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Unger, clinical law, criminal justice, life sentence, jury instructions


From 2013-2018, we taught a collection of interrelated law and social work clinical courses, which we call “the Unger clinic.” This clinic was part of a major, multi-year criminal justice project, led by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. The clinic and project responded to a need created by a 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision, Unger v. State. It, as later clarified, required that all Maryland prisoners who were convicted by juries before 1981—237 older, long-incarcerated prisoners—be given new trials. This was because prior to 1981 Maryland judges in criminal trials were required to instruct the jury that they—the jury—had the ultimate right to determine the law. Our clinic helped to implement Unger by providing a range of legal services and related social services to many of these prisoners. Through the five years, the great majority of the Unger group were released by agreements, on probation, and not retried. In all, approximately 85% of the 237—that is, 85% of all state prisoners in Maryland convicted by juries of violent crimes before 1981—were released. This article describes why and how we created the Unger Clinic; why we made it interdisciplinary; what the students and we learned in it and from our clients; and what we would do differently. We believe the clinical education model we developed—an interdisciplinary clinic working in partnership with a major legal services provider and a citizens’ advocacy group—can be used effectively to address other significant access-to-justice problems nationally. In the end, the Unger Project has been a criminal justice laboratory. The qualitative experiences support many criminal justice reforms with the overriding lesson being that the continued incarceration of older, long incarcerated prisoners convicted of violent crimes serves no public safety purpose.

Publication Citation

Clinical Law Review (forthcoming 2019).


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law | Law and Race | Legal Education | Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility