Darin Dalmat and Kim Mosolf, both third-year law students, found themselves more committed both to their clients and to changing what they call an arbitrary parole system as their cases in the Prisoners and Families clinic snowballed during the school year, becoming increasingly complicated and compelling.
For Darin, these two cases—appealing a parole denial and working on a drug re-sentencing case—were an opportunity to delve deeply into criminal justice work while engaging his interest in the intersection of poverty and race. Darin had worked previously on voting rights issues as an intern at the ACLU Voting Rights Project, while his partner, Kim, had done direct-service work with welfare recipients and wanted to transfer her interest in client work to the field of criminal justice.
In the parole case, the students worked with two co-defendants—both women—who had been denied parole four times over a 26-year incarceration. Imprisoned in a minimum-security state prison, the women were in their 20s when they killed someone in the course of a robbery, and were convicted of felony murder. They have been exemplary prisoners having earned high school and college degrees and overcome histories of abuse and drug addiction while in prison.
"They're the result of the current administration's policy to keep all ‘violent' offenders off the streets," Darin says. A previous Prisoners and Families clinic student challenged the result of the most recent parole hearing, but the court did not agree. Darin and Kim researched and drafted a possible appeal to the appellate division, a higher court, of New York State. To do so, they developed innovative arguments about statutes that govern parole, an unfair process, they say. Meanwhile, they have spent much of their time in the clinic preparing the defendants for their next parole hearings.
"It's very hard for the defendants to go through this every two years," says Kim. "They are so nervous and then are given a very cursory, antagonistic appearance, which pays no attention to their achievements."
Darin and Kim researched state statutes to find material to support their argument that parole law gives too much discretion to the parole board and little heed for the statutes that are intended to constrain it. Their main goal is to show that the current implementation of the parole laws—or parole lottery—strays far from the more rational system conceived under the administration of New York State Governor Hugh Carey in the 1970s.
Forming bonds with clients in prison far from Morningside Heights has been difficult, but Darin and Kim have made the two-hour trip several times and have developed warm and trusting relationships. A sense of continuity from one group of clinic students to the next is provided by Professor Philip Genty, who is well respected in the prison community through his teaching and representation of clients.
In a second case, Darin and Kim have represented a client convicted under the New York State Rockefeller drug laws—among the harshest in United States—and are seeking a reduced sentence under reforms that were passed in 2004 and 2005. This case is part of a larger collaboration with The Legal Aid Society of New York City, which has referred several such cases to the clinic. The students believe that the client's original sentence of six years to life can and should be reduced to a shorter fixed sentence based upon his excellent institutional record and the many letters of support that have been written on his behalf. In this case, unlike the parole case, the students have not been able to meet with the client in person, because he is incarcerated in a prison several hours away from his family. All of the communication has therefore been through telephone calls and letters.
The clinic has been the highlight of law school for both Darin and Kim. "The opportunity to do something so practical while still in law school is so rare; you don't get that unless you have access to clinical education," says Kim, adding that Professor Genty's caring attitude and deep engagement with the students has been invaluable.
Kim adds that working with another student in such an intense environment as a clinic, where the stakes are high and the work is new, can be incredibly helpful. "Darin and I became close through helping each other deal with the intimidating and sad circumstances of our clients, and it was always good to bounce ideas of each other."
Moreover, Darin is strong in legal research and writing, whereas Kim's greater strength lies in overcoming intransigent bureaucrats, building close working relationships with clients, and solving practical, day-to-day problems, so the two students learned from each other and were grateful to have each other's help.
For Kim, already a committed public interest law student, the clinic has increased her interest in helping women who are undergoing a transition from prison. For Darin, after two years of doing concrete assignments like writing a brief or memo, the clinic has been an important step in expanding his conception of what it means to do legal work.
"In the course of tracking down documentation, we met with one of the client's parents and saw pictures of her as a young person," says Darin. "This is a very important part of legal work and one that I hadn't imagined, but it helped to establish credibility with our clients and helped me understand more broadly what we're doing."