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Transforming the Parole Process

October 13, 2023


A fierce advocate for people impacted by incarceration, Sadye Stern L’22 worked on parole justice with Amistad Law Project.

I spent my fellowship year with Amistad Law Project (ALP), a law firm and community organizing project focused on combatting mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. With support from the Langer, Grogan, and Diver Foundation in Social Justice, I helped Amistad establish a parole preparation project that provides comprehensive parole and reentry support to people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons. The parole project advocates on behalf of clients before the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

Prior to parole hearings, I helped ALP clients build crucial connections to community resources and secure support for their parole release from family and community members. My work also involved developing parole packets to submit to the Board and preparing clients to tell their stories of change and growth. The goal of this work was to improve each person’s chances of achieving parole release and successful, long-term reentry into their community.

Advancing Justice Through Movement Lawyering

I decided to pursue a law degree so that I could use it as a tool to support economic and racial justice—and specifically anti-carceral—movements. Prior to coming to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, I worked as a labor organizer and learned that great structural achievements are possible when lawyers work side-by-side with organizers to fight for structural changes that transform people’s material conditions.

At Penn Carey Law, I explored methods and strategies available to lawyers seeking interventions that would minimize the criminal legal system’s harm and control over people’s lives. I worked with the Youth Advocacy Project (YAP), a pro-bono project supervised by the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project that connects social work and law students to prepare mitigation reports on behalf of children charged as adults in the criminal legal system. The mitigation reports are designed to humanize young people in the eyes of prosecutors and judges and to demonstrate the young person’s potential to be safe, live well, and thrive when given the right support.

This experience showed me that creating holistic, long-term, client-centered support for people impacted by the criminal punishment system can transform possibilities for short- and long-term freedom and well-being. At the same time, this work creates opportunities for building meaningful relationships between people in prison and outside communities. These connections can undermine structural hierarchies that reproduce economic and racial injustice.

The work I’m doing with the parole project endeavors to adapt these skills, experiences, and lessons learned to better understand how lawyers and community advocates can support people navigating the parole process in Pennsylvania.

Fighting Mass Incarceration in Pennsylvania

I’ve been energized by the support the project has received from people on the inside, systems change and reentry advocates, and lawyers working within and around the criminal system. In my conversations with advocates and people impacted by incarceration, there is a clear need for more support for individuals preparing for parole review and release. There is also broad recognition that true rehabilitation and successful reentry require an overhaul of the current parole system, which maintains mass incarceration in Pennsylvania.

Many of the problems with the parole system emerge from Pennsylvania’s parole statute and the way the courts have interpreted parole applicants’ rights under the statute. The statute grants the Parole Board near total discretion to deny people their freedom based on highly subjective criteria and risk assessments based on the applicant’s socioeconomic status, family situation, and substance use at the time of incarceration. There is scant consideration of a person’s accomplishments or successes while incarcerated. Moreover, applicants are given just 10 minutes to make their case for release during a virtual interview that is neither recorded nor transcribed. The applicant also is not permitted to have an attorney, loved ones, or witnesses present. Understandably, parole applicants—and the families and communities preparing to welcome them home—feel frustrated and disempowered within this system.

Under Pennsylvania’s current parole system, the parole denial rate hovers between 50-60% and is often higher for people with violent offenses. Incarcerated people’s work to rehabilitate themselves often goes unrecognized. A common theme is the lack of clear guidance from the Department of Corrections on how people preparing for parole can show they are safe and ready to return home from prison. People currently or formerly incarcerated have shared with me the overwhelming anxiety and confusion they experience while preparing for their parole review and the possibility of reentry.

This is to say that there are many people looking for more support and attention in this system. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from and partner with these individuals to begin building a parole support model and advocacy agenda for the future. Though we’ve only begun to explore what’s possible, it’s been hopeful and enlivening to collaborate with so many people to recognize the nuances of the problem and determine what it will take to create more secure pathways to freedom in Pennsylvania.


Pathways to the Profession highlights Penn Carey Law students and post-graduate fellows as they launch impactful legal careers. From summer internships in the private sector to public interest post-graduate fellowships and externships, these firsthand accounts of substantive legal work demonstrate the myriad opportunities available to Penn Carey Law students and graduates.

Project-based fellowships enable students and recent alumni to partner with a nonprofit organization and design a one-year project to address a particular client need.

Sadye Stern L’22 is committed to movement lawyering to end mass incarceration and win communities the resources they need to thrive.

Discover more of our students’ Pathways to the Profession.