Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law Launches Caritas Clemency Clinic

Beginning spring 2023, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law will launch the Caritas Clemency Clinic, a new in-house legal clinic providing pro bono legal services to incarcerated individuals who are seeking federal compassionate release from prison. Under the guidance of Visiting Assistant Professor and inaugural Caritas Clemency Clinic Director, Amanda Rogers, Villanova Law student-attorneys will gain valuable hands-on legal experience while serving as the primary advocates for their incarcerated clients.

“I am thrilled to add the Caritas Clemency Clinic to our clinical offerings,” said Mark C. Alexander, The Arthur J. Kania Dean of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. “This new clinic strongly connects to Villanova’s mission, especially with respect to the University’s commitment to Caritas and the importance of mercy. The benefits are twofold. The clinic will provide an opportunity for our students to learn ethical client-centered lawyering while exploring and addressing the inequities of incarceration, as well as help incarcerated individuals subjected to some of the harshest penalties under the law who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer.”

One of only a few of its kind in the nation, the Caritas Clemency Clinic was created in response to the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill passed in 2018 that made significant changes to federal compassionate release. The Act expanded the eligibility criteria for determining whether an incarcerated individual has an “extraordinary and compelling reason” which warrants release to their family, including clients who have severe health issues, are elderly and in serious deterioration or due to the death of their child’s caregiver. Certain federal circuits also found that changes in federal sentencing law, and how they contrast to the excessive sentences given to different clients for the same conduct, are extraordinary and compelling reasons for early release. Additionally, the bill now allows Bureau of Prison (BOP) detainees to request their release directly to the court, while previously only the BOP warden could bring a motion for compassionate release.

During the spring 2023 semester, six Villanova Law students will work in teams on compassionate release cases from across the country. The students will earn academic credit while serving as their incarcerated clients’ primary advocates. They will interview and counsel their clients and their clients’ families, collect records, work with experts and professionals within their clients’ communities, create release plans, write a motion and file it in federal court, and possibly argue the motion before a judge.

“I am incredibly excited to work with our students as we advocate for our clients’ release,” said Rogers. “Tragically, a few jurisdictions are prohibiting federal public defenders from representing our incarcerated community for compassionate release motions. There is a desperate need for representation. Compassionate release motions are now telling the stories that were not previously told. Individuals have been languishing in prison for decades. Many received draconian sentences and are now very sick. It is a unique opportunity to step in and help people who have extraordinary and compelling reasons to be released back into their communities so they can be properly cared for by their family. Many of my former clients were contributing members to their incarcerated community by acting as mentors, teachers and hard-working employees inside their BOP facility. This compassionate release litigation gets to tell those inspiring stories and hopefully get them home where they can continue their work and mentorship.”

Rogers brings extensive experience in criminal litigation and clinical teaching to her new position as director of the Caritas Clemency Clinic. She began her criminal defense career with Georgetown Law’s Prettyman Fellowship where she represented individuals charged with misdemeanors and felonies, and also supervised and taught law students how to effectively represent indigent clients facing misdemeanor charges. Most recently, Rogers was a supervising attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia where she represented indigent clients charged with the most serious crimes, including complex homicides and children charged as adults for felonies. While serving as a public defender, Rogers also taught trial practice skills at Georgetown Law’s Prettyman Fellowship and Harvard Law’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. Rogers holds a JD from Berkeley Law, an LLM from Georgetown Law School and a BA from the University of Sheffield, England.  

“This is our first clinic dedicated to working with people in prison,” said Caitlin Barry, professor of law and director of the Clinical Program. “This work is a true expression of the mission of the Clinical Program. The clinic is intentionally not limited to clients who are bringing claims of innocence, it’s an expression of compassion and solidarity with people subjected to unjust punishments. Our students are eager to join this work and we are thrilled to provide this opportunity. ”

The Caritas Clemency Clinic, made possible by the generosity of a donor who was affected by a case from his own career, is funded for three years. The Caritas Clemency Clinic joins Villanova Law’s six other in-house legal clinic offerings, including the Federal Tax Clinic, Civil Justice Clinic, Clinic for Asylum, Refugee & Emigrant Services, Clinic for Law & Entrepreneurship, Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic and the Health Law Clinic.