Resources for Formerly Incarcerated and Systems-Involved Applicants

UCLA Law welcomes formerly incarcerated and systems-involved (FI/SI) applicants. We recognize and value the unique contributions that people directly impacted by the criminal and/or juvenile legal system bring to the classroom and legal profession. Such contributions are invaluable and include, but are not limited to: insider knowledge of doctrinal teachings, a diverse perspective and a critical lens towards legal jurisprudence, and the ability to build strong rapport with clients facing similar lived experiences through UCLA Law's various legal clinics.

Preparing for Law School

Navigating how to apply to law school with a criminal record can be challenging. Applying to pre-law programs that are inclusive and understanding of your unique circumstances is a crucial first step.

  • Pre-Law Programs and Support

    There are a number of exceptional pre-law programs that you can apply to that welcome FI/SI applicants. Pre-law programs you can apply to can be found here on the AccessLex Diversity Pathway Program Directory and on the LSAC website.

    The UCLA Law Fellows Program, NYU and Harvard’s TRIALS, Harvard’s Future Leaders in Law, Yale Law School Launchpad Scholars, UC Irvine School of Law Pre-Law Outreach Program, MTO Fellows Program, LEAP, and the UC Davis School of Law King Hall Outreach Program are just a few of the many programs you can apply to. Many of these programs provide you with free LSAT prep courses and assistance with your personal statement, among other supportive services.

    Additionally, For People of Color, Inc. (“FPOC”) is a widely recognized leader in diversifying the legal profession by providing free, high-quality law school admissions consulting services to thousands of prospective law school applicants through its publications and workshops. It was founded by a UCLA Law alumni, Anthony Solana, Jr.

    In addition to these programs, the California System Involved Bar Association (CSIBA) is a network of FI/SI attorneys and law students whose goal is to help FI/SI individuals to apply to law school and achieve their dream of becoming a licensed California attorney. They host a regular convening with information about law school admissions, the law student experience, and bar admissions.

  • Funding

    Prior criminal legal system involvement is unlikely to have a big impact on financial aid, but it could vary from state to state and school to school. For more information and to review your eligibility for federal student aid, please review the information provided on the Federal Student Aid website.

    UCLA Scholarships

    UCLA Law offers four full-tuition scholarships for students pursuing their J.D. 

    • The UCLA Law Distinguished Scholars Program is a binding early-decision program providing full tuition for three years to exceptionally qualified students ready to commit to UCLA Law. A binding early-decision program means applicants agree to accept if they are offered admission, and will be notified of their admission early in the process. 
    • The Emmett Family Environmental Law Scholarship awards one three-year, full tuition scholarship awarded to an exceptional incoming student with a demonstrated commitment to pursuing a career in environmental law.  
    • The Graton Scholarship is also non-binding and provides full tuition for three years to students who are interested in pursuing legal careers in Native American law. 
    • The UCLA Law Achievement Fellowship is non-binding and provides full tuition for three years to high-achieving students who have overcome significant personal, educational or socio-economic hardships. 

    Further, across the UCs, members of federally recognized Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native tribes will have their mandatory in-state systemwide tuition and fees fully covered through the University of California Native American Opportunity Plan.

    Additional scholarships and scholarship search engines are listed here

    UCLA Law and many other law schools also offer financial assistance after graduation. UCLA Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) offers loan repayment assistance for students pursuing careers in public interest law upon graduation. Alumni employed at a nonprofit organization, a clerkship or an agency of government in law-related employment that makes substantial use of legal skills making up to $100,000 annually can receive assistance through the program. Alumni with incomes up to $75,000 may have their entire eligible loan payments fully covered. Alumni with incomes higher than $75,000 and up to $100,000 may receive partial assistance. LRAP supports alumni for up to ten years after graduation. 

    Alumni should also determine whether they are eligible for the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. 

    Additional information can be found on UCLA Law’s Financial Aid website under Post-Graduate Support.

Support During Law School

UCLA Law and the broader UCLA campus have a number of resources available to support FI/SI students during their time at UCLA Law.

  • Law School Programs and Offices

    The Criminal Justice Program and Prison Law and Policy Program may also be of interest to students seeking to leverage their expertise and lived experience in service of abolition, systems change and criminal legal issues more broadly. The Criminal Justice Program offers yearly summer internship positions and The Prison Law and Policy Program offers the Jane Kahn Prison Law Fellowship during the academic year.

    The Office for Student Affairs (studentaffairs@law.ucla.edu) works closely with individual students to help them prepare their State Bar licensure applications and to navigate the Moral Character & Fitness process. As needed, the same office can connect students to external resources, including pro bono or low cost legal services. Office staff deliver workshops and presentations each year on these topics.UCLA Law has a variety of student organizations that offer support to formerly incarcerated and system-involved students.

  • Law School Student Organizations

    The Alliance of Formerly Incarcerated & System-Involved Students (AFISIS) is a newly formed student organization of FI/SI students and allies. AFISIS is dedicated to advocating on behalf of formerly incarcerated and system-involved students and aspiring law students and providing support. Aspiring law students are encouraged to reach out to AFISIS@law.ucla.edu with questions.

    Law Students for Decarceration is a student organization for law students dedicated to abolition and criminal legal systems change. They host events and volunteer opportunities for interested students to work on issues related to the criminal legal system.

  • UCLA Campus-Wide Support

    Bruin Resource Center–the home for a number of campus centers and programs that provide support to different student communities including students who have been part of the foster care and probation systems, students who are undocumented or a part of mixed-status families, parenting students and students who are taking care of other dependents such as siblings, students in recovery, students who were formerly incarcerated or impacted by the carceral system and students who have experienced houselessness.

    Bruin Underground Scholars Program–housed within the Bruin Resource Center, this Program specifically supports the academic experiences of students that identify as formerly incarcerated and/or system impacted. 

    UCLA Prison Education Program/Center for Justice–makes post-secondary education accessible to women and young people who are currently incarcerated, and brings UCLA faculty and students to learn alongside them, thereby challenging bias, discrimination, and injustice in a shared and collaborative learning experience.

    Underground Scholars Initiative–a student-run organization that creates a pathway for formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education.

Admission to Practice

Becoming a Lawyer as a Formerly Incarcerated/System Involved Person

Criminal legal system involvement does not disqualify you from becoming an attorney. We recognize that having a criminal record can present obstacles, but it does not define your future. With the right information and tools, you can still pursue a fulfilling and successful career in the legal field.

  • Formerly Incarcerated/System-Involved Lawyers Leading the Way

    Frankie Guzman is a UCLA Law alum who was incarcerated as a youth in the now defunct California Youth Authority for six years prior to attending UCLA School of Law. Frankie now works as the Senior Director of the Youth Justice Team at the National Center for Youth Law, where he oversees a team of attorneys, policy advocates and community organizers. Frankie and his team are leading state-wide efforts to eliminate the practice of prosecuting and incarcerating children in California’s adult criminal justice system, reduce incarceration and system involvement for youth, and increase developmentally-appropriate, culturally-relevant community-based services for youth. Frankie Guzman along with Professor James Binnall co-founded the California System Involved Bar Association (CSIBA).

    Dr. James M. Binnall is an attorney and Associate Professor of Law, Criminology, and Criminal Justice at California State University, Long Beach. His scholarship focuses on removing barriers to civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. He also represents law students and attorneys with prior criminal legal system involvement in the moral character and fitness process. James Binnall and Frankie Guzman are co-founders of the California System Involved Bar Association (CSIBA). He served four years in prison prior to earning his law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

    Desmond Meade is a voting rights activist and graduate of Florida International University College of Law. He is a 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient and President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He and his team at FRRC successfully led the fight to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions in 2018. In 2001 he was sentenced to 15 years and successfully had his conviction overturned in 2004, having served about 3 years in prison.

    Tara Simmons is a Washington State Representative and attorney using her prior experience with poverty, trauma, substance use, and incarceration to inform her work fighting to reduce incarceration, increase access to mental health care and address barriers to re-entry. She served 30 months in prison before earning her J.D. at Seattle University School of Law.

    Reginald Dwayne Betts is a lawyer and poet. He has received numerous fellowships, including the 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He is also the founder of the Freedom Reads, a nonprofit organization designed to transform access to literature in prisons. He served eight years in prison prior to attending Yale Law School.

  • Character & Fitness Overview

    Each state has its own requirements for bar admission, which includes an inquiry into an applicant’s prior criminal history as part of the “character and fitness” evaluation. Applicants should research the requirements of the state(s) in which they are interested in practicing to familiarize themselves with their rules for admission. The NCBE character and fitness chart is a great place to start, but note that it is not always up to date. While NCBE shows three states (Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas) that have a ban on admission for people with a felony conviction, this was last updated in 2021. Currently, the laws in these states do not seem to reflect an absolute ban in all instances of felony convictions. Thus, it is important to look directly at the laws of each state.

    Information on California’s moral character application can be found here. The moral character application is typically completed in the third year of law school, but you may begin your application earlier. There is no conviction that automatically disqualifies someone from admission to the California State Bar. State Bar officials report fewer than 1% of applicants are denied admission through the character and fitness process. When making a moral character determination, the Bar evaluates an applicant’s honesty, fairness, candor, trustworthiness, observance of fiduciary responsibility, respect for and obedience to the law, and respect for the rights of others and for the judicial process (see Factors and Conduct Relevant to a Moral Character Determination). The committee conducts a holistic determination, and considers past misconduct, including: “[t]he severity of the issue, length of time since the incident, and the frequency with which an act occurred.”

  • Overview of the Bar Admissions Process

    Step 1: Complete a standard character and fitness application

    The Character & Fitness application will require you to disclose details about any prior or current criminal legal system involvement. The Bar stresses the importance of candor, and urges applicants to err on the side of disclosure when uncertain about what information to provide. The Bar also compares disclosures on the moral character application to those made in your law school application, and may ask you to explain any inconsistencies.

    Step 2: Narrative and documentation

    Applicants are asked to provide a narrative of prior criminal legal system involvement and applicable police and court records. If these records are unavailable, written documentation of their unavailability is required. The Bar has 180 days to review the application and make a determination. Note: Bar officials estimate half of the applications are approved at this step, and about half of applicants are referred for additional investigation.

    Step 3: Further Investigation

    • Applicants subject to further investigation are placed in one of four categories based on the severity and recency of the underlying incident(s). The next step is for an investigator to contact the applicant and request additional information. Once the applicant has provided the requested information, the Bar has 120 days to make a determination again. The investigator may clear the applicant at this stage, or they may send the application up the chain of command for further investigation, first to their supervisor, and then if they still require further investigation, to the program manager of moral character determinations.

    • If the program manager finds the applicant still has not yet met their burden of proving good moral character, the applicant is invited to an “informal conference” with a panel of staff. The conferences are scheduled for 45 minutes but can range from 20 minutes to two hours. After the conference, the applicant can be cleared, their case can be sent back to an investigator for additional information to be collected, or they may be advised to enter an agreement of abeyance with the committee, often while the applicant completes required programming or pending charges are resolved. For example, the Bar may require an applicant to complete the substance use program, through the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP).

    Tip: For applicants with prior criminal legal system involvement related to substance use, attending LAP preemptively while in law school may help ease the moral character process.

    Step 4: Appeal

    If the Bar declines to find the applicant has met their burden to prove good moral character, they may be denied. Applicants can appeal to the committee, the state bar court, and the California Supreme Court. Standard denials are for a two-year period, after which the applicant can reapply.

    Tip: It may be useful to talk to mentors about navigating this process. CSIBA, AFISIS, and UCLA Law’s Office of Student Affairs can be a resource for applicants with questions about the process and to potentially connect you with a lawyer if you need one.

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