A legal clinic, offered by UW Law, forces law students to support a biased criminal justice system

(This article, written by a UW Law student, was originally published in “Real Change,” July 24, 2013.)

For the past few months, students, faculty and administrators at the University of Washington School of Law (UW Law) have been in the middle of a heated debate regarding a law clinic focused on the prosecution of low-level crimes. In this clinic, the product of a partnership between the UW Law and the King County Prosecutor’s Office (KCPO), qualifying third-year students will represent the state in misdemeanor cases, including trials or pretrial hearings. A senior deputy prosecutor will supervise the students.

Historically, law school clinics have a two-fold purpose: to serve unmet needs in local communities and to better equip students to practice law in the future. The administration of UW Law believes that the prosecutor’s clinic will afford students the opportunity to address the inequities of the criminal justice system.

But many student groups, professors, alumni and community leaders do not support this clinic because they believe it is unjust for a public law school to participate in a program that may contribute to the disparity in resources between defenders and prosecutors.

Personally, as a woman of color from an urban area, I oppose this clinic. I’ve worked in Seattle for 10 years as a youth outreach worker and advocate in the communities most impacted by biased prosecution. The people who may be unfairly prosecuted by students from my law school would be my neighbors.

There is no unmet need for prosecutors in King County, but there is a serious need for defenders. Despite the requests of students, UW Law administrators have yet to implement a legal defense clinic. Instead, they are choosing to partner with KCPO, an office whose own staff members have been cited for using racially biased arguments.

The Washington State Supreme Court has found that KCPO’s own senior deputy prosecutor, James Konat, engaged in “prosecutorial misconduct” stemming from racially charged language. Konat, who has handled some of the region’s most high-profile murder cases, used such language back in 2007, but KCPO did not fire him. Reportedly earning more than $147,000 a year, Konat stayed on until February 2012, when he chose to leave by his own accord.

An additional concern is the role Seattle Police Department (SPD) plays in who gets prosecuted in King County. The SPD has a reputation for racial profiling, which greatly impacts who is picked up, charged and prosecuted. If this clinic is implemented, UW Law students will be prosecuting the most vulnerable members of our Seattle community.

Despite repeated requests from students, UW Law administrators have neglected to develop a comprehensive diversity plan. The law school is one of the few schools at UW that does not require its students to complete a diversity requirement to graduate. If UW Law is serious about addressing inequality in the legal system, then administrators should hire a critical race theorist to train all professors to engage in these conversations, as opposed to funding a criminal prosecution clinic that will educate only eight students per year on these issues.

There are many ways to teach students about the criminal justice system and inequality without risking the potential harm to our neighbors.

Many argue that the prosecution clinic can do a lot of good if it is done well, however details of the educational components of the clinic have been in a state of flux. There’s some evidence that Seattle University School of Law administrators rejected the prosecution clinic after a two-year deliberation process led them to decide it was unjust. In 2013, with limited deliberation, UW Law presented the clinic as a course for the 2013-2014 academic year without following its own stipulated protocols for course development.

UW Law is a public service law school in a public university. It is not in the best interest of our neighbors — the public — to pursue this prosecution clinic. There are many other, more efficient methods to develop good prosecutors, educate law students and benefit the community.  We have some of the brightest minds in the country in King County and at UW Law. I am sure we can come up with a stronger, more equitable option for all.