A new legal clinic expected to launch in January will provide free legal help to people who have been incarcerated or are in prison now.

Beyond Guilt Hawaii is set to open at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii Manoa early next year and will give those who qualify assistance with clemency, compassionate release, parole and clearing criminal records.

The program was modeled after the Ohio Justice and Policy Center’s Beyond Guilt clinic and is being spearheaded by Hawaii Innocence Project Co-Director Kenneth Lawson and Associate Director Jennifer Brown.

Lawson, who struggled with an addiction that led to a conviction on drug charges more than a decade ago, said that starting Beyond Guilt has personal significance.

Ken Lawson arrives at District Court.
Ken Lawson, a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, is launching a new initiative to give current and former prisoners a second chance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“I was lucky to get a second chance,” Lawson said. “Every now and then, a drug addict or alcoholic may end up in trouble and they haven’t been so lucky because of their record. People don’t know the expungement process so these services will be offered to the community to do what we’re supposed to do: train law students and help each other.”

The mission of the grant- and donation-funded program will be to offer free legal services to individuals who have received sentences the clinic deems to be unjust, educate law students in the areas of criminal justice and organize social service providers who can help those freed by the clinic reintegrate into society.

“This clinic can help us realize our goals of decarceration and moving our criminal legal system from a punitive to a rehabilitative model,” ACLU of Hawaii Field Director Monica Espitia said in a statement. “In 2020 alone, Hawai‘i incarcerated almost 600 people for drug use, 1,100 people were re-incarcerated for parole or probation violations, and incarcerated over 400 kūpuna over the age of 55.”

Espitia added that she believes the funding used to jail people across the state – over $250 million – should instead be diverted into rehabilitation.

“This is money that should be used for funding community programs like the Beyond Guilt Hawai‘i clinic and reentry programs that will help us to move toward a goal of decarceration and rehabilitation,” she said.

Lawson said that the clinic will also focus on trying to change state law — namely the Hawaii Paroling Authority’s ability to set minimum sentences.

“We’re the only state that allows our state parole board to give out mandatory minimum sentences after the judge has issued a sentence,” Lawson said. “You get convicted here, the judge gives you a sentence and six months later you go in front of the parole board, then they issue you the amount of time you’re going to serve. In other words, they’re doing sentencing.”

Lawson noted that the Hawaii Paroling Authority is appointed by the governor and said that this could be seen as a blurring of the line between the executive and judicial branches of government.

“Hopefully we can get a bunch of volunteer attorneys or at least one volunteer attorney to take this issue up to the Supreme Court,” he said.

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