Gimme some truth: Wisconsin inmates look to law professors to answer their legal questions

Several times a year, a team of University of Wisconsin Law School professors and their students deliver some truth to Wisconsin prison inmates.

Michele LaVigne and Adam Stevenson, both clinical professors at the Law School, have been traveling to prisons around the state to conduct “Ask a Lawyer” sessions with inmates. The sessions are part of a non-denominational restorative justice project, operating out of Madison’s First Congregational United Church of Christ.

According to Jerry Hancock, a 1971 Law School graduate and the director of the project, the experience is a powerful one for inmates, who regularly write impassioned letters of thanks to LaVigne and Stevenson. “To inmates, these two are the rock stars of the legal world,” he says.

Michele LaVigne, Adam Stevenson and Jerry Hancock

The restorative justice process brings together offenders, victims and the community, with the goal of repairing relationships damaged by crime. LaVigne and Stevenson stand in for the community; students from the Legal Assistance for Institutionalized Persons project join them, both to assist with the sessions and to learn about lawyering.

For inmates looking to reduce or overturn their sentences, hearing the truth of their situations can be a difficult step in the process. Yet the facts—however cold and hard—are what inmates ultimately want, or as one participant recently wrote: “It was nice to get some straightforward advice from some nice as hell, no nonsense, cool as heck people. So please, with all my heart and soul, thank you so very much.”

Stevenson describes the Q-and-As as “truth in action,” a play on the “law in action” educational tradition for which UW Law has become known. Sometimes the discussion reveals that an inmate received unfair treatment in the criminal justice system, and the Law School team can suggest how to begin righting the wrongs. Other times, inmates learn they did in fact get due process.

According to Stevenson, both outcomes are victories, even if it means an inmate learns he actually received a fair shake, and that everything that could be done had been done. “When we achieve understanding, inmates can finally come to grips with their situation and move on.”

Hancock says LaVigne and Stevenson are putting good information into the prison system, where legal resources are scarce and confusion runs rampant. But beyond their gift of service, he maintains the pair also gets something back. Their teaching and practice are informed by their prison visits, insights they couldn’t get anywhere else.

Stevenson agrees. He says the experience has kept him in touch with the kinds of common legal misunderstandings that develop in the prison community, and helped him figure out how to correct them. As for his students, they learn what it takes to translate complex legal processes for a given audience, skills they’ll use whether or not they go into criminal law.

“Restorative justice is meant to bring hope,” adds Stevenson. “What we're trying to do is make hope reasonable, bring a bit of reality to that hope, dispel myths, and help inmates self-identify the issues and opportunities they face."

Submitted by Law School News on April 24, 2014

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