the housing authority attorney leaned back in his chair, put his knee up on the conference table, and scanned the room as he said that with so many supportive figures in this young girl’s life he felt confident that she would be just fine. I don’t believe the attorney could have said this statement if my client’s daughter was in the room and could not stop thinking about how many voiceless people, just like my client’s daughter, are ignored by the eviction process.

 

Ultimately, TAP was successful in preserving housing for a woman and her child through a negotiated settlement. Our client was empowered to demand an agreement on her terms, refusing to accept the housing authority’s “take it or leave it” approach despite abundant intimidation. However, it would be a disservice to allow these wins to blind us from the absurdity that is a world in which tax dollars go towards preventing a child from hanging out with her dad in her own home.

Student Practice Organizations Panel 2019

Students attend 2019 SPO Panel

Student Practice Organizations often provide 1Ls with their first opportunity to gain practical legal experience at HLS. Each SPO is typically led by a student board consisting of 2L and 3L students and is supervised by a licensed attorney. Across the 11 SPOs currently active at HLS, a variety of focus areas including housing, immigration, and prison law are represented. Students participating in SPOs do not receive academic credit, however, their hours can count towards the 50-hour pro bono graduation requirement.

The SPO Panel, held earlier this week, provides an opportunity for students to hear directly from the students boards and members of SPOs. During the 2019 SPO Panel, representatives from all 11 SPOs spoke on focus areas, levels of commitment, attorney supervision and particularly emphasized the communities formed in each individual SPO through the work that they do.

“Community is one of our main priorities. It was a game changer for me. I met some of my closest friends, it reminded me why I decided to come to law school.” said Emma Broches, co-president of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, on her experience with SPOs.

President of Harvard Defenders Martina Tiku also noted how SPOs encourage members to interact with other students and individuals in the field who are committed to and passionate about the work that they do, reflecting the sentiments of several other panel participants.  “You get a chance to talk to people who are passionate about their work.” she said.

For students interested in joining an SPO, the organizations hold information sessions and open houses are coming up. All SPOs require some form of registration or sign-up, with several requiring separate applications. While all SPOs accept students in the fall, some  accept members during the spring term. Information session, open house, and registration/application deadline dates can be found on the  Opportunities for Student Practice Matrix.

Resources:

SPO Skills Matrix

SPO Sign-Ups

SPO Student Reflections

SPO Student Reflection: Answering the Call – In Community for Justice

By: Felipe Hernandez, JD ’20

Source: Pixabay

As a first-generation college student, my parents and I, who worked nightshifts as janitors, never dreamed that one day I would attend Harvard Law. As undocumented immigrants living in Los Angeles, our family faced periodic evictions, interactions with the criminal legal system, labor violations, and discrimination without access to legal aid. Throughout my life, and increasingly during 1L, I regularly received frantic phone calls from family members or friends undergoing life altering challenges including incarceration, deportation, eviction, child custody issues, domestic violence, and police violence. While these experiences were my primary motivation for changing my career from the non-profit world to attend law school, they continue to fuel my involvement in student practice organizations (SPOs) and clinics to develop the necessary legal skills to answer these calls.

To better understand the criminal legal system afflicting folx back home, I joined Harvard Defenders, where we provide representation to people facing criminal show-cause hearings. The Defenders’ community immediately became a home of diverse, radical, and loving people working to counter the weight of the criminal legal system and exploitative social order on low-income, mostly people of color, in Boston. Practically, I learned how to respond to criminal complaints, interview people we serve through an anti-oppressive method, develop case strategy in team meetings, gather evidence, cross-exam police officers, and advocate zealously for our people in court. The stories of the folx we represented – from domestic violence to struggling with drug addiction and mental health to petty larceny – resonated deeply with the people I was trying to help back home. Understanding the limitations of direct representation in addressing systemic violence, I am most excited when our community discusses strategies to address structural oppression afflicting the people we serve, including engaging in community movement lawyering and cultivating an abolitionist politic and practice within and outside of Defenders.

I also joined the HLS Immigration Project (HIP) to develop the capabilities to help people facing ICE persecution, imprisonment, and deportation. I transferred the skills I learned from preparing asylum applications and for bond hearings in immigration detention and removal proceedings to help family and community members fighting deportation. In HIP, I met students and staff devoted to addressing the consequences of global inequality and imperialism that displaces millions of people, and pushes them to migrate through violent borders. I spent my 2018 Spring Break with American Gateways in San Antonio helping people imprisoned in the South Texas Detention Center prepare asylum applications. Our team included some of the most inspiring, critical, and incredible law students at HLS. This experience was life changing because we witnessed the psychological, physical, and emotional abuse that the U.S. immigration system inflicts onto people fleeing violence. For example, as I worked with one of my clients, Melissa, on her asylum application, she shared her frustrations with the U.S immigration system: “I came here because I thought it would be better, I thought they [the immigration judge] would believe me and help. Instead, I am in prison.” On our final day, as we said goodbye and talked about her next steps, we both exchanged tears of pain, power, and hope. She had been fighting tirelessly for decades for herself and daughter to escape abuse. She won many battles but the structural imbalance of power was overwhelming. As I left, she told me that she felt more energized to kept fighting. That night, I wrote in my journal:

“I came to HLS because I thought I could fix it all as easily as I had helped family members in the past. How naïve. Our immigration system is built to undermine and reject basic notions of humanity. People with the audacity to seek a better life, after decades of abuse, are told ‘We don’t believe you’ by administrative judges sitting back in their cushy chairs and folx are sent back where they are certain to undergo similar, if not worse, traumatic experiences. I wonder if what we did was enough. I wonder how we can dream of and actively work toward building a better world.” – March 16, 2018

The impact of my time at HLS has already had ripple effects on those I promised I’d serve because of the skills I gained through SPOs. For example, I helped a family member fight a criminal charge she did not commit after being overcharged and pressured by a district attorney to take a plea. I helped another family member fight an eviction proceeding initiated because of her partner’s undocumented status. While these skills have improved my ability to respond to some of the ongoing calls for help I receive, I remain frustrated at my inability to substantively dismantle systemic causes of these calls. This is why I decided to serve as a student-attorney with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB); to improve my capabilities in providing direct legal aid and to be in community with an inspiring group of brilliant people who are consciously cultivating spaces and practices to address systemic injustices in coalition with the Boston community.

Being involved in SPOs and clinics has not been easy. Those of us involved constantly struggle to grapple with our evolving critical views of social and reparative justice, realities within and outside the criminal and civil legal systems, and strategic visions of how to engage in long-term movement building yet deal with the urgent needs of people we serve and advocate with. Nevertheless, we persist to answer the calls for justice because of our shared prophetic love for the communities we serve.

Spotlight on Student Practice Organizations 2018

Harvard Law School has 11 Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) providing students a wide range of opportunities to gain practical legal experience starting in their 1L year.  Each SPO is headed by 2L and 3L students who serve in leadership positions and one or more supervising attorneys who provide legal oversight and supervision. Most SPOs also work closely with an HLS clinic so students enjoy a cohesive experience in the respective area of the law during their time at HLS.

Every fall semester, Student Practice Organizations host information sessions to familiarize new students with their work and application process. A list of these events and deadlines can be found here. Most (but not all) SPOs require an application and all of them require students to complete a training. Everyone, including LL.M. students, is welcomed and encouraged to participate in SPO practice.

While students do not receive academic credit for participating in SPOs, their hours can count towards the 50-hour pro bono graduation requirement starting 1L year.

Student responsibilities and time commitment vary across SPOs. Students who participate have found the experience to be positive and meaningful. They report they enjoy the community they build with other students while helping real people and communities in need of legal services.

SPO Student Reflections

Project No One Leaves: “Though our efforts are modest, our team is mighty”

By Lark Turner, J.D. ’18

Group photo of Project No One Leaves

I signed up to canvass with Project No One Leaves a couple of weeks into my first semester at Harvard Law School. I didn’t know much about the organization, and I was nervous about jumping in a car with 2Ls and 3Ls I had never met, to drive into neighborhoods I had never been. But I’m so glad I did. My Saturday mornings spent canvassing taught me some of the biggest lessons of law school.

Though Harvard students are lucky to have many venues to work on housing justice, Project No One Leaves is one of the only organizations on campus that teaches students what it feels like to participate in the community part of lawyering. Working with the veteran organizers at City Life Vida Urbana, an anti-displacement nonprofit and Boston community anchor that fights foreclosures and evictions, we identify specific properties or whole neighborhoods where evictions or foreclosures are occurring or imminent. Then we set off to try and help City Life stop them.

Every Saturday at 10 am, fueled by bagels and coffee and armed with clipboards, we hop into cars and set off to East Boston, Chelsea, Dorchester, or other Boston neighborhoods to knock on doors and talk to residents about their rights as homeowners and tenants. As a former reporter, I was used to bothering people on their doorstep at odd hours. But I had never done so to promote a cause I deeply believed in, nor to connect a person to resources they might urgently need — all while convincing them to rely, even a little bit, on a gaggle of students in matching red T-shirts standing incongruously on their stoop. Even without the added obstacle course of Boston traffic, this was much harder than my old job.

I learned new lessons: How to greet the curious pull of a curtain with a friendly shout of introduction, and how to know when to walk away; how to interrupt folks as they make breakfast for their kids to tell them, maybe for the first time, that their landlord was foreclosed upon and no longer owns their home; and how to listen for the infuriating and ubiquitous music of canvasses — the beep of smoke detectors in homes where landlords can’t be bothered to change a battery. Hardest of all, I learned how to spot when we are too late. Sometimes that means addresses marked in coal-black, modern fonts; enrobed in fresh paint; and outfitted with a glinting security system. More often it means vacancies — homes boarded up or halfway gutted, their families long gone. Even then, I learned to leave a red bag full of legal information hanging on the doorknob — a sign to the developer, and to the neighborhood, that we stopped by.

Though our efforts are modest, our team is mighty. The students I met at my very first canvass have graduated, but we’re still friends. Every canvass introduces me to more fellow students ready to spend their Saturday morning helping keep roofs over families’ heads. Like many things I’ve experienced here, the opportunity to work with these peers and with City Life is a gift I can’t repay, and it’s difficult to leave my time in Project No One Leaves behind. But I’m heartened to know that next year’s team of canvassers have it covered — and the lessons I’ve learned and friends I’ve made canvassing aren’t going anywhere.

Examining lead contamination in the Mississippi Delta

By Thomas Wolfe, J.D. ’19

Credit: Thomas Wolfe JD ’19

This spring, I went with the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) to Clarksdale, Mississippi to work on the issue of lead contamination of municipal water supplies in the Mississippi Delta. I had an excellent trip, and I would recommend the MDP Spring Break trip to anyone interested in making a difference in a fascinating, but overlooked, part of the country.

Since the Flint Water Crisis, the presence of lead in drinking water has become a serious concern for local governments across the country. Old water systems often contain pipes with lead parts, and acidic water or chlorine used to treat other contaminants can corrode the pipes, which causes the lead to leach into the water supply. This can be especially problematic in rural areas, where a lack of funds or awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning can prevent residents and local governments from taking proactive steps to protect against lead contamination. Because of the increased focus on the threat of lead contamination in drinking water and the intense poverty of the Mississippi Delta, our task with MDP was to help our clients, researchers at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, to determine just how significant of a problem lead contamination was for rural municipal water systems in the Delta.

For us this required first educating ourselves about the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and state laws and regulations implementing the Act. This was a fascinating dive into an important and complex statute, and it was made especially interesting because it required learning about how municipal water systems worked.

We then had to apply this information to the context of very small public water systems serving rural areas. This involved the best part of the trip: interviewing local stakeholders to find out which laws were effective, which weren’t, and generally to learn how they ran water systems. I really enjoyed the opportunity to interview people involved in the daily operation of local governments – from water operators, to small town mayors, to state public health department officials, to doctors in the neonatal care unit in Jackson, MS dealing with the effects of public health mismanagement. People were happy to talk to us about the issues facing their communities, and they really looked positively on our work and appreciated the fact that people were thinking and caring about the Delta. For my part, it was really nice to develop my skills as an interviewer, which I think is a key part of being a lawyer. The empathy you develop in speaking with people face to face is often missed in the law school classroom.

We eventually turned this information into memoranda and presentations for our clients, who will take the information and policy recommendations we developed and use it to continue to improve public health in the Delta. I’m proud that the work I produced over the course of the week will help to address the extremely important issue of lead contamination, which causes irreversible developmental issues in children and often affects the most disadvantaged members of society.

And I couldn’t help but mention that on top of the excellent professional and service opportunities that the trip provided, the Delta is one of the cultural wellsprings of America with great music, great food, and lovely people, and it’s a place I’d love to return to on my own. I’m glad I was able to play a small part in helping the people in the region get through hard times.

My three years at the Tenant Advocacy Project

By Ming-Toy Taylor J.D. ’18

Photo of Ming-Toy Taylor J.D. '18

Ming-Toy Taylor J.D. ’18

I joined the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) as a 1L because the organization’s mission resonated deeply with me. For nearly 40 years, TAP has helped tenants and applicants navigate the bureaucracy of subsidized housing in the Greater Boston area. Having grown up in Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx, I’ve experienced first-hand many of the challenges that TAP works to address. During high school and college, my experiences drew me to service-work related to homelessness. In college and after, I worked in underserved schools where many students dealt with housing insecurity. TAP would be my introduction to the role of the law in this space, and allow me to make an impact with my budding legal skills.

As a brand new TAP member, I learned about the administration and funding of subsidized housing programs in Massachusetts; the various legal obligations placed on housing agencies by federal and state laws; the agencies’ official and unspoken policies; and the rights and obligations of tenants. I represented a fictional tenant in a mock hearing to practice the skills that I would use on behalf of my future clients: oral and written advocacy, direct and cross-examination, opening and closing statements, and legal research.

My most important learning experience was with my first client. He had become homeless after being evicted from an apartment he shared with an abusive partner.  When he requested that his public housing application be treated as an emergency due to his homelessness, a housing agency denied this request. The reason? They did not consider him homeless; despite his living in shelters or on the streets for over a year, they focused on some nights spent on a friend’s couch to recover from flare-ups of a painful, chronic medical condition. Together, he and I rehearsed how he would present his disability during an administrative hearing and gathered supporting documents. I prepared to argue that he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation based on his disability before a hearing officer, and opposite a housing authority attorney. My client, even before he knew the agency would place him in an apartment in short order, left that meeting feeling heard and empowered. And I was captivated by the experience of collaborating and succeeding with my client.

What I love about TAP—and what made me come back 2L year and devote my 3L year to being one of its presidents—is how personal the experience is. When you help someone with housing you learn about their history, their family, their hopes for the future, their neighborhood, their doctors, their support networks and more. As you do that “getting to know”, you learn about your voice as an attorney-advocate, and as a person. My time at TAP has been characterized by continuous growth. I look forward to the new lessons it will teach me this year.

Fighting for human rights with HLS Advocates

By Thaya Uthayophas J.D. ’18

Group photo of HLS Advocates for Human Rights

Group photo of HLS Advocates for Human Rights

I came to Harvard Law School because I wanted to make a difference. As an international student from Thailand, however, I wasn’t originally sure how that would manifest. Should I make a lot of money in corporate law to help my family? Should I become part of legal academia, thinking of new philosophical frameworks that could change the way we think about the world? Or should I be an activist for my people back home in an effort to finally establish a permanent constitution and democratic Thailand?

These are all big dreams. And they are all valid in their own ways. As I’ve come to learn through working with Student Practice Organizations and the clinical programs, however, our dreams can be difficult to put into practice. But therein also lies the magic:  that no one’s dream can stand alone. What ultimately inspires me to pursue the dream of becoming a human rights lawyer is not so much the size of my dream or the grandeur of my narrative, but the people, the events, and the projects — the fact that we’re all doing it together as part of something larger, fighting for a seemingly impossible and ever-changing set of ideals that is human rights. And I learned all this by being part of the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights.

The day-to-day work of an individual Advocates member (and any lawyer, really) borders more or less on the mundane. While it was exciting to see my own project draw fruition with our letter to the UN special rapporteurs on a human rights violation connected to a gold mine in Thailand, I think focusing on the victories misses the point. In order to get the UN letter drafted, my individual team members had to first learn about UN systems, read up on the many violations connected with the mine, and research individual special rapporteurs and the best ways to approach them. Then we had to come together and compile all this information in an accessible form for our partner organization Fortify Rights. It was all very time-consuming, and, at times, it felt like we had to trust our client to know what best to do with the information we provided them. The fact of the matter, however, was that we did trust them — this non-governmental organization more than 8000 miles away. We trusted that their work would eventually help local villagers who suffered from cyanide poisoning and violent attacks because we trusted them as part of the human rights movement, fighting together for a better world.

For this Fall term, Advocates leaves the same kinds of trust to organizations fighting for land rights in Liberia, advocating for waste pickers in Latin America, documenting human rights violations of asylum-seeking children in Israel, empowering mining-affected communities in Guinea, countering violent extremism in Tanzania, and holding people accountable for War crimes in Iraq. Our project leaders and members similarly know that it’s not about each of us making individual difference but all of us making differences as a team, and beyond. And it’s not just the project people who are cognizant of this fact. Our events team, for instance, has created a Human Rights Training Series, knowing that many students lack understanding about the fundamental building blocks of a different facet of international human rights. Our directors of organizing and direct action constantly seek out opportunities with other organizations on campus to make an impact on the ground.

As for me, as co-President, I’m little more than a facilitator, making sure things go along and confidentiality forms are filled out. It’s a good job. At the very least, I get to write and talk about all the wonderful things Advocates is doing as part of something larger that is human rights.

 

Advocating and making a difference with Harvard Defenders

By Stephanie Schuyler, J.D. ’17

If I had to give one piece of advice to incoming 1Ls at Harvard Law School, I would tell them to join a student practice organization (SPO) as soon as humanly possible. Speaking for myself, I can safely say that Harvard Defenders kept me sane during my 1L year. I have been immensely lucky, because my experience as a Defender has allowed me to connect with and learn from local communities and to use my immense privilege as a law school student to center their stories at the outset of the criminal process.

Stephanie Schuyler, J.D. '17

Stephanie Schuyler, J.D. ’17

Many SPOs here at HLS can provide students with hands-on experience. But what drew me to Defenders was the possibility of centering and lifting the narratives of our clients, who might otherwise be processed by the criminal justice system without anyone hearing or caring about their stories. Harvard Defenders have the potential to make a real difference in the outcomes our clients face. We provide representation to accused individuals at “probable cause hearings,” which are the entry point for many individuals into the criminal justice system. During these hearings, because no criminal process has begun, individuals are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, and the Defenders are the only organization in the Commonwealth that provides free representation to help clients avoid entanglement with the system of mass incarceration.

Working as a Harvard Defender for the last three years has taught me so much. When I first started taking cases as a Defender, I was certain I would win the day with my fancy legal arguments about statutory language and mens rea. I quickly learned that my role in the process was as much about communicating my client’s story to the magistrate as it was about arguing the law. When we—as advocates—center our clients in the adjudicative process, magistrates often listen, and our clients get the day in court they deserve and avoid the unnecessarily harsh penalty of an undeserved criminal conviction.

In the last two years, I’ve also had the chance to put the lessons I’ve learned to good use. I’ve trained and mentored new Defenders, as both a Training Director and small team leader. I’ve done my best to share some of the things I’ve learned, lessons which have made me a better listener and advocate, and which have helped me not to lose sight of the reasons I came to law school in the first place.

5 Skadden Fellows, 13 Different Clinics and Student Practice Organizations

Five Harvard Law School students and recent graduates have been awarded Skadden Fellowships to support their work in public service. The fellowships were established in 1988 by the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in recognition of the need for greater funding for graduating law students who want to devote their professional lives to helping poor, elderly, homeless and disabled people, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights. The fellowships are awarded for two years to fund projects created by applicants at public interest organizations. To date, the firm has funded 761 fellows, of whom 90 percent remain in public interest.

All five students have participated in more than one clinic (including the Child Advocacy Clinic, Education Law Clinic, Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Judicial Process in Trial Court Clinic,  Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Transactional Law Clinics), and student practice organizations, (including Harvard Defenders, Harvard Mediation Program, Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, Mississippi Delta Project, Tenant Advocacy Project,  and Project No One Leaves).

Harvard Law School 2016 Skadden Fellows and their projects

Maya Brodziak

Lawyers for Children | New York, NY
Direct representation of youth in foster care to protect their educational rights by reducing the disproportionate use of suspension and expulsion. Will represent these clients in family court and school discipline hearings and will create a framework for sustainable reform.

Cassie Chambers

Louisville Legal Aid Society | Louisville, KY
Direct representation of low-income women who are victims of domestic violence in rural Kentucky. Will build an infrastructure to deliver pro se assistance to women in 14 rural Kentucky counties.

Elizabeth Hadaway

Public Counsel | Los Angeles, CA
Advocacy for California children denied the necessary instruction to achieve basic literacy, through community-led impact litigation. Also, direct representation of children in their schools and outreach to share the litigation model.

Donna Harati

Homeboy Industries | Los Angeles, CA
Provision of direct re-entry legal services to formerly incarcerated persons in Los Angeles. Will produce record expungements, provide consumer debt counseling, and mitigate criminal justice debt and traffic fines.

Steven Salcedo

Western New York Law Center | Buffalo, NY
Provision of transactional legal services to low-income entrepreneurs. The goal is to generate jobs, goods and services in under-resourced neighborhoods.

The full list of 2016 fellows is available on the Skadden Fellowships website.

Tenant Advocacy Project: Helping individuals with criminal records secure a second chance at housing

By Ryan Sakoda, Student in the Tenant Advocacy Project and Harvard Ph.D. Candidate in Economics

Over 100 million individuals, or about one-third of the U.S. population, have some form of criminal record. During 2012 alone, there were over 12 million arrests reported in the United States. In addition, about 640,000 individuals were released from state and federal prisons to try to rebuild their lives with the heavy burden of a criminal conviction on their record.

The impact of the criminal justice system has been particularly concentrated among low-income individuals, many of whom rely on public or subsidized housing. After having contact with the criminal justice system, however, most of these individuals are barred from public housing assistance even many years after their conviction. Without reliable housing, it is nearly impossible to maintain steady employment and establish the structure necessary for these individuals to move on with their lives.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recognized how important housing assistance programs can be in efforts to reduce recidivism and has recently issued two letters reminding public housing agencies of their discretion to admit individuals with prior convictions. These two letters, issued in 2011 and 2012, emphasize the Obama Administration’s belief “in the importance of second chances” and the necessity of “helping ex-offenders gain access to one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life—a place to live.”

During the past winter and spring, the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) focused on these issues, assisting four clients on criminal-history-based denials of public and Section 8 housing. Each of these clients presented a unique story reflecting the myriad and complex circumstances that can lead to a criminal record.

In our first case, Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez ’17 took the lead representing a young mother whose application for public housing was denied due to a drug conviction early in life. Her conviction was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and not understanding the long-run impact of a criminal conviction before pleading guilty to a crime she did not commit. Although this conviction had occurred before our client became a mother, it stood as the barrier preventing her two children from obtaining a stable home. These kinds of contextual details are often overlooked as an applicant’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) report is sometimes the sole source of information relied on by public housing agencies when evaluating an applicant’s criminal history. Although applicants are given the opportunity to provide mitigating evidence related to their criminal record, they often do not have the time or resources to produce evidence deemed sufficient by the housing authority to overcome their record.

Throughout the winter, Pedro put together a package of mitigating evidence for our client. He spent countless hours interviewing her and collecting numerous letters of support from friends and former neighbors. In addition, we included a memo arguing that our client’s perfect record while on probation should be considered strong evidence of her commitment to remain free of criminal activity. Housing authorities normally place little or no weight on good behavior while on probation because of the assumption that it was the supervision rather than intrinsic motivation that kept the individual out of trouble. But contrary to this assumption, high rates of probation violations are found in a number of studies and suggest that not all individuals perform well under supervision. Therefore, we argued, those that do perform well should certainly be given credit for their performance. These materials, along with Pedro’s excellent argument at the administrative hearing, resulted in a reversal of our client’s application denial and her reinstatement to the waiting list for housing.

The remaining three cases resulted in victories as well, two through mitigation of the criminal record and one by way of Reasonable Accommodation. Like our first case, TAP helped each of these clients gather documentation including letters from friends, doctors, and social workers, evidence of the completion of programming, and academic research relevant to the client’s past behavior.

This research, along with the testimony of our client’s social worker, was particularly valuable for our case decided on Reasonable Accommodation grounds. In that case, we provided evidence showing that past trauma victims often have violent reactions to being held or constrained due to extreme agitation and fear, supporting our claim that there was a nexus between our client’s mental health disabilities and her convictions for violent criminal activity. After presenting this evidence at the hearing, the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) decided in favor of our client, finding that she should be granted a reasonable accommodation for her mental health disabilities and consequently, that the criminal convictions resulting from her disabilities could not be grounds to deny her application.

Working on this set of cases highlighted the challenges faced by individuals attempting to rebuild their life after a criminal conviction. These challenges are enormous and exacerbated by the numerous barriers to public benefits levied against those with a record. Fighting these barriers can seem hopeless, but as shown by TAP’s experience, these cases are winnable and worthy of the attention of our legal community.

Student finds motivation in her clinical work

Ashley Lewis, J.D. '15

Ashley Lewis, J.D. ’15

By Ashley Lewis, J.D. ’15 

The most memorable moments of law school have been walking out of a courtroom with my client after a favorable decision. In that moment I am smiling, my client is smiling, and we both are ecstatic to have obtained a victory. After weeks or months of preparation the issue is resolved. My client can put the issue behind them and move on.

These are my most memorable moments, because it’s a privilege to be able to help someone successfully navigate the legal system. Fortunately I have had the opportunity to do such work since the first semester of my 1L year.

The moments I described above have all come from victories in criminal proceedings. Since fall of my 1L year I have been a member of Harvard Defenders, advocating for individuals accused of committing a criminal offense in show cause hearings. At this stage of the criminal process an offense is not on the client’s record and the clerk-magistrate is only determining whether probable cause exists. The hearing provides the unique opportunity to help clients avoid a criminal charge and collateral consequences completely.

This year, I had the opportunity to represent clients who have been officially charged with a crime through the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI). To have the opportunity to stand in court beside an individual, to make sure their voice is heard, that their rights are protected, and ensure that they aren’t lost in the criminal justice system is an experience beyond rewarding.

However, all of my cherished moments in law school haven’t come in a courtroom. Through the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic, I was able to help veterans obtain the benefits owed to them from Massachusetts and the federal government. In the Crimmigraiton Clinic, I answered letters of immigration detainees seeking legal assistance. In both clinics, I had the opportunity to help individuals that didn’t have a right to counsel navigate a complicated system.

These experiences, in conjunction with my experiences in CJI and Defenders, are the memories I will cherish the most after graduation. I came to law school to prepare for a career in public service. These experiences not only helped me prepare for a career, they were also a constant reminder of my goals and motivator for accomplishing them.

Student Voices: From Farm to School in Mississippi

A patch of collard greens grows right on the side of the highway, illustrating that they can grow almost anywhere. Most of the greens served in Mississippi school meals are canned and from outside the state!

Today’s dispatch comes from Ona Balkus, a second-year joint degree student at Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health. Ona spent her winter term working with the Mississippi Food Policy Council as part of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. She is also a member of the student practice organization the Mississippi Delta Project and is a student fellow for the Law and Social Change Program of Study. She will be participating in the Food Law and Policy Clinic again for the spring term.

It’s 5:30pm on a Friday and I’m sitting at a small dining room table with six eighth grade girls, a nun, and my friend whom I’m traveling with. The drive into the town where these girls have grown up and live was a bit of a shock, with mostly boarded up stores on the main street, stray dogs on the side of the road, and miles of corn and cotton fields around the small Delta town.

Around the table, we are engaged in serious conversation. “I only like string beans!” “The lunch lady spit in my potatoes today, I swear!” We’re talking about improving school foods, a topic that preoccupies our country and affects these girls every day. The girls like some vegetables, but love fried chicken and cupcakes, and are excited to start a community garden with Sister Kay (the nun who leads this mentorship group) next spring. After talking for an hour about food, cooking, and what they want to be when they grow up (doctors, lawyers, and a cosmetologist), we say our goodbyes and thank them for hosting us at their weekly meeting.

While my winter term assignment is focused on interviewing and learning from school food service staff, farmers, and other food advocates in Mississippi, meeting these girls is just as important for the success of this project. Through the Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Mississippi Delta Project, I’m working to help build a Farm to School movement in Mississippi.

Farm to School is any program where schools use locally grown produce in school meals. With over 40% of Mississippi’s children either overweight or obese, there is a high need for programs that promote healthy eating. Farm to School increases fruit and vegetable consumption as well as nutrition and health literacy among students. In addition and just as importantly, in a state ranked 50th for household income, Farm to School generates new revenue and jobs for small farmers in Mississippi.

One food service director I interview articulates a common theme: “We’ve gotten so far away from preparing fresh vegetables for school meals; everything is delivered already prepared. But I would definitely prefer to serve fresh fruits and vegetables.” While there is excitement about Farm to School, most school food service staff are overwhelmed by the logistics involved in finding farmers, writing contracts, preparing farm fresh foods, and other hurtles.

The Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Delta Project are working to address these hurdles in two distinct ways. First, student have developed legislative recommendations that formed the basis for two Farm to School bills that will be introduced in the Mississippi State Legislature this year. If enacted, these bills will show that the state is supportive and willing to invest in Farm to School programs in Mississippi. Second, this spring students are developing a step-by-step legal guide for school food service staff to start Farm to School programs in their communities.

As we continue our work in Mississippi, I will think about those girls often and how access to healthy foods and increased economic opportunities for their families and community could help them have a fair chance at reaching their full potential. Farm to School is a promising opportunity for Mississippians to invest in their communities, improve their health, and strengthen their relationships. It will be exciting to watch as Farm to School slowly but surely catches on in Mississippi.

Recent “Student Voices”
A Thursday at Pinal County Jail
Update from Florence…, Arizona
Dispatch from Tel Aviv

Many small vegetables farmers sell their crops out of roadside stands or the back of their trucks. Selling to a school would be a significant increase in revenue and provide a stable market, and thus enable them to scale up production.