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UnCommon Law is a new California non-profit organization whose mission is to help long-term prisoners obtain release. There are 34,000 such prisoners in California. We represent these prisoners in parole board hearings and in court petitions challenging the parole board and the governor.

We have accomplished a great deal with virtually no budget, and it’s time to move on to the next phase.

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A Review of 2013

ADVOCACY FOR PAROLE SEEKERS

We drove more than 20,000 miles, appeared in more parole hearings than ever before, succeeded more than 50% of the time and had 30 clients granted parole!  Of those 30, 16 were home in time to spend the holidays with their families for the first time in decades.  Their stories convince us that we are providing much-needed quality representation, especially for indigent prisoners.

LAW SCHOOL PROGRAMS FOR LIFERS

We have continued to train and supervise law students as they prepare indigent lifers for parole hearings.  This year, over 50 law students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and UC Hastings participated.  More than half their clients were granted parole.  Law students and UCL staff spent over 1,200 hours on these pro bono cases.  More hearings are scheduled for 2014.

IMPACT LITIGATION AGAINST THE BOARD

We are engaged in a civil rights suit (Johnson v. Shaffer, E.D. Cal., No. 2:12-cv-1059) challenging the parole board’s team of psychologists, who evaluate all lifers before parole hearings and disproportionately rate them as unfit for release.  The magistrate judge recently recommended certifying the case as a class action for roughly 10,000 prisoners.  Although we have litigated for over 18 months, we have collected no fees for these efforts.  As the case enters the next stage of discovery, we will need much financial support.

SPECIAL TRAINING FOR LIFER ADVOCATES

We have continued to conduct training seminars for advocates, including lawyers, law students, and prisoners.  This includes special training for criminal defense attorneys who, without our seminars, are unaware of critical steps they can take at the trial level to improve their clients’ parole prospects decades later.  This year, we conducted six seminars throughout California, for roughly 500 attendees.

 

Focus on Youth in 2014 and Beyond

In 2014, we will focus on serving the most vulnerable long-term prisoners – the youth.  Governor Brown recently signed into law Senate Bill 260, which promises juveniles convicted of serious crimes a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society – despite the “tough-on-crime” schemes under which they were sentenced.

The new law requires the parole board to conduct earlier hearings at which commissioners must consider the diminished culpability of youth and their capacity to mature into valuable citizens. Our prisons house roughly 3,000 individuals serving lengthy terms for crimes committed as juveniles.  Half may be eligible for special parole consideration, including 750 who will receive hearings over the next 18 months, so we need to act quickly to prepare them.  (For information about SB 260, visit our Resources page.)

Our goal is to spearhead the statewide effort to provide quality legal representation, education and training for indigent youth prisoners eligible for special parole consideration.  To do this, we need to raise $250,000 – and we believe that, with your support, we can help bring these individuals home decades after their youthful misconduct sent them to prison.

 

Severe Financial Need

Unfortunately, we have yet to secure any large foundation grants, and the fees we collect for some services have not been nearly enough to cover everything we seek to accomplish.  As a result, our staff members have invested their personal resources to keep the effort going.  Those resources are now depleted, so we desperately need your help to keep serving this population.

The Prison Law Office is graciously accepting donations on our behalf while we await finalization of our tax-exempt status.

Thank you for supporting us in serving this special population.

 

Sincerely,

Keith Wattley
Managing Attorney, UCL

 

You can make a tax-deductible donation by writing a check or money order payable to Prison Law Office and mailing it to: Prison Law Office, General Delivery, San Quentin, CA 94964. In the Memo section, please indicate “for UnCommon Law.”