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HLS Prison Program Allowed to Continue

Harvard Law School’s Prison Legal Assistance Program (PLAP) will continue to allow first- and second-year law students to serve as free legal counsel for prison inmates, despite previous criticism from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC).

The decision was made by Acting DOC Commissioner Kathleen M. Dennehy after a public hearing was held to determine whether PLAP should be held to Rule 303 of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which stipulates that first- and second-year law students not be allowed to represent clients in trial proceedings, according to DOC spokesperson Justin Latini.

The rule had not previously been applied to PLAP, whose members represent inmates in administrative prison hearings that deal with issues such as discipline violations and parole. The majority of PLAP’s members are first- and second-year law students, and Latini said that this first arose as an issue during the course of a routine review 18 months ago.

Dennehy replaced previous DOC commissioner Michael T. Maloney earlier this month.

Maloney, who came under criticism after former priest John J. Geoghan died in August as a result of being assaulted by another inmate in a state correctional facility, was asked to resign along with two other public safety officials by Governor W. Mitt Romney.

The continuation of the program’s policy reaffirmed “the important role law students play in the [criminal justice] process” Latini said.

But last month, under the Maloney administration, Latini was more critical of PLAP.

“You could have a first-year that hasn’t even taken Criminology 101 walk in in October and represent themselves as a law student,” he told The Crimson.

“I have never heard any specific complaints,” he said. “[PLAP] gives us more experience in a court-type setting. We have the ability to represent real clients.”

He said that first-year students train alongside more experienced second- and third-year students, and are briefed extensively by the program’s lawyers.

Alban argued that law students have to work hard to represent their clients because they are up against a “skeptical judge, who is not inclined to believe the inmate.”

—Staff writer Adam P. Schneider can be reached at aschneid@fas.harvard.edu.