Prisoners and Families Clinic In Action
Aiding Prisoners and Challenging a System
Darin Dalmat and Kim Mosolf, both third-year law students, found themselves more committed both to their clients and to changing what they call an arbitrary parole system as their cases in the Prisoners and Families Clinic snowballed during the school year, becoming increasingly complicated and compelling.
For Dalmat, these two cases—appealing a parole denial and working on a drug re-sentencing case—were an opportunity to delve deeply into criminal justice work while engaging his interest in the intersection of poverty and race. Dalmat had worked previously on voting rights issues as an intern at the ACLU Voting Rights Project, while his partner, Mosolf, had done direct-service work with welfare recipients and wanted to transfer her interest in client work to the field of criminal justice.
In the parole case, the students worked with two co-defendants—both women—who had been denied parole four times during incarcerations over 26 years. Imprisoned in a minimum-security state prison, the women were in their 20s when they killed someone in the course of a robbery, and were convicted of felony murder. They have been exemplary prisoners, having earned high school and college degrees, and they had overcome histories of abuse and drug addiction while in prison.
"They're the result of the current administration's policy to keep all ‘violent' offenders off the streets," Dalmat says. A previous Prisoners and Families Clinic student challenged the result of the most recent parole hearing, but the court did not agree. Dalmat and Mosolf researched and drafted a possible appeal to the appellate division, a higher court, of New York State. To do so, they developed innovative arguments about statutes that govern parole, an unfair process, they say. Meanwhile, they spent much of their time in the clinic preparing the defendants for their next parole hearings.
"It's very hard for the defendants to go through this every two years," says Mosolf. "They are so nervous and then are given a very cursory, antagonistic appearance, which pays no attention to their achievements."
Dalmat and Mosolf researched state statutes to find material to support their argument that parole law gives too much discretion to the parole board and little heed for the statutes that are intended to constrain it. Their main goal is to show that the current implementation of the parole laws—or parole lottery—strays far from the more rational system conceived under the administration of New York State Governor Hugh Carey in the 1970s.
Forming bonds with clients in prison far from Morningside Heights was difficult, but Dalmat and Mosolf made the two-hour trip several times and developed warm and trusting relationships. A sense of continuity from one group of clinic students to the next was provided by Professor Philip Genty, who is well respected in the prison community through his teaching and representation of clients.
In a second case, Dalmat and Mosolf represented a client convicted under the New York State Rockefeller drug laws—among the harshest in United States—and sought a reduced sentence under reforms that were passed in 2004 and 2005. This case was part of a larger collaboration with The Legal Aid Society of New York City, which referred several such cases to the clinic. The students believed that the client's original sentence of six years to life could and should be reduced to a shorter fixed sentence based upon his excellent institutional record and the many letters of support that were written on his behalf. In this case, unlike the parole case, the students had not been able to meet with the client in person, because he was incarcerated in a prison several hours away from his family. All of the communication was through telephone calls and letters.
The clinic was the highlight of law school for both Dalmat and Mosolf. "The opportunity to do something so practical while still in law school is so rare; you don't get that unless you have access to clinical education," says Mosolf, adding that Professor Genty's caring attitude and deep engagement with the students was invaluable.
Mosolf added that working with another student in such an intense environment as a clinic, where the stakes are high and the work is new, was incredibly helpful. "Darin and I became close through helping each other deal with the intimidating and sad circumstances of our clients, and it was always good to bounce ideas off each other."
Moreover, Dalmat was strong in legal research and writing, whereas Mosolf's greater strength lay in overcoming intransigent bureaucrats, building close working relationships with clients, and solving practical, day-to-day problems, so the two students learned from each other and were grateful to have each other's help.
For Mosolf, already a committed public interest law student, the clinic increased her interest in helping women who are undergoing a transition from prison. For Dalmat, after two years of doing concrete assignments like writing a brief or memo, the clinic was an important step in expanding his conception of what it means to do legal work.
"In the course of tracking down documentation, we met with one of the client's parents and saw pictures of her as a young person," says Dalmat. "This is a very important part of legal work and one that I hadn't imagined, but it helped to establish credibility with our clients and helped me understand more broadly what we're doing."