Friday, February 08, 2013

Restore, enhance funding for innocence clinics at public law schools

Working with the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT), I've gotten to meet a slew of amazing young people who work at the various "innocence clinics" at the state's four public law schools. They spend a semester or two doing grunt work on cases - for example, students are deeply involved in the ongoing review of arson cases. But for a few the work ends up becoming a much more significant personal journey. They perform important vetting work to get to the point where private attorneys can identify a path to victory and are willing to take on the case. Their mostly unsung role basically amounts to searching for needles in haystacks and in my experience they're a remarkably smart, enthusiastic bunch. Earlier this week I delivered brief, written testimony to the Texas Senate Finance Committee on behalf of the IPOT asking for innocence clinic budgets to be restored or, preferably, enhanced after enduring 20% cuts in 2011. Read IPOT's pitch for boosting their meager funding below the jump.

Innocence clinics at the state’s four public law schools are funded through the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Clinic budgets at UT-Austin, Texas Tech, Texas Southern and the University of Houston law schools were cut by 20% in 2011, from $100,000 per year to $80,000. At minimum, those struggling programs need that money restored. Further, an additional $50,000 for each of the four clinics – totaling $150,000 per year, per clinic, or $280,000 per year total more than their present budgets - would substantially improve the entire state’s system for processing innocence claims.

Texas has chosen not to create a formal Innocence Commission, instead putting resources toward identifying actual-innocence cases through these clinics and the efforts of private attorneys. Investing in innocence clinics at Texas law schools helps seek justice for individuals and improves the system for everyone while helping train the next generation of Texas legal talent.

Currently clinic students are directly involved in a joint review of arson cases by the Innocence Project of Texas and the State Fire Marshal as per a recommendation from the Texas Forensic Science Commission. They continue to review other potential innocence cases as well. Few state expenditures get as much bang for the buck, not just educating students but helping vet some of the state's most difficult post-conviction cases as part of their legal training.  

With another $50,000 per year, each program could afford a half-time case-coordinator to maximize the effectiveness of student researchers and improve the connection between the student’s work and the “real world” of courts, procedures and attorneys that surround each individual case.

2 comments:

David E said...

I really appreciate the work you do.

Nick said...

Thanks for sharing this, Scott. An increase to our funding would make a big difference for the work we do. What you say about the students is quite true as well. I started out as a 2L IPOT clinic student at Texas Tech in 2008 and in doing so, found my home for the next 5 years and beyond.