Paralegal Pathways program trains the formerly incarcerated to sharpen their legal skills
Devon Simmons is a man with a story. He was incarcerated for 15 1/2 years for a crime he committed as a teen. It was behind bars that he litigated his own case and fell in love with the law.
“I learned the law from crack heads and dope fiends,” Simmons told News 12 New York. “They actually taught me how to advocate for myself while inside because if you’re not litigating in some shape form or fashion, you’re just simply going to be a number.”
It’s from Simmons’ experience of legal empowerment that Paralegal Pathways Initiative was born.
“The skills that people develop inside of jails and prisons is mostly legal research. Why don’t we create a program that allow people to hone those skills that they develop as a means to gainful employment?” Simmons said.
The program kicked off in 2018 and is a quid pro quo of sorts. Formerly incarcerated people work alongside Columbia Law students. The students learn about the criminal justice system from someone with “lived experience,” and the former inmates sharpen their legal and professional skills. Kevin Campfield, who graduated in 2022, says the criminal justice system is unfair to those behind bars.
“The criminal justice system is very exploitative – people are just going through these processes where they’re taking advantage of people’s ignorance and people don’t know about the law – they just kind of railroad people on a daily basis,” Campfield told News 12 New York.
Campfield is trying to right this wrong through his work as a paralegal. He’s helped free six incarcerated people so far. He’s finishing up his bachelor’s degree but has aspirations to become a lawyer. He says this program is mutually beneficial for those formerly incarcerated and the Columbia law students they are studying with.
“Our students are ultimately going to go out and practice law. They’ll eventually be lawyers, judges, attorney generals,” Simmons said. “For them to be able to have the insight to recognize people’s human dignity when they’re actually sitting on the bench or doing their work is very fulfilling.” The next session of the program runs from January through April of 2024. The program is free for those formerly incarcerated. You can apply online through Nov. 10.