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Post-Conviction Advocacy Project to Help Inmates Navigate Parole

P-CAP's leadership team

By Andrew Cohen

Berkeley Law students will help prisoners navigate the parole process as part of the new Post-Conviction Advocacy Project (P-CAP). The group will also work on appeals for inmates who have been denied parole.

P-CAP joins the 20 groups within Berkeley Law’s Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects. Co-leaders Ioana Tchoukleva ’14 and Katherine Katcher ’13 enlisted Oakland attorney Keith Wattley to supervise the program. Wattley oversaw similar clinical projects at UCLA and Stanford and has worked on prisoner and parole cases for 15 years.

“This work is incredibly timely and important,” Katcher said. “Indigent prisoners regularly receive inadequate representation from parole board-appointed attorneys. It’s a high-need area where Berkeley Law students can make a difference by providing strong and zealous counsel while strengthening their skills in client counseling and interviewing, legal research and writing, and oral argument.”

P-CAP’s leadership is heartened by some recent trends. Amid California’s push to reduce its badly overcrowded prison system, more parole hearings and grants of parole are being approved. The November passage of Proposition 36 also means that about 3,000 convicted felons serving life terms under the Three Strikes law will become eligible to petition for a reduced sentence.

Each P-CAP student will work 30-plus hours per semester. Third-year students who complete the program will help train underclassmen, and a faculty advisory board will serve as a further resource. Interested students will also be informed of summer and post-graduate opportunities in prison legal work.

Providing real representation

Last year, Tchoukleva spent her Thursday nights working on restorative justice issues with inmates at San Quentin State Prison. She learned that while California “lifers” have a statutory right to counsel in parole hearings, most are represented by parole board-appointed lawyers who often lack the resources or training to provide competent representation.

“Many prisoners met their attorneys literally minutes before the hearing,” Tchoukleva said. “These men had incredible insight into the societal, personal, and family factors that influenced their crimes, took full responsibility for what they did, and contributed to peace and security inside the prison. And yet even though they’d spent decades behind bars and posed no threat to society, many of them were repeatedly denied parole.”

Katcher worked last summer at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which provides free legal services to California prisoners and parolees. In the fall, she interned at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and volunteered for Wattley’s nonprofit Uncommon Law, which guides prisoners facing parole as well as their families.

“I equate prisoner rights with human rights, and with such a large prison population in this state, we really have a crisis on our hands,” Katcher said. “It’s a real injustice to keep people in prison who do not pose a current threat to public safety—which is the parole board’s main inquiry—and are truly rehabilitated and prepared to reintegrate into society.”

Katcher, Tchoukleva, and Berkeley Law graduate Kony Kim ’12 are helping coordinate client assignments for first-year students. Amanda Rogers ’14 and Aaron Zagory ’15 helped P-CAP register as a student organization and garner funding, while Carrie Hall ’14 and Megan Sallomi ’14 developed its infrastructure and outreach efforts.

“There’s so much potential in Berkeley Law students, so much passion and commitment to making a difference,” Tchoukleva said. “We wanted to tap into that and give them a way to practice their legal skills while addressing a large-scale issue that has tremendous personal ramifications for so many people: mass incarceration. Tens of thousands of people in California languish in prison with indeterminate sentences. As law students, we can give some of them a better chance at their parole hearings.”

Photo (from left): Keith Wattley, Aaron Zagory, Kony Kim, Ioana Tchoukleva, former inmate Nate Williams, and Katherine Katcher.