Seven women sit in Michigan prisons, serving life sentences for crimes committed over the last four decades. Two of them were present when significant others committed murder, three shot the men in their lives, one abandoned a newborn who died, and the seventh agreed to have her husband killed by an employee.
The stories of how they ended up in prison are different, but they have a common thread. The women were abused by the men in their lives, physically, sexually, financially, verbally — and all committed or were involved with crimes under extreme duress.
They also all got little or no support from law enforcement or other professionals for the abuse they endured, and there wasn’t due consideration of duress or abuse when their cases were considered by the courts, said Melissa Salinas, director and supervising attorney at the Michigan Law School Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic.
“This is a diverse group of women. In their pre-incarceration lives, they were working mothers, business owners, high school and college graduates, an army veteran, as well as loving daughters, sisters and friends,” Salinas said. “They come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But as different as their lives were before their convictions, their stories and their experiences with our state’s criminal justice system and subsequent incarceration have striking commonalities.”
Clemency and Decarceration for Battered Women Survivors is one of four new courses offered in fall 2021 to graduate and professional students through the Law School Problem Solving Initiative. Salinas will teach the course with Carol Jacobsen, professor of art and design, and of women and gender studies; and Megan Richardson, clinical teaching fellow at the Law School.
The other PSI courses, Designing a Rigorous and Joyful Graduate School, Designing a New Global Refugee Protection System and Identity Theft: Causes and Countermeasures, will give students the opportunity to tackle real-world challenges in multidisciplinary teams, using human-centered design thinking and problem-solving tools.
Women represent about 7 percent of the prison population in the United States, but the rate of their incarceration — especially among women of color — has more than doubled that of men in the past three or four decades, Jacobsen said.
The Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic and other attorneys have attempted to appeal some of the seven women’s cases, arguing that there were constitutional abuses in the cases and that duress from abuse had not been taken into consideration, but the courts denied their requests.
More recently, 12 Law School students working on a project within the clinic sent seven petitions for clemency to the Michigan Parole Board and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, along with a letter describing the common systemic problems in their cases. They have asked the governor to appoint a specialized panel to consider these types of cases.
“The goal for students in the fall problem-solving course will be broader than the individual cases. We want our students to get to the root of problems with the way Michigan law, among other concerns, limits testimony by expert witnesses introduced on behalf of the accused by allowing only a general discussion of ‘battered spouse syndrome,’” Richardson said.
Michigan law also exposes accomplices to the same liability and sentence as a principle for a crime, even when extenuating circumstances exist, she said.
“Bringing together a multidisciplinary group of students with backgrounds in law, social sciences, public policy, women and gender studies, and media relations, we are eager to discuss and research the ways gender bias functions in the criminal-legal system and to brainstorm creative solutions that can make change,” Richardson said.
The course will bring guest speakers, including formerly incarcerated women, for inclusion in discussions.
The Problem Solving Initiative began in 2017. Past classes have addressed human trafficking, sexual misconduct on campuses, robots in the workplace, reducing firearm violence, fake news, group violence through social media, and concussion in youth football.
Notable course outcomes include a draft of historic preservation legislation in India, a health department protocol and a court pilot program around human trafficking in Washtenaw County and a business model for promoting and nurturing Detroit music and musicians.
Florian Schaub, assistant professor of information, and electrical engineering and computer science, and clinical law professor Barbara McQuade, who taught a course one year ago on information, privacy, surveillance and exposure, will team up again for the Identity Theft: Causes and Countermeasures class.
Schaub said research shows that most people don’t adopt simple identity theft measures to protect themselves, such as credit freezes, but the problem does not just rest with the individual. Current public policy places a lot of responsibility on the individual without addressing systemic risks.
“We hope that our students take away practical skills for their own lives — which they hopefully also carry to their peers and families, as our research has also shown that peer advice is most effective at getting people to adopt protective measures — but ideally explore solutions that will help a larger swath of the population,” he said.
In addition to the expertise of McQuade and Schaub, the course will feature guest speakers including law enforcement personnel, identity theft victims and potentially identity thieves.
“We will further look at what are the technical, psychological and public policy realities that create risks and opportunity for identity theft, as well as how those risks can be addressed through technical, policy or educational measures,” said Schaub, adding that they likely will bring in examples from other countries where identity theft is not as much of a problem, which could include a discussion about the value and concerns around a national ID system.
“We don’t expect them to solve identity theft once and for all but rather pick a specific aspect and think through some multidisciplinary solutions. That might be what solutions could make it harder for identity theft to be perpetrated, could make it easier for consumers to spot and avoid identity theft risks or attempts, support the recovery from identity theft or other technical, policy or educational solutions.”
All U-M graduate and professional students can enroll in Problem Solving Initiative courses. Registration began March 15.