Paralegal Training for the Formerly Incarcerated
The Paralegal Training for the Formerly Incarcerated (PTFI) is a job-skills training initiative. The program offers a certified paralegal training to formerly incarcerated individuals and helps with job placement. The goal for this initiative is twofold: first, it aims at recidivism prevention by creating meaningful employment opportunities; and second, is to create a cadre of paralegals to assist public defender agencies (PDA). The objective of this training aims at combining education and experience into a specialized skill, for the benefit of clients who are on trial, imprisoned, and/or in the appeal process.
PTFI IS A REALISTIC APPROACH FOR EMPLOYMENT. The legal profession does not disqualify potential employees solely for having a criminal record. There are a number of cases where formerly incarcerated individuals have succeeded in their pursuit of a law career. Undoubtedly, law firms and agencies make exceptions to their hiring policy when they employ formerly incarcerated individuals. Though the formerly incarcerated possess the personal experience, there is no way for potential employers to qualify the level of work. The discipline of a PTFI education promises to insure employers that graduates possess a standard of integrity.
THE SECOND OF PTFI’S GOALS AIMS DIRECTLY AT POLICY REFORM. PFTI is committed to reform the practices of institutional racial discrimination perpetuated by overcrowded court calendars. The judicial system of NYC faces more civil, criminal and appellate cases than any other city in the nation. Having to serve such a volume of cases places an extraordinary burden on courtroom proceedings. In response courtrooms have adopted the practice of usurping the people’s rights of due process in order to keep pace with the demands of their calendar. This practice is most apparent in cases where defendants are poor and unable to pay for a private attorney. PDA are designated to represent the indigent, however, the number of cases they must serve overburden PDA into a virtual paralysis. In terms of race, the poor of NYC, which PDA represent most, are African-Americans and Hispanics.
African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately ninety percent of the people imprisoned in New York State. Approximately eighty percent of imprisoned African-Americans and Hispanics come from the NYC area. With such alarming numbers the judicial system has long been under scrutiny for institutionalized discriminatory practices. However, where racial watch dogs have been unable to pinpoint the practice of discrimination, viewing the issue through economic lenses exposes the evidence of systematized discrimination. Therefore, where the poor is comprised primarily of African-Americans and Hispanics, and it is the poor who have to rely on an overwhelmed PDA for meaningful representation—which the PDA cannot insure—who then suffers? The poor. Who then suffers? African-Americans and Hispanics.
THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT WAS IMPLEMENTED TO PROTECT AGAINST THE DISCRIMINATION OF A CLASS OF PEOPLE. PDA are designated to represent indigent clients and to insure their constitutional rights. However, the overburdening volume of cases that require PDA assistance pits expediency against meaningful representation. PDA are often forced into clerical work representation with little time for building attorney-client relationships or defense strategies. As a result in order to treat all cases equally public defenders treat all cases minimally.
Despite PDA intent to serve the indigent public, people of color place very little trust in these attorneys. In effect, in the mindset of the poor the mere misfortune of being accused is enough to translate into a plea bargain arrangement to a lesser included offense. In fact, plea bargains are overly pursued by PDA to expedite the trial process. Creating attitudes of distrust and the belief that it would be the lesser of two evils to plea bargain and minimize the expected blow of conviction than to believe in any promise of a fair trial.
This perspective of how the PDA are viewed by the people they serve is not intended to cast blame on the grounds of incompetence. However, it is necessary to note that meaningful representation requires more than clerical efficiency. Yet, in NYC, the only way to insure meaningful representation depends on how much one is willing to pay for it. Ultimately, in New York, justice and the U.S. Constitutional protection of due process are paid commodities.
OUR JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS DENYING A CLASS OF PEOPLE THEIR RIGHT TO FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTION UNDER THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES. The Freedom of Speech protection under the First Amendment is more than the protection of one’s right to talk or express a concern. Historically speaking, the concept of Freedom of Speech is politically rooted in the Declaration of Independence: no taxation without representation.
The class of people most affected by the above mentioned form of discrimination are, or their families are, tax paying citizens. So that when they are told: “If you can not afford an attorney one will be appointed to represent you,” it is their taxes that pay to insure that representation. Yet, as outlined above, PDA are systematically rendered voiceless by overwhelming case loads. The lack of meaningful representation then equates to the unequal treatment of a class of people based on race via economics. Thus, the negligence to address the infirmities of the PDA system is a subversive usurpation of the First Amendment rights of people of color.
THE USE OF PTFI GRADUATES TO ASSIST PDA IS THE BEST VIABLE OPTION TO ADDRESS INSTITUTIONALIZED DISCRIMINATION. Formerly incarcerated individuals are representatives of the class of people affected by the judicial system’s institutionalized discrimination. The employment of PTFI graduates would be a move to meet the needs of the people who rely on PDA assistance. Though there are a number of law schools that produce paralegals, what distinguishes PTFI graduates will be their personal experience. Their intimate knowledge of standing trial, being convicted and incarcerated offers insights that cannot be taught in law schools. The culmination of their life experiences with a former paralegal training presents a unique asset for attorneys as well as a voice of reason for clients.
Many formerly incarcerated individuals have found meaningful employment as substance abuse counselors, HIV/AIDS counselors and agencies responding to youth at risk. Retired Bureau Chief, New York State Division of Parole, Lenord Marks, noted on his work with parolees that, “Parolees don’t listen to parole officers, but they do listen to other parolees. The fact was hammered home to me while facilitating support groups. We made incredible progress with our domestic violence program because it consisted largely of parolees talking to parolees . . . what worked with batterers can and does work with everyone else” (Fortune News, Vol. XLI No.1, Winter/Spring 2005).
The New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) also utilizes prisoners as peer facilitators. Under the supervision of correctional counselors, prisoners are often lead facilitators in DOCS programs for chemical dependency groups, anger management and the Transitional Services Centers in charge of preparing inmates for re-entry into society.
The significance of peer counselors cannot be diminished. Where there is the shared common experience peer counselors present the keen ability to speak directly to the problem without raising resentments. Most importantly, the goal for PTFI, in serving clients, is to help them make educated decisions.
MY INTEREST FOR CREATING THIS INITIATIVE STEMS FROM TWENTY YEARS OF BEING INCARCERATED. On January 3, 1986, I was sentenced to eighteen years to life on murders charges. The tragedy of the circumstances that led to my arrest and the intensity of my courtroom experience were emotionally and intellectually overwhelming. This is not an attempt to claim a wrongful conviction on the basis of incompetence to stand trial. Neither do I wish to appear unremorseful for the crimes I’ve committed by highlighting my troubles in the courtroom. However, in keeping in focus with the point of this presentation, the thought of my courtroom experience still raises resentment. When I think of the hastiness of my conviction and the ignorance of my participation, I have no one to blame but myself. The unfortunate truth of the matter was that I simply could not keep up with the complexities of the courtroom’s theater. The entire pace of the proceedings equally served to sever any expectation of forming a relationship with my attorney.
Throughout the years I have learned that my courtroom experience was not uncommon. If my experience was an isolated incident I would not be compelled to push this initiative. However, on the contrary, these incidents have been the cause of the same frustrations which I have heard others express over the last twenty years. I have met many men who were youthful offenders or illiterate at the time of their courtroom appearance. Always they have expressed resentments stemming from their ignorance during trial. For some, the resentment spills over into the appeal process where legal issues were not properly preserved to enable review from higher courts. Thus, these men are stuck, unable to undo the infirmities that occurred on trial.
Today, there are thousands of men and women walking DOCS prison yards, who have grounds for appeal, but are too frustrated by the overbearing maneuvers of the judicial system to initiate the appeal process. The gut feeling is that unless you have the money for an attorney, filing an appeal is a waste of time. For people of color, this is how justice is viewed in the State of New York.
Twenty years ago I was “the kid.” And now I am the one watching the kids, 16, 17, 18 years old, come to prison and I wonder when it’ll ever stop.
DOCS FACILITY LAW LIBRARIES ARE FACILITATED BY PRISONERS, LAW CLERKS, COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS JAILHOUSE LAWYERS. There are a few exceptions who choose to channel their frustration by frequenting the law library. Starting from scratch, these individuals take it upon themselves to learn the law. These are the men and women who become jailhouse lawyers (JHL). Some JHL hold basic legal research classes to help others learn the process. Then there’s the informal, one-on-one, instruction where the learning gets passed down from one prisoner to the next. In all, the time that JHL spend in interactive studies helps to demystify the law and empower the individual. The time is usually spent helping to simplify legal concepts, legal researching, instructing how to write letters to lawyers and/or to prepare a supplemental/pro se brief.
JHL education cannot equate to an attorney’s level of training. However, JHL fill a void, in the client-attorney relationship, that has been created by the attorneys themselves. Prisoners, like anybody else faced with a dilemma, do not want to be alienated from the process of their own defense. The average person wants to be in on the fight or, at the very least, be in the know. However, it is virtually impossible for PDA lawyers to mentor every client and do the lawyering. Thus, on one side of the spectrum, there’s the client desperately trying to understand defense strategies. On the other side, the lawyer stands trying to get the client to sit back and wait. The client is left wondering if the lawyer could appreciate how frustrating it is to have to “sit back and wait” in a prison cell.
In prison, in facility law libraries, JHL are the hidden pillar that supports the client-attorney relationship. They guide individuals to understand the legal process to help calm the anxieties and understand a lawyer’s strategy of defense.
WHAT JHL CAN DO IN CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES, FORMERLY INCARCERATED PARALEGALS CAN DO BY WORKING WITH PDAs. In assisting attorneys PTFI graduates will be qualified for clerical duties; legal research; write letters, under attorney supervision, in response to client’s inquiries; give attorneys insight into emotional phases of imprisonment; and ultimately, help attorneys build client trust.
As an advocate for the client the PTFI graduate’s role will be to serve as a mentor. The PTFI graduate will be able to give legal insights into defense or appeal strategies; instruct clients on statutes, cases law, or legal theories that are applicable; and if a client wishes to submit a supplemental brief, the PTFI graduate will be able to edit and offer critique.
Additionally, with the technological advancements of the last ten years, the Internet has changed the process of legal research. Case sites by subject, related NY Law Journal articles, commentaries on statutes, up-to-date changes in the law, even unpublished sites are all available on the online. In comparison, the methods Correctional Facility law libraries use are obsolete. The reason and wherewithal to change the conditions in state prisons is a matter for DOCS. However, until such time PTFI graduates will supply prisoners with legal research information as is readily available on the online Internet.
HOW THE COURSE WILL WORK. There are a number of paralegal correspondence courses offered online. One of the courses offered must be selected and contracted to work with PTFI. Students with Internet access can perform their lesson at home. For others a designated sit will be made available for their use. However, in addition to the academic requirements, workshops will be given by lawyers and prisoners’ rights advocates. This is to equip PTFI participants with reasoning behind PTFI’s second goal, i.e. reform of PDA in advocacy for defendants.
At least one position must be made available to coordinate this project. Coordinators’ responsibilities will include enrollment, keeping track of students’ progress, creating a curriculum for workshops, selecting a facilitator staff for workshops and job placement for graduates with PDA.
Due to my lack of knowledge on current expenses I am unable, at this time, to quote the amount of funding required. However, funding will be required for the educational training, salaries for coordinators’ position and facilitator staff.
Lastly, the internship of PTFI graduates would last for one year. In order to keep in tune with the theme of PTFI, intern employment must be funded by a source other than the selected PDA assignment in which graduates had been assigned. At the completion of one year graduates will be able to use their work experience to seek permanent employment.