Ali Harrington.

Ali Harrington: The tools to effect change

Associate Professor Alexandra (Ali) Harrington, director of UB School of Law’s Innocence and Justice Project, knows well how effective student attorneys can be in addressing critical gaps in the provision of justice.

At Yale Law School, from which she earned a J.D. in 2014, she served in a human rights clinic, advocating to reform sentencing laws that condemn juveniles to spend decades in prison; in the school’s capital punishment clinic advocating for clients on death row; and in a student-founded project advocating for refugee resettlement.

“Clinical students learn substantive law, but they also learn the critical skills like legal writing, legal research, how to conduct an interview, how to work as a team, how to work with clients,” Harrington says. “It’s one thing to sit in class and hear about the law; it’s an entirely different thing to see how it works in practice.”

After law school, she turned her experience in the human rights clinic into a Yale Public Interest Fellowship and then a position as a Deputy Assistant Public Defender with the Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services. In that role, she coordinated the Division’s representation of people serving long prison sentences for crimes committed as children. She secured parole release for a number of people who had spent years in prison serving such sentences.

Her work with the public defender’s office informed the focus of her scholarship, which analyzes the inequities in the sentencing of juveniles and the efficacy of parole reforms. Her recent article, forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review, suggests a way to bring the reality of parole closer to the promise of recent Supreme Court decisions that address the need to sentence juveniles differently.

She will share that experience and expertise with students in UB Law’s newly established Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic, which will take on work under New York State’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Enacted in 2019, the legislation draws on new understandings of the psychological underpinnings of domestic violence. It allows state Supreme Court judges to reduce some survivors’ prison sentences. Clinic students will work in teams to represent clients – predominantly women – who have been sentenced to spend many years in prison.

“Sentencing is supposed to be holistic,” Harrington says. “In practice, without this law that gives specific recognition to domestic violence survivors—or laws that give specific recognition to people who were kids at the time of the crime—mitigating factors weren’t always getting fair shrift at sentencing.”

“There’s a lot of context and history and life that comes before this one event that we’re capturing at sentencing,” she says. “These laws acknowledge that maybe the way that we sentence people and the way that we condemn people to spend decades of their life in prison is not in fact a fair and just way to treat human beings, and does not credit our complexity or our capacity for change. This act is one way to recognize what we’re slowly as a society coming to accept: that people can change, and that people are more than the worst thing they have done.”

In addition to that direct representation, students in the Clinic will conduct research to understand the scope of the legal need, and develop creative litigation strategies as the justice system begins to implement the new law. Students will also work on Harrington’s ongoing class action lawsuit against a federal prison in Connecticut over its response to COVID-19 and its treatment of medically vulnerable individuals.

As the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic grows, she says, its focus will broaden to take on a wider spectrum of resentencing, parole and post-conviction cases, including on behalf of people sentenced as juveniles.

A Buffalo native, Harrington was previously a Senior Liman Fellow in Residence at the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School. In that role, she supervised students working on projects related to criminal justice reform. She graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and European Studies.