Root & Rebound staff members (from left): Legal Fellow Rachel Hoerger, Law Clerk Chandra Peterson ’15, Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor, Deputy Director Sonja Tonnesen ’13, Founder and Executive Director Katherine Katcher ’13, Project Attorney Buffy Hutchison, Program and Development Officer Aiasha Khalid.
By Andrew Cohen
Early on in law school, Katherine Katcher ’13 realized her legal career might prove difficult while advocating for what she calls “one of our country’s most forgotten groups.”
Undaunted, Katcher last year founded Root & Rebound (R&R), a nonprofit that works to reduce barriers and maximize opportunities for individuals with criminal records. Berkeley Law permeates the entire organization—from Deputy Director Sonja Tonnesen ’13 to Law Clerk Chandra Peterson ’15 to Professors Bertrall Ross and Jonathan Simon ’87 and Associate Director of Public Interest Programs Alex Lee ’04, all of whom serve on the Advisory Board.
Katcher had worked with domestic violence survivors and their children—fighting to punish batterers—and believed that would guide her career route. That is, until she heard two former San Quentin prisoners speak at a law school event.
When they described their circumstances growing up—physical abuse, poverty, substance abuse in their homes—it was a “lightbulb moment” for Katcher. “People with records, even those who have committed violent crimes, are still human beings who matter,” she said. “There are explanations, not excuses, for their behavior that society has to take some responsibility for. How had these men as children grown up with so little protection and intervention?”
Katcher interned for the Texas Defender Service and later worked with the Prison Law Office, Uncommon Law, and Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. She saw myriad obstacles facing people with criminal records—and a dearth of lawyers to help them.
“When people get out of prison, life can be worse than incarceration itself,” she said. “They often can’t find housing, friends and family shut them out, they’re denied certain public benefits, and employment options are bleak. They’re a huge group of second-class citizens that is kept downtrodden and marginalized, even though they’ve served their time and desire to be a part of our shared society.”
Opening the door
When California Governor Jerry Brown began commuting long sentences for non-violent offenders to mitigate the state’s prison overcrowding crisis, and approving parole release for more prisoners, Katcher saw a chance to deliver much-needed legal services for a growing population.
Starting in October 2013, she and Tonnesen interviewed nearly 100 social workers, legal advocates, and former prisoners to understand the landscape of legal reentry services. In February 2014, R&R officially launched its programmatic work.
“Our criminal justice system is full of wasted human potential,” Tonnesen said. “It has gotten into the business of breaking up predominantly minority families instead of achieving its stated objectives of eliminating violence and improving rehabilitation. We believe there’s a different way.”
R&R served 73 clients in its first year, and is now delivering more education and training-based services—forming working partnerships with corrections officers, social workers, and case managers. The group is also preparing a legal reentry guide for Californians with criminal records to explain what rights and benefits are available to them, and how to best navigate their challenges ahead.
One early triumph: resolving a parole miscalculation with a prisoner who was supposed to be on presumptive discharge after three years, but mistakenly received a term of life parole.
Another client was restricted from contacting her husband for two years even though both were released from prison, ill, and needed each other for support. R&R successfully appealed to remove that restriction—then successfully appealed to remove an ankle monitor placed on the woman in apparent retaliation for the first appeal.
Staying true to the cause
An aspiring public defender, Peterson is eager to help fill the void of lawyers helping former prisoners. While clerking for R&R, she is also exploring the formation of a reentry nonprofit in her native Iowa after graduating.
“If we believe, truly, that our criminal justice system is founded on the idea that a person is convicted, sentenced—completes that sentence—and has paid that debt to society, then we should follow that,” Peterson said. “Currently, we don’t. Employers, landlords, and schools can all discriminate against someone for a felony conviction.”
While acknowledging that waging uphill battles as a new lawyer can be daunting, Katcher remains “enormously grateful” to Simon, Ross, and Lee for emboldening her to launch R&R.
“Law school can feel like a conservative culture that’s risk-averse,” she said. “But so many people at Berkeley Law encouraged me to take this risk. They see value in training law students to be more creative and innovative in order to effect real change in the world.”
To Ross’s view, law schools everywhere should empower such student initiative.
“I’m very much inspired by students and graduates who take entrepreneurial risks,” he said. “Katherine sensed something was missing in the type of support former prisoners were given. She then did her homework and determined what gaps she could fill through meaningful resources, legal services, and advocacy to an extremely underserved community.”