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Law school programs offer model for reducing prison population, cutting costs of incarceration

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The cost of incarcerating California prisoners nearly doubled in the past decade, reaching more than $47,000 per inmate per year for fiscal year 2008-2009. Last year the state began returning low-level offenders to their home counties, under a program known as realignment, in an attempt to reduce the state’s prison spending.

As governments at the county, state, and national level look to reduce criminal justice costs and lower the number of those who are incarcerated, programs that support these goals merit review. At California Western School of Law, students and faculty members support these goals through the Advanced Mediation Program and the Bail Project.

Recently recognized with the Louis M. Brown Conflict Prevention Award from the Center for Civic Mediation, the Advanced Mediation Program helps resolve conflicts between and among residents of the County of San Diego’s Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility and Girls’ Rehabilitation Facility. Law students teach juvenile offenders the skills to avoid and manage conflict, which helps to minimize problems while they are incarcerated and eases their transition back into society. These skills, along with a newfound sense of empowerment, help young offenders avoid incidents that can lead to re-arrest.

The program also helps to train a new breed of lawyers, who focus on relationships with people and bring a problem-solving perspective to the practice of law. California Western students gain hands-on experience working with clients.

Created as a joint venture with the San Diego Public Defender Office, the Bail Project has successfully provided the indigent accused in San Diego with immediate access to legal services since 2000. Second-and third-year law students are given specialized training in client interviewing, ethics, and bail representation. After obtaining security clearances and bar certification, the students go into the jail in three-hour shifts to interview recent arrestees who have not made bail, advise them of their rights, verify information essential for bail representation and problem solve concerns arising from their incarceration.

Students also represent clients at arraignment and, in appropriate cases, seek a reduction in bail or release on the client’s own recognizance. Honored with the “Program of the Year” award by the California Public Defenders’ Association, the Bail Project not only gives students an understanding of how the criminal justice system works in practice, but also benefits both defendants and the community as bail decisions are made on the basis of reliable information.

These programs serve as models of how creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and quick access to adequate counsel can both improve access to justice and lower incarceration costs.

To learn more about the Advanced Mediation Program or the Bail Project, visit CaliforniaWestern.edu.

-Submitted by California Western School of Law.

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