Opening Doors

From left, Wasim Kabir, a graduate of the Camden Federal Reentry Court program, with U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman, an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School, and Steve Salinger RLAW’15, an attorney and volunteer in the program.

From left, Wasim Kabir, a graduate of the Camden Federal Reentry Court program, with U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman, an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School, and Steve Salinger RLAW’15, an attorney and volunteer in the program.

Rutgers Law School strives to renew the futures of those starting over

By Jason Nark CCAS’00

When Wasim Kabir was freed from federal prison, he made a vow to stay on the straight and narrow to avoid the pitfalls that once landed him as a defendant in courtrooms.

Like thousands released from correctional facilities annually, Kabir soon realized that the path was filled with obstacles, such as child support payments that had piled up and minor infractions in small municipalities that remained unresolved during his stint in prison. With no driver’s license—another casualty of a long sentence—the road toward reintegration seemed even more daunting. “It was frustrating,” he said.

When a group of professors and students from Rutgers Law School in Camden, along with volunteer attorneys, federal prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, and judges offered to help clear the obstacles for Kabir, it came with a caveat that can make some in his situation wary.

They wanted him to come to the federal courthouse for a meeting.

Camden U.S. District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman, who helped to spearhead the collaborative reentry program, said such an invitation can cause concern. “For many, the last time they were in a courtroom, things didn’t work out so well,” said Hillman, who also teaches as an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School.

Kabir, however, had no qualms about returning to the site where he had once been sentenced. “I didn’t have animosity toward the courts because everything that put me in that situation to begin with was my fault,” said Kabir, a resident of Camden. “It didn’t take but a minute to see this would definitely be a benefit for me.”

The collaboration, known as Camden Federal Reentry Court, which partners the federal courts and the criminal justice system with Rutgers Law students and faculty, has proven to be a small-but-powerful team with successful impact in the Camden area. “When we meet, we have a focused discussion about what they’ve been able to achieve and what the challenges are and what problems they’ve faced in the last two weeks,” Hillman said. “We connect them with job resources, counseling, folks who get them clothing, housing, and transportation.”

For Kabir, the reentry program hammered home the importance of little things—such as the moment he had to take his driver’s test over to get his license, which could be the difference between landing a job that pays $10 an hour versus $18 an hour. “It finally felt like my wallet was complete,” he said. “Though it seems silly, that was a great, great feeling.”

Overall, Kabir is very glad he participated in the reentry program. “It was hard to put all my problems out there in the open, but it turned out to be a real benefit to me,” he said.

Reducing Recidivism

The program is one of two initiatives in which Rutgers Law School plays a key role that aim to reduce prison recidivism, a major concern within the criminal justice system. In a nine-year study that tracked a sample of prisoners over 30 states, the Bureau of Justice found that 68 percent of released state prisoners were arrested again within three years. Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson CCAS’94 said the value of intensive reentry programs makes them a critical investment “for every segment of society.” He said, “Simple logic dictates that this recidivism equates to more crime and more victims and more stress on an already-taxed judicial system.”

In addition to the federal court program, Rutgers Law School also helps residents with low incomes from Camden and surrounding counties overcome criminal records in the Expungement Law Project. That initiative helps expunge past arrest and conviction records and pave the way to better jobs. “A lot of jobs today require a criminal background check—that wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago,” said Meredith Schalick RLAW’98, a clinical professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden.

Schalick guided law students in the project during the spring 2018 semester, screening 50 potential clients and appointing students to take on 10 cases in which law students worked with the clients to file expungement petitions in New Jersey Superior Court. Expungement in New Jersey, she said, is more difficult than most states and the legal assistance provided is invaluable to those who can’t afford an attorney and can’t manage the process on their own. “People just don’t know how to do it and they’re doing it wrong,” Schalick said. “It just takes up so much time.”

These assistance programs are examples of the Rutgers Law School’s array of pro bono and public interest initiatives, which provide students with meaningful opportunities that instill an ethic of service and provide community members with much-needed legal assistance. Rutgers Law School also hosts legal clinics in Camden where students supervised by full-time Rutgers Law faculty handle casework on issues such as domestic violence, immigration, mortgage foreclosure, and child advocacy. “It’s central to our mission to give back to the people in New Jersey whose critical legal needs are otherwise unmet,” said Jill Friedman, associate dean for pro bono and public interest programs at Rutgers Law School in Camden and Newark. “It’s also the best way for our students to develop the skills and inclination to prioritize public service throughout their careers and build rewarding professional lives.”

From left, Blair Gerold RLAW’18; Meredith Schalick RLAW’98, a clinical professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden; and Jill Friedman, associate dean for pro bono and public interest programs. Gerold, who is now working as a clerk for New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, was a student in Schalick’s Expungement Law course in May 2018 that helped low-income residents with the legal procedures to remove past arrests and convictions records.

From left, Blair Gerold RLAW’18; Meredith Schalick RLAW’98, a clinical professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden; and Jill Friedman, associate dean for pro bono and public interest programs. Gerold, who is now working as a clerk for New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, was a student in Schalick’s Expungement Law course in May 2018 that helped low-income residents with the legal procedures to remove past arrests and convictions records.

A Successful Track Record

The joint effort in federal court, led by Hillman and U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Karen Williams, began nearly a decade ago, thanks in part to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. District Court in Camden. Friedman said the reentry effort allows faculty, students, and others in the criminal justice system to work directly with the participants and help them address their individual issues. “We want to learn their needs and collaborate with them to help them succeed,” Friedman said.

The graduates of the yearlong program are mostly thriving, often with two or more jobs. It’s not an easy thing to do. Hillman said sliding back into a criminal lifestyle is natural for many, even those who want to change their ways. He recalled the case of one he described as a “man without a country” when he was released from prison. “He came out with the shirt on his back and nothing else,” Hillman said. “He didn’t think we could do anything for him. Today, he’s one of our heroes. He’s been able to get back on track.”

Another participant, Zel Tisby of Camden, who spent 18 years in federal prison, said the reentry program built a strong foundation that propelled him forward and not back into prison—a path he has witnessed for others. “I’ve seen it myself,” said Tisby, who owns a business that rehabilitates homes. “It has been the ones who came home with no assistance, no help and no support— they go back to what they’re accustomed to, which is crime.”

A Real-World Experience for Law Students

A recent Rutgers Law graduate who worked in the reentry programs said the real-life, elbow-deep issues they dealt with outside of a classroom and textbook setting remain invaluable. “This is a very low-risk way of starting to develop trial advocacy skills that have a really huge impact on people’s lives,” said criminal defense attorney Steve Salinger RLAW’15, who worked in the reentry program when he was a student and continues to volunteer. “Not only are you developing skills that will pay huge dividends, but you also have a role in real change,” Salinger said. “This changes people’s lives.”

Jason Kanterman RLAW’16, said watching prosecutors, public defenders, and judges play different roles and sometimes take opposing viewpoints was eye-opening for a law student. “The judges are not there to put people in prison, but help them get their life in order,” Kanterman said. “The prosecutor or assistant U.S. attorney is often going above and beyond to help them get a driver’s license, or a Social Security card, basically all the documents they need to establish themselves.”

Joseph A. DaGrossa, a federal probation officer in Camden who has worked closely with the reentry program since its inception, said Rutgers Law School in Camden has been vital. “I don’t know of any other reentry court that has a partnership with a local law school like the one we have with Rutgers–Camden,” said DaGrossa, who also teaches as an adjunct in the university’s criminal justice program. “It allows us to provide a very special service. I have guys who have been on probation or parole before and they’re not used to getting this kind of help. We have this mechanism in place to help them succeed and Rutgers plays a huge part.”

Jason Nark, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, holds a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in journalism and film studies from Rutgers–Camden.

 

Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice

Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice

A Study of the System

While Rutgers Law School students and faculty work to help individuals released from prison deal with legal and other issues on the outside, a Rutgers–Camden criminal justice professor is researching the underlying structure of probation and parole fees that often result in ex-offenders returning to jail. “What are the processes by which these fines and fees are assigned?” said Assistant Professor Nathan Link. “We want to get a feel for the entire landscape.”

Link said when released inmates attempt to integrate back into society, they typically need to fulfill an array of new financial obligations—monthly community supervision, electronic monitoring, and mandatory drug screening fees, among others—or risk being sent back to jail on technical violations. Link, who has published work in journals such as Justice Quarterly, Criminal Justice and Behavior, and the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, will join with fellow scholars to conduct intensive research through a multistate, multiyear study to examine how probation and parole fines and fees affect individuals’ prospects of success. “It’s easy to get tripped up and sent back to jail for these minor infractions,” said Link, who earned a master’s degree from the Rutgers School of Social Work in Camden in 2010. “How much good are we doing these individuals and how safe are we making our communities by sending them away for these petty violations?”

Posted in: 2018 Fall, Features

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