LSJ Community Helps The Seattle Clemency Project
By Emma York, LSJ Communications Student Assistant
For Paul Heer, it was easy to agree to volunteer for the Seattle Clemency Project.
The LSJ alum (class of 2013) has found that working to help incarcerated people achieve freedom before their sentence expires was the perfect way to put his undergraduate background to work.
“The brilliance that is at the heart of LSJ,” Heer said, “is that it shows students the interconnectedness of structures of power and social issues, but also social remedies.”
Heer is not the only member of the LSJ community to find their way to the Seattle Clemency Project. Several students have used their LSJ internship as an opportunity to do some consequential work for the organization.
“Every LSJ student we have had has been amazing,” said Jennifer Smith, one of the SCP’s co-directors. “They are so bright and aware of many aspects of the criminal justice system that are important to know about to do this work."
The SCP is the only nonprofit in Washington focused on clemency as a tool to reward genuine reform.
Clemency is a request for mercy initially reviewed by a board and ultimately granted by the Governor of Washington through consideration of the particulars of a case and any extraordinary circumstances. Given the rarity of parole and the emergence of harsher sentences, clemency can be a means to reward reform and rehabilitation, and to remedy disproportionate sentencing.
When considering a case, SCP staff assesses time served, length of sentence, type of crime, available family support, programming completed while incarcerated, demonstration of remorse, and any other extraordinary circumstances that are worthy of clemency.
Smith and fellow co-director Jon Zulauf both share a background in public defense and private criminal defense law. They found that advocating for clemency on behalf of reformed individuals was the most immediate solution they could pursue in absence of a parole board.
“Over the years,” Smith said, “we would have conversations about the fact that there is no parole system in Washington and that it just doesn’t seem right that there is no review of people to determine whether they have rehabilitated or whether they should be in prison anymore. It seemed to us that it was the only thing we could do now to help people.”
With no prior non-profit or fundraising experience, they delved into foreign territory by establishing SCP, and it has been incredibly successful. In three years, they have matched 94 people with pro bono lawyers and have received hundreds of letters from others seeking an opportunity to petition for clemency.
SCP largely relies on the work of pro bono lawyers who take the lead on clients’ petitions for clemency.
One of these lawyers is Heer, who currently works for Foster Pepper in downtown Seattle. He finds that his career equips him with the tools needed to pursue work with organizations like SCP.
“I always envisioned becoming an attorney with a corporate business-related trade while at the same time spending a significant amount of my time doing pro bono work,” Heer said. “The idea was to leverage a large business platform, and the resources and name recognition that comes with such a power structure, to inform certain local, social and political issues.”
“This may be the most difficult yet extraordinary case deserving of the clemency process,” Heer said. “It is a perfect example of the beauties of maturation and reform, reform that the prison institution should not only recognize but empower, so that such individuals can help restore and heal the communities they once harmed.”
Youngblood is a former classmate of several LSJ students, because he has participated in the “mixed enrollment” courses through University Beyond Bars.
Heer credits his LSJ education as a driving force for his involvement with SCP. Also serving as a board member, he hopes to enable this organization to be sustainable for the future. He noted that volunteerism and support from the community, particularly students of LSJ, propel this project forward.
“The Seattle Clemency Project is incredibly successful because as a local nonprofit it has the caliber of volunteers that one usually sees at nonprofits with a national level operating budget,” he said. “It is because the volunteer base truly believes in the mission and the need for reform.”
Part of that volunteer base includes LSJ interns.
One of those, LSJ senior Zoe Fielden, began interning with SCP last fall and is planning to continue donating her time there for the remainder of the academic year. Through this experience, Fielden was able to gain practical skills such as interpreting legal documents and writing case summaries for lawyers, but she also learned more about her career interests and applying her knowledge from LSJ
“What I gained from it overall is, despite not knowing what I want to do career-wise, is that it has to be social justice related,” she said. “It has made me so much more aware of the problems that we talk about all the time by being able to put faces to them. This is the first time I have felt like there are things we can do about it. It is very slow and individual, but it is a work in progress.”
Karim Satti, a recent LSJ graduate, shared a similarly enriching experience with SCP, originating with the required LSJ internship and continuing through volunteerism. He stressed the value in developing empathy toward people victimized by our criminal justice system and the impact of applying the social justice framework of LSJ to real people.
“You get to see different aspects of a person’s life,” Satti said. “You have to come to see that in totality, so you are in a better position to understand how things went wrong rather than making a snap judgment.”
He found this work to align with LSJ by offering an alternative view of law: “Usually we see law from the perspective of those who make the laws rather than those who are suffering from those laws.”
For evidence of the successful work that the Clemency Project can achieve, one need look no further than to Gary Thomas, who was their first client who received clemency. He received a life without the possibility of parole sentence under the “three strikes” act. Now, he is prospering member of the community and able to pursue his artistic ability.
“Gary is this incredible artist,” Smith said. “He is not as lucky to have a family that is around, but now he has his own place, and he is selling his art, and he is very driven to succeed at that.”
Smith expressed much gratitude to the work of LSJ interns. For their part, Fielden and Satti encourage others to get involved with SCP during their time as an undergraduate and beyond. It is a mutually enriching experience, they said.
I think these clemency cases are a really good way to get an overview of the criminal justice system,” Smith said. “What I hope students take away more than anything is that every person, regardless of whether they committed a crime or not, has value as a human being.”
For more information on The Seattle Clemency Project or how to get involved, visit their website at http://www.seattleclemencyproject.org/.