Prison to Law Pipeline Grants Incarcerated Student Opportunity to Earn A Juris Doctor
When it comes to unique paths to practicing law, prospective attorneys such as Kim Kardashian might come to mind. Without ever setting foot inside a traditional law school, Kim Kardashian sat for and passed the California baby bar. Other states also allow similar nontraditional pathways to earn a juris doctor. In reality, there are many attorneys with unique paths to the legal profession, and that list extends beyond Kim Kardashian. In today’s post, we are focusing on the Prison to Law Pipeline. Read on for more information about this program as well as how some students are using the program to obtain law degrees.
Prison to Law Pipeline Grants Incarcerated Student Opportunity to Earn A Juris Doctor
The Prison to Law Pipeline Program
Prison to Law Pipeline is a program that helps incarcerated legal scholars obtain ABA-accredited law degrees and ABA-approved paralegal degrees. The thought process behind the program is to offer opportunities within the legal system to those most directly impacted by the legal system and its processes. While prisons might provide some forms of legal training, those in the prison system never had access to formal legal education opportunities provided by ABA-accredited institutions.
The Prison to Law Pipeline program is in partnership with All Square. All Square aims to create innovative programs and commercial endeavors to transform systemic injustice. According to All Square’s website, their programs endeavor to work “towards a world where the harms created by the criminal justice system have been healed.” All Square recently formed a subsidiary called the Legal Revolution to carry out the Prison to Law Pipeline program goals.
Currently, the Prison to Law Pipeline and Legal Revolution are working together on a program with two phases that will allow incarcerated students the opportunity to earn a juris doctor:
- Phase One: give the first cohort of incarcerated students the opportunity to earn juris doctor and paralegal degrees.
- Phase Two: provide civil legal services to Pipeline scholars and All Square Fellows. In tandem, the firm will develop a prototype for employing incarcerated legal practitioners and be involved in select impact litigation related to the harms created by the criminal justice system.
This is the pilot year of the program in Minnesota, and there are currently one law school scholar and five paralegal scholars enrolled. Mitchell Hamline School of Law, an ABA-accredited law school in Minnesota, is currently assisting with this initiative by providing course access to the law school scholar in partnership with All Square.
There are some significant challenges that the Prison to Law Pipeline program has to work with and overcome. As you probably already know, getting a law degree is just one step in the process of becoming an attorney. In order to practice law, students must also pass the bar exam and meet certain character and fitness threshold requirements. While many states still provide law licenses to those who might have certain misdemeanors on their records, those with felonies often have an uphill battle to licensure. Many states do not allow those with felonies to sit for the bar exam, making it nearly impossible for those with felonies to become practicing attorneys. This is something that the Prison to Law Pipeline program is also hoping to address.
Prison to Law Pipeline Participants
Thanks to the organization Prison to Law Pipeline, Maureen Onyelobi, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Minnesota Corrections Facility, was granted the opportunity to earn a juris doctor. Onyelobi was charged with first-degree premeditated murder on an accomplice liability theory and sentenced to life without the option for parole. Interestingly, the individual who committed the murder was only charged with second-degree murder, is up for parole in 20 years and may be eligible for an early release program. However, Onyelobi’s sentence does not give her any opportunity for early release from prison.
Onyelobi’s path from motivated college student to convicted inmate to incarcerated law student has been anything but traditional. Before going to prison, Onyelobi was a successful college student who earned two bachelor’s degrees: one in English literature and one in communications. Unfortunately, her life took a different path when she was involved in criminal activity that led to her incarceration and life sentence. Onyelobi, who maintains her innocence, jumped at the opportunity to earn a juris doctor in order to overturn her life sentence and help others who are incarcerated.
In a Change.org petition posted by family members, Onyelobi states that she is “paying a heavy price for [her] choices and lifestyle, but it does not justify how [she] received excessive sentencing and enhanced charges for a crime [she] did not bring into fruition.” She also states that she will use this opportunity to obtain her juris doctor and fight for felony murder law reform for herself and other inmates who have had the same experience within the legal system.
Despite this setback, Onyelobi is not letting her life prison sentence get in the way of furthering her education in the law. During her trial, she began working on a paralegal degree from Mitchell Hamline Law School. She graduated from this program while incarcerated and then took and passed the remote LSAT in February. Onyelobi will now continue her education by earning her juris doctor through the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and the Prison to Law Pipeline program. According to Mitchell Hamline, Onyelobi was granted a variance by the American Bar Association to attend all of her courses online, under the supervision of two Mitchell Hamline law professors.
Onyelobi’s legal cohort is part of phase one of the program. As mentioned above, this first cohort includes one law student (Onyelobi) and five paralegal students. If this initial cohort is successful, Prison to Law Pipeline plans to expand the program and afford other incarcerated individuals the ability to earn a juris doctor.
While other law students began their 1L year with orientation week and exploring the law school building, Onyelobi and the other students in her cohort signed in for online orientation and first-year classes. Next, the hard work of first-year courses will begin. The cohort of incarcerated students will work to earn a juris doctor and paralegal degrees, which will fulfill phase one of the Prison to Law Pipeline.
There is no doubt that this is going to be a challenge for Onyelobi and other students in her cohort. After all, anyone who has been to law school knows how hard it can be to study, how difficult certain concepts are to retain, and the amount of work students must complete in order to succeed. This can be even more challenging in an environment full of restrictions. That is not stopping from looking forward to continuing her studies.
Where does Onyelobi’s case stand?
Recently, Onyelobi filed two petitions for postconviction relief with the district court. She hoped to overturn her conviction with a written statement by the man who committed the murder. In the affidavit, that man stated that Onyelobi did ride with him to the crime scene. However, he did not communicate his intent to shoot the victim to Onyelobi. Further, he stated that Onyelobi thought they were just going to talk to the victim.
Despite this evidence, the district court did not overturn her conviction. They ultimately held that the evidence Onyelobi brought forth in the appeal was not “newly discovered,” instead finding that Onyelobi had access to it at the time of her initial trial. Further, the court held that Onyelobi’s postconviction petition, filed more than 2 years after her conviction became final, is time-barred under Minnesota statute, and no exception to the 2-year time-bar applied.
Onyelobi will continue to work on her law degree in the hopes that one day felony murder statutes may change. This could open an opportunity for Onyelobi to continue to pursue postconviction relief. Additionally, Onyelobi will work with her fellow inmates on their cases. Potentially, she will become a part of Prison to Law Pipeline’s prototype and become employed as an incarcerated legal practitioner.
Check out a short PBS documentary on this story here.
We wish the best to Onyelobi and her cohorts as well as all students who just started their fall semesters. Whether following the traditional law school path or participating in a nontraditional program, JD Advising is here to provide assistance. Check out our free resources and other materials, such as substantive law assistance, numerous blog posts on law school topics including study techniques and habits, law school course outlines, bar exam preparation, and law school practice exams are also available for both traditional and nontraditional students. Plus, we offer law school tutoring.
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