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‘Community Lawyering to End Mass Incarceration’ empowers students to work toward a more just future

November 18, 2021

The course is taught by Abolitionist Law Center leaders, Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook and Legal Director Bret Grote.

In one of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s newest courses, “Community Lawyering to End Mass Incarceration,” students learn how to engage a range of legal, political, and advocacy strategies to advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals and lead change in the criminal justice system.

Bret Grote, Lecturer in Law Bret Grote, Lecturer in LawCo-lecturer and Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center Bret Grote explained “community lawyering” as “a modality of legal practice that recognizes an ethical imperative to work with communities that are oppressed or victims of injustice and seeking to correct those wrongs and exercise agency and self-determination over their lives.”

“In addition to the substantive goals that are associated with our legal class, there is also a methodology that is more holistic, more integrated into real life, and more integrated into social and political relationships than you would get or be exposed to through conventional legal practice or pedagogy,” Grote said. “It recognizes the political nature of the judicial system, and it recognizes that client representation and litigation in court cases is one potential strategy amongst other advocacy and political organizing strategies that can be advanced to work towards remedying a wrong.”

Grote and his co-lecturer, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center Robert Saleem Holbrook, proposed this course to the Law School at Penn specifically due in part to the already vibrant movement to end mass incarceration that continues to grow within Philadelphia. This recognition ties into the course’s broader philosophy: to effectively practice community lawyering, a lawyer must work alongside their clients as an equal partner rather than as an outside source of knowledge, expertise, and power.

“You can’t do movement lawyering from a removed, alienated position,” Grote said. “You have to be very embedded with the individuals and the communities you are representing. You have to be full partners with them. We try to bring that into the classroom and into the coursework.”

Robert Saleem Holbrook, Lecturer in Law Robert Saleem Holbrook, Lecturer in LawAt first, Grote and Holbrook planned to focus on the laws surrounding life without parole (LWOP) sentences in Pennsylvania, but they later decided to broaden their course’s scope to look at how community lawyering can be used to confront a number of practices and situations that contribute to racialized mass incarceration, both in Pennsylvania and across the country.

The course’s syllabus covers a range of material. In addition to studying Supreme Court jurisprudence related to capital punishment, LWOP, and Eighth Amendment excessive sentencing, students also spend time reading and discussing material produced by activists, such as the Abolitionist Law Center’s “A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania” and the Sentencing Project’s “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment.” Students in the class practice legal and advocacy skills by briefing and arguing a mock case and preparing a comprehensive strategic plan for advocating for a proposed legal change.

The course encourages students to reflect on what it means to litigate within the criminal justice system while maintaining a goal of ending mass incarceration.

Conversations in this area can be highly nuanced; for example, one question students contemplate is how they might make an argument in favor of a client convicted of a felony murder – i.e., a client who was found not to have had the intent to kill – without further damaging the law for others who were found to have had an intent to kill. Embedded in these discussions is an attention to, in Grote’s words, “navigating through a legal system where your strategic options are limited by the constraints of constitutional doctrine as well as the limits of political power in communities that are most impacted by these systems.”

Students hear from a number of guest speakers throughout the course, including, for example, Arthur Johnson, an Abolitionist Law Center client who was recently released from prison after serving 51 years, including 37 years of solitary confinement. The integration of voices from those most heavily impacted by the criminal justice system was intentional and integral to the design of the course.

“The interlocutors who come into class and engage with students are people who have a lived experience of being the most impacted by LWOP and by the carceral system,” Grote said. “That is a key pedagogical and methodical feature of the type of lawyering we are focused on in this course.”

Of the 10 students enrolled in the course, most have expressed interest in working in the criminal justice space. One student, who is pursuing her Master in Law degree and simultaneously studying social work, is taking the course because she anticipates working alongside lawyers. Some students have raised the question of whether they will become lawyers at all.

“Everything is on the table in our course, in terms of how you use your power and skills — whether that means becoming a lawyer or going in a different direction,” Grote said. “Everybody in the class is oriented toward doing justice-focused work. Many anticipate working within the criminal justice paradigm, but I think others are really trying to use the law creatively in order to dismantle systems of injustice and build a better world in this very, very troubled country.”

Learn more about the Law School’s wide range of pioneering curricular offerings.