Civil Rights Clinic: Challenging Mass Incarceration

LW.11798 / LW.10510
Professor Claudia Angelos
Professor Molly Kovel
Open to 3L, 2L and LLM students
Maximum of 8 students
Not offered 2021-22
6 credits*
No prerequisites or co-requisites.


As is now widely known, the United States has the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of its inmates. The “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and 1990s fueled an explosion in incarceration rates. By the close of 2010, America had 1,267,000 people behind bars in state prisons, 744,500 in local jails, and 216,900 in federal facilities—more than 2.2 million people locked in cages.

Over-incarceration has aptly been called “The New Jim Crow,” as racial bias, both implicit and explicit, disproportionately keeps people of color in prisons. One in three black men can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime, compared to one in 17 white males. Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate at least 38% higher than the national rate, including all races. The effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color has been tragic. At no other point in U.S. history have so many people—overwhelmingly people of color—been deprived of their liberty.

The factors that have driven mass incarceration are many, and repairing this broken system will require significant reforms in policing, bail practices, public defense systems, prosecutorial misconduct, sentencing, probation and parole, and reentry. The Civil Rights Clinic: Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic works with faculty and the American Civil Liberties Union to take a varied approach to tackling these problems. Students will work directly with individual incarcerated people as well as participate in broader impact litigation or policy reform efforts challenging mass incarceration. The clinic’s impact cases will be shared with the ACLU’s Trone Center, which brings criminal justice reform litigation across the country.

Course Description

Our goal is to provide our students with meaningful experience in a variety of social justice legal tactics. In teams of two, all clinic students will take full responsibility for representing incarcerated people in local prisons as they prepare for their parole proceedings. In New York State, irrational parole denials remain a main driver of over-incarceration. This work will involve building relationships with and counseling a client, mastering the client’s record, gathering support from their community, and crafting an effective narrative.

In addition, students will work under the supervision of Professor Molly Kovel, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Trone Center, and Professor Claudia Angelos of the full-time NYU faculty, on the ACLU’s work in reforming the criminal legal system. The ACLU assignments may include work on impact litigation challenging state parole systems, systemic prosecutorial misconduct, or bail practices around the country. Instead of impact litigation, students may choose to do policy analysis and research with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, a nationally-coordinated effort to end mass incarceration through public education, organizing, electoral, and legislative work.

The fieldwork will be supported by a weekly seminar that considers the challenges that face civil rights lawyers, their adversaries, and other participants in the process. The seminar involves a simulation program in pretrial skills in order to provide students with an opportunity to engage in the full range of lawyering activities in the pretrial process, including coordinating with non-litigation campaigns, client counseling, drafting, media advocacy, motions, discovery and depositions, and negotiation. We will also discuss the various ethical and political issues raised by institutional civil rights work and the model of public interest lawyering that it involves. A third hour of seminar time will be devoted to discussion of the challenges that students face in their cases, in order more effectively to advance the interests of the clinic’s clients and also so that the rich fieldwork in which the clinic is involved becomes a basis for broader student learning. Although the substantive focus of the course will be criminal justice impact litigation, students will learn strategic thinking, campaign planning, and oral and written advocacy skills for use across substantive law areas. We aim to provide clinic students with basic skills in client representation and federal pretrial litigation. We also expect that students will learn about the national movement to end mass incarceration and will critically assess it and various models of social justice lawyering, lawyer-client relationships, and providing access to justice.

Student work is supervised by veteran civil rights lawyers.  Molly, now senior staff attorney at the ACLU, is a long-time civil rights litigator whose work has always involved criminal justice reform, first at The Bronx Defenders and later at the New York Civil Liberties Union. Claudia has done prisoners’ rights work for decades. We look forward to working with clinic students in taking on the critical challenges of mass incarceration.

Application Procedure

If you are interested in applying to the clinic, please submit the standard application, resume and transcript online through CAMS. Selection of students is not based on interviews; however, you are welcome if you like to come to a small group meeting of applicants and faculty so that we can have the opportunity to meet each other and so that we can answer the questions you may have.  We will contact all applicants to set up a time.

Student Contacts

This past year’s participants in the Civil Rights Clinic: Challenging Mass Incarceration are listed below.  Please feel free to contact them about their experiences. They are your best source of information about the clinic:

Fall 2018
Sara Bagley
Julian Clark
Steve Demarest
Molly Griffard
Brianna Hathaway
December Huddleston
Daniel Kugler
Matthew Wolin

* 6 credits include 3 clinical credits and 3 academic seminar credits.