In courthouses at opposite ends of Los Angeles County this fall, eight students in UCLA School of Law’s innovative Bail Practicum (now Pretrial Justice Clinic) stood up and advocated for four incarcerated clients who had been awaiting trial while in custody for seven weeks to 14 months. In all four cases, they earned favorable outcomes.
The students — Hope Bentley ’22, Celebre Fouka-Nganga ’23, Adele Giraud ’23, Katie Gowing ’23, Nina Papachristou ’22, Peter Westacott ’22, Ivan Zeavin-Moss ’22, and Jaden Zwick ’23 — successfully used the skills and knowledge that they built through the Bail Practicum, a signature endeavor of the law school’s clinical and experiential education program and Criminal Justice Program. Established in 2018, it combines traditional classroom work and applied efforts in real-life cases to train students and serve the greater community.
The practicum is a joint effort between UCLA Law, the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, and the Bail Project, whose founder, Robin Steinberg, is a Gilbert Foundation Senior Fellow at the law school. Students work with public defenders on felony cases, arguing for their clients’ pre-trial release from custody, with the Bail Project putting up the money to get them out. The goal is to lower or eliminate the bail for people who have been charged with felonies and who might face lengthy pre-trial stays behind bars only because they cannot afford bail.
“The rigor and compassion with which students work on their cases consistently impresses our public defender partners, judges, and even prosecutors on the opposing side,” says Alicia Virani ’11, the Gilbert Foundation Director of the Criminal Justice Program, who teaches the practicum and supervises the students in their work alongside lecturer Bahar Mirhosseni and members of the public defender’s office.
“The practicum encourages the practice of advocacy skills and teaches students to build meaningful and collaborative relationships with their clients and the people around them,” Virani continues. “Our students are able to humanize their clients before judges who rarely consider pre-trial release in the kinds of felony cases that we take on.”
‘One of the Most Rewarding Experiences I Have Had in Law School’
In the four recent cases, the students worked in teams of two and appeared in courthouses in Van Nuys and adjacent to LAX Airport where they presented their arguments and gained positive results for each of their clients.
One client represented by Fouka-Nganga and Zeavin-Moss and another client for whom Gowing and Papachristou advocated had been in county jails for extended periods. Working opposite forceful arguments from district attorneys and tough questioning from the judge, both teams secured a reduction in bail for both of their clients, who were then able to be released and resolve their cases from the outside.
“The moment that I knew my client was going to be let out on bail, I felt a wash of relief,” says Fouka-Nganga. Adds Zeavin-Moss, “Coming into the bail clinic, I was intimidated at the prospect of appearing in front of a judge and arguing on behalf of a real client. In the lead up to our actual trial, I felt the immense responsibility of ostensibly holding someone’s pre-trial liberty in my hands. I’m just so grateful to have had the public defenders, Professor Virani, and Professor Mirhosseni as guides during a process that would’ve been so much more daunting without them.”
Two other clients, represented by the team of Bentley and Giraud and the team of Westacott and Zwick, had been charged with violent felonies under California’s three-strikes law. Bentley and Giraud successfully argued for a reduction that allowed the Bail Project to ensure their client’s release after he had been held in custody for nearly seven weeks. Being able to return home made it more likely that the client could get his case dismissed through a mental health diversion program.
In the matter that Westacott and Zwick handled, they convinced a judge to make a highly unusual offer for such a serious charge: Their client could plead guilty and be released that day, avoiding what would otherwise have been a long prison sentence. The judge credited the arguments that the UCLA Law students presented, telling them that he had not previously known key details about their client’s story and the support of his family. Their work made even more of an impact outside of the courtroom: Westacott and Zwick had worked closely with the client’s mother, who attended the court hearing and expressed tremendous thanks for their help in getting her son out of jail.
“Participating in the Bail Practicum was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in law school,” says Zwick. “I had never directly represented an incarcerated person, argued before a judge, or conducted fact investigation, so my growth in these areas was exponential. I overcame a tremendous amount of nerves in front of a judge, and I gained a better understanding of what it means to be an advocate. By the end, I was relieved and overjoyed by the outcome we won for our client. Knowing that my team played such a large role in getting someone out of jail and keeping them from prison is a gift I will be taking with me for the rest of my career.”
Despite their accomplishments, several students stress that the experience reminded them of the persistent inequities in the criminal justice system.
“I felt anguish that we had spent weeks prepping this one case while public defenders themselves likely do not have the bandwidth to do the same for each of their clients,” says Zeavin-Moss. Fouka-Nganga continues, “Criminal defense as a whole can feel minimizing for the advocates and is dehumanizing for those that are put in the seat of the ‘defendant.’ The practicum gave me tools to use to re-humanize people as people.”