Law Students Volunteer Spring Break, Restore Voting Rights in Shelby County

Combine the populations of Los Angeles and Chicago — that’s 6 million people.  Now you have the number of Americans disenfranchised by past criminal convictions.

This week, law students from New York, Florida and South Dakota joined with counterparts from the University of Memphis to restore voting rights for eight Shelby County citizens.

Law student volunteers observe voting rights restoration hearings in Shelby County Circuit Court.  Photo Courtesy: University of Memphis School of Law
Law student volunteers observe voting rights restoration hearings in the courtroom of Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Childers.  Photo Courtesy: University of Memphis Law School.

“The most rewarding experience this trip has been sitting in those hearings and seeing the judge restore rights of citizenship. He would stand up, shake their hands and say ‘I’m proud of you.’ That was just so moving to me, ” says Bridget McCullough of Syracuse University College of Law. “We’ve all made mistakes in our lives. Some have made greater mistakes than other people. That’s just a fact of life, and some of us have had support that others haven’t had.”

McCullough is one of 75 law students participating in the University of Memphis School of Law’s 5th annual Alternative Spring Break.  The program is coordinated by the University of Memphis’ Public Action Law Society, making it  the only student-led pro bono Alternative Spring Break program in the country. This year marked the largest number of participants in the program’s history.

“Even being here this short time and making this small impact has been very rewarding to me, ” said McCullough, who plans to be a public defender after graduation.

For the past two years, the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender has collaborated with the Public Action Law Society to run the criminal law track, one of seven pro bono tracks offered during the Alternative Spring Break (ASB).  In 2013,  ASB participants helped with the Shelby County Public Defender’s innovative “Street Court,” which resulted in waivers of old court costs for 75 indigent clients.  This year, spring break volunteers assisted with the Shelby County Public Defender’s “Citizenship Restoration” program.

Chris Martin heads up the Shelby County Public Defender’s citizenship restoration program.  As a law student and president of the  U of M’s Public Action Law society, Martin coordinated the ASB’s first partnership with the public defender’s office in 2013. This year, he is an assistant public defender for Shelby County and relishes the opportunity to mentor students.

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Chris Martin, leads students through the process of voting rights restoration.
Assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Chris Martin, leads students through the process of voting rights restoration.

“It’s a really important partnership, because we want to encourage a civic service tradition among law students,” says Martin. “There is a whole new generation of law school students coming in, Millennials, with a service orientation. We want to let them get their feet wet in indigent defense programs like our PDs office, so they can see what it’s like to work with clients who can’t afford a lawyer but still need access to justice.”

The ‘Barriers and Roadblocks’ of the Criminal Justice System

What these students are seeing is just how difficult it is for a person who has paid his debt to society … to return to full membership in the community.

Sarah Smith is a first year law student at the University of Memphis and worked with Martin to coordinate this year’s criminal defense track. She believes the process of filing a petition for restoration of citizenship, navigating the bureaucracy and talking to clients is an eye-opening experience for everyone involved.

“It offers an understanding of the ways a felony conviction affects an individual,” says Smith. “Beyond just the period of incarceration, you realize they’ve lost their right to vote, right to hold a business license, right to be an executor on an estate or a guardian.  Those are things that can really matter to a person, that can make a really big impact … just to say you are a citizen, again.”

The restoration of citizenship rights is an arduous process in Shelby County, largely because it has been so infrequently attempted here.  It requires coordination among the attorney for the petitioner, the district attorney’s office, the courts and the Shelby County Election Commission. In the weeks before the student volunteers arrived, Martin and Smith had to navigate a number of obstacles in the process.

This is not the story in many states across the country.  According to the Brennan Center at the New York University of School of Law, a vast majority of states automatically restore voting rights after completion of a sentence.  In fact, Maine and Vermont never strip people of voting rights for criminal convictions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa, Florida and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions.  Tennessee is one of eight other states that permanently disenfranchise people for some criminal convictions.  In each of these eleven states, the government can approve individual rights restoration, but it is a lengthy and difficult process, certainly one that would necessitate the help of a lawyer.

Members of the 2014 Alternative Spring Break criminal defense track.
Members of the 2014 Alternative Spring Break criminal defense track.

“We throw up these barriers and roadblocks. There are a lot of flaws in the justice system,” says McCullough. “And there’s not enough of us to help. Government has the obligation to make justice available to everybody.  I think that’s something we can continually work on at the federal and state level.”

Small Steps, Big Hopes

The eleven students who worked on the criminal defense track could only navigate the complexities of the system for eight clients. To do that in such a short period of time was a monumental task.

But they leave this experience knowing they helped mark a significant shift in the trajectory of eight lives.

“The extent to what they lost is sad, ” says Binna Yi of Brooklyn Law School. “And to be able to restore rights and to see the change in the faces of these people … once they have signed that voter registration card … it’s been really fascinating and hopeful to see.”