Navigating the legal justice system for those incarcerated in Oklahoma can be daunting, especially when they don’t have guidance. The University of Tulsa encourages law students to work on cases at various stages in the legal process as a way of assisting defendants facing a criminal trial. Starting in 2020, the Public Defenders (PD) Clinic has allowed many TU College of Law students to see how the Oklahoma criminal justice system works and to make a difference.
“Oklahoma currently ranks third in the nation of states with the highest incarceration rates. Only a couple of years ago, we had the highest rate in the nation, and we would still have to release nearly 10,000 people from prison just to get to the national average. Oklahoma also led the country for 30 years with the highest female incarceration rate,” said Glen Blake, Tulsa County deputy public defender and TU Law adjunct professor. “By studying this issue and participating in meaningful hands-on work, students have the opportunity to see firsthand the results of excessive sentencing and the impact it has on families and communities.”
Law student Cheyenne Barnard became interested in the clinic after a friend suggested applying. “My goal in law school is to take advantage of all the fantastic opportunities I can (and) to understand different areas of law better,” she said. “The Public Defenders Clinic was a new opportunity where I could learn and grow my advocacy skills while getting to help real clients.”
Students get hands-on, one-on-one experience by visiting incarcerated defendants in prison a couple of times a week. The students guide them through the pardon application process if the defendant decides to seek sentence commutation. After conducting research, students may argue the cases before the five-member Pardon and Parole Board in Oklahoma City.
“I believe that the PD clinic is the best source of legal experience that a student can get in law school,” student Trey Kirby said. “Getting to actually advocate for clients, getting to treat the clients like they are our own, getting to personally meet with clients and creating legal arguments for our clients was the best experience I could have gotten in law school.
“Most internships or externships will just have you doing support work for an attorney while this clinic allows you to do almost work as an attorney. This experience, I believe, will be invaluable as I begin my legal career as I will already have some real-world experience working in the legal field.”
Beginning this fall, the Public Defender Clinic will add another staff attorney, Janay Clougherty, who will work with students on misdemeanor cases in Tulsa County. While the PD clinic will continue parole and commutation representation for clients, students will also have the opportunity to represent clients in the Tulsa County District Court system from arraignment through disposition.