The Buffalo Law Experience

Students step up for those adjusting to life after prison

Participants in the practicum with instructors Monica Piga Wallace ’94, a Law School lecturer in the Legal Analysis, Writing and Research program, second from right, and Paul Curtin, a Legal Aid attorney.

A new Law School practicum is putting students’ legal skills to use on behalf of an underserved group of clients: federal offenders who are completing their sentences and finding their way in life after prison.

The Post-Incarceration Reentry Practicum is a collaboration between the Law School and the Western District of New York’s Federal Reentry Court Program, a voluntary post-release program that provides newly released federal offenders with a range of support, including legal assistance, to help them stay out of trouble and get settled in jobs and housing. Starting with six students this fall semester and continuing in the spring, participants in the practicum are working with attorneys from the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo to help resolve civil legal issues for these newly released offenders.

The instructors for the program are Monica Piga Wallace ’94, a Law School lecturer in the Legal Analysis, Writing and Research program, and Legal Aid attorney Paul Curtin. Professor Athena Mutua will also participate in the practicum.

Nationwide, over 150 prisoners each day are released from federal custody, Wallace says, and they face both legal and social barriers to successful reentry into society. The transition from life in prison to life at home poses many challenges for those individuals. As convicted felons, they may have difficulty finding adequate housing; they may be barred from certain types of employment; they may have issues with substance abuse, mental health, and child support or child custody arrangements. “These barriers interfere with their ability to transition back into the community,” Wallace says. “Even individuals with the best of intentions will encounter legal and social obstacles that threaten to interfere with reintegration and increase the likelihood of recidivism. Reentry work seeks to identify and eliminate those barriers and create situations where newly released individuals can successfully rejoin society.

“This is an opportunity to give students real practical experience while fulfilling this unmet legal need. Experiential learning has been identified as essential to developing the legal skills needed to address the demands and challenges of practicing law. It’s a great marriage of the Law School’s desire to facilitate experiential learning and the school’s commitment to providing pro bono legal services.”

In addition to their classroom-based coursework, those in the practicum – all second- and third-year students – spend about 10 hours a week working under the supervision of Legal Aid attorneys representing participants in the Federal Reentry Court Program. For example, Wallace says, they might work to obtain a waiver for an offender who wants to reunite with his family living in federally subsidized housing, but is barred from doing so because of rules against felons’ living in subsidized apartments. Others may help resolve outstanding arrest warrants or seek modification of a child custody order. Some will work under practice orders in federal, state, city and family courts, and students will also participate in the biweekly Federal Reentry Court sessions run by U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott ’74.

Scott, whose program is one of about 40 administered by federal district courts nationwide, says that if of- program, their period of supervised release can be reduced by a year. “It’s really about putting your life back together,” he says. “These are people at the highest risk of reoffending. But it costs a fortune to re-imprison someone. This is an attempt to do for these individuals as much as we can do as a court.”

Participants in the program gather every two weeks in Judge Scott’s well-appointed Genesee Courtroom, on the sixth floor of Buffalo’s new federal court building, to report on their progress: Have they found a job? Are they living in a stable situation? Are they avoiding drugs and alcohol? “We try to make it a lot less formal than a regular court proceeding, and we try to involve their families as much as we can,” Scott says.

Reentry programs seek to avoid the future social and legal costs that occur if an individual reoffends. The offenders’ participation is voluntary, he says, and 14 to 18 are in the program at any given time. “I really hope this program expands in the future,” Scott says. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s a good use of resources, it saves resources, and it saves people from a lot of collateral consequences.”

Legal Aid attorney Curtin says the practicum is “a really good fit for students who want to have a serious experience doing actual legal work in the civil field. It’s the kind of client representation that is all-encompassing. I’m anticipating the participants will get some experience in housing law, landlord-tenant law, issues with the city Housing Court, civil legal issues related to financial problems, and a broad range of family law issues. The clients we deal with take us into pretty much every court in the city. But with these folks, you can really make a profound difference in a short period of time.”