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Deans Column: Just Mercy for Criminal Justice

In the end, who we are and what we do as a Jesuit, Catholic law school is rooted in human dignity.


In October, Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed criminal defense lawyer and author of the best-selling book, Just Mercy, spoke at Boston College about his work with death row inmates in Alabama. What becomes clear when you hear him speak or read what he has written is his unwavering commitment to the dignity of the incarcerated and the condemned. As he wrote in Just Mercy, he was compelled to speak out about “how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.”

Stevenson’s work, and his passion for reminding us of the humanity of the marginalized, is intimately linked to the Jesuit values that animate the study and practice of criminal law at Boston College Law School. These ideals include forming men and women as lawyers who understand that a passion for justice must include a fierce moral commitment to the needs of the least of those among us, including those charged with and convicted of crimes. Indeed, as they have done for the past ninety years, Boston College Law School scholars and teachers remain committed to those values as they make the case for reforms in the criminal justice system in books, journals, classrooms, and public policy.

A prime example of these principles in action exists in our five-year-old Center for Experiential Learning, which has been expanding its programming and putting increasing numbers of our students in the field armed not only with practical skills to get a job, but also with a passion for justice and working for the common good. Boston College Law School offers many such opportunities, all designed to encourage reflective discernment through the consideration of a broad range of perspectives. As Professor Frank Herrmann, SJ, puts it, “These endeavors are in keeping with the Jesuit universal apostolic preference of walking with the poor in the mission of reconciliation and justice.”

One concrete way of walking with the poor is through the work of our many criminal law related clinics, all of which serve the low income or the indigent. These include the Criminal Justice Clinic, which includes defender and prosecution programs, and the Boston College Innocence Program, which has engaged students in several successful exonerations. On another front, BC Law Professor Francine Sherman in 2015 presented a game-changing report, Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls, one in a long string of persuasive efforts coming out of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project she founded at BC Law some two decades ago.

Undocumented migrants have become one of our society’s most marginalized groups, and Boston College Law School’s clinics have notched some significant victories for people caught in the web of contradictory laws and policies governing immigration. For example, students in the Ninth Circuit Appellate Program, which advocates for non-citizens with criminal convictions in federal immigration cases, have argued 12 cases. Eight have been successful and five of the opinions have been published. After a 9-year battle, the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project was instrumental in the return of a Honduran man to the United States who had been deported in error for a minor drug offense.

None of these outcomes would have been possible without the leadership and mentorship of a faculty committed to and animated by the Jesuit concept of education in which the idea of helping others is central. In the Jesuit tradition, the goal of ‘being educated” involves not only service to oneself, but also service to community—particularly the destitute, the imprisoned, and those on the edges of society.

The work of the Compassionate Release and Parole Clinic, the brainchild of Father Herrmann, proves the point. Students prepare petitions for release on compassionate grounds for Massachusetts inmates who have been diagnosed to be within eighteen months of death or are so physically or mentally incapacitated that they should not remain in prison. All incarcerated men and women are indigent. Very few lawyers are available to represent them in these critical post-conviction matters.

Similarly, the Prison Disciplinary Clinic opens students’ eyes and hearts to the plight of the incarcerated. As BC Law Magazine reported last year, the students represent inmates facing disciplinary action for everything from smuggling drugs into prison to instigating fights. Punishments include transfer to a higher security prison, loss of visitation rights or, as happened to one inmate, losing his right to make phone calls for 60 days for leaving medicine outside of a lockbox. Some infractions can earn the maximum punishment, being placed in solitary confinement. One student who participated in the clinic observed that, “a lot of lawyers and lay people would be shocked by the type of evidence that is cited to support some of the charges.”

Win or lose, the students make an important contribution to the people they are representing. Being able to interact on a human-to-human level makes inmates feel that they are being heard and have worth. Kari Tannenbaum, who teaches the clinic, told the magazine that that recognition is a kindness to prisoners. “Most of the clients are serving life sentences. Their dignity is taken away in different ways,” she explained.

The two newest criminal law programs at our experiential center, the Compassionate Release and Parole Clinic and the Prison Disciplinary Hearings Clinic, are at the heart of what criminal law and professional responsibility expert Professor Michael Cassidy described in his 2018 essay “Catholic Social Thought and Criminal Justice Reform.” “Our society has become alienated from the ideals of love, mercy, and the opportunity for redemption emphasized in the Gospels and pastoral teachings,” he wrote. “Refocusing on these values can serve as a critical focal point for our national debate on criminal justice reform.” In this way, Professor Cassidy links us back to the words of Bryan Stevenson and demonstrates how our Jesuit, Catholic values are shared by many of our fellow citizens who are working to create a more just society for all.

In the end, who we are and what we do as a Jesuit, Catholic law school is rooted in human dignity. As a former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the late Pedro Arrupe, noted, “our prime educational objective must be to form men [and women] for others . . . who cannot even conceive of a love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men [and women] completely convinced that a love of God which does not issue in justice is a farce.”