The Practice and Pedagogy of Carceral Abolition in a Criminal Defense Clinic



Current social and racial justice movements have helped to advance deeper interest in the long-standing work of carceral abolitionists. Abolitionists understand that the criminal legal process ineffectively uses state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, punishment, and exclusion to address, and counterproductively perpetuate, the underlying problems that produce violence and harmful behavior in our communities. Abolition focuses on dismantling our current carceral systems and finding completely new, restorative, and collaborative ways of addressing harmful social behaviors. While abolitionist thought has long existed in organizing and non-legal academic spaces, law students and legal scholars are increasingly considering how a carceral abolitionist perspective can inform legal education and practice.

This Article examines whether abolitionist ethics fit into the practice and pedagogy of criminal defense clinics. It argues that although the values of abolition and the institutional role of the public defender are an imperfect fit, criminal defense clinics should teach students how to effectively advocate for their clients through a lens of carceral abolition. Clinical law students can be more than participants who either reinforce or merely critique the criminal legal system; rather, they can pursue their work as “fellow travelers” operating to actively shield individual clients from the weight of the state while also supporting the efforts of organizers who are seeking to transform how we deal with social problems. The Article provides a brief introduction to abolitionist thought, explores the challenges and benefits of incorporating an abolitionist framework into defense clinics, and provides an approach for clinicians seeking to inform their teaching and practice with an understanding of carceral abolition.

Suggested Reading