Students Drive Parole Project

By Deborah Blumberg, Originally published March 21, 2024

In the fall of her 1L year at Texas Law, Karen Yang ’23 phoned a woman incarcerated at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison.

Maria (not her real name) was up for parole after serving seven years for aggravated assault. In prison, she took classes, worked, and mentored incarcerated younger women, some of whom came to call her “mama,” owing to her maternal instincts and generosity. Maria told Yang she had worked hard to improve herself. In theory, Maria had a good chance of parole, Yang thought. But Maria had no one to advocate for her in her parole hearing.

Advocacy can make all the difference. While it isn’t required, Texas inmates are permitted to have representation at their parole hearings. Such representation greatly improves their chances of a successful outcome. And without representation, most inmates will never speak to the parole board directly.

Many inmates, though, are not able to hire an attorney due to the cost, and their family members may not have the time or know-how to help with the parole process.  “We have no idea how many women have legal representation for parole reviews in Texas, but it is a very small percentage given what we know anecdotally,” says Parole Project director and William Wayne Justice Center Senior Research Attorney Helen Gaebler.

That’s where Texas Law’s Parole Project comes in. Through the project—an initiative of the Richard and Ginni Mithoff Pro Bono Program originally conceived six years ago by then-student Natalie Fine ’20—students supported by the project’s two supervising attorneys prepare comprehensive parole packets on behalf of incarcerated women. These packets give the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole (which reviewed over 70,000 cases for parole in 2022) a more holistic, human picture of incarcerated individuals under parole review and a strong case that they’ve learned from their experience and won’t reoffend. The project is now in its sixth year, having grown from three cases and a handful of students in its first year to more than 20 cases and over 70 student volunteers today.

Student teams working on the parole cases have garnered an approximate 70% parole approval rate over the project’s lifetime. It’s now the largest provider of pro bono parole services in the entire state of Texas. Students are trained in requesting documents, trauma-informed interviewing, drafting parole packets, and oral advocacy.

“The Parole Project honed my ability to weave facts into a compelling narrative,” says Yang, who’s now a litigation associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “In the corporate litigation that I practice now, the ability to tell an effective story—such as in crafting the initial complaint in a case out of a compilation of facts—is a critical skill. It’s a skill that I’m now using every day!”

“Working on the Parole Project also taught me how to interview clients with both compassion and precision, especially clients who have gone through trauma,” says Yang. “This has especially helped me with my immigration pro bono clients.”

As 1LS, Yang and her classmate Danny Woodward ’23 advocated for Maria. She wasn’t granted parole initially. But the next year, Yang and Woodward worked on her case again, re-submitting a revised packet with updated letters, and this time her parole was granted. “Sometimes the board simply wants to see how clients handle extra time in prison,” Yang says, explaining that Maria “excelled in her last year in prison with the same hope and courage as before. The board saw her perseverance and allowed her parole the second time around.” After her release, Maria spent several months getting to know her grandchildren before she died unexpectedly. “We got to give her the most precious gift—time with the ones she loved the most,” Yang says.

“The Parole Project exemplifies all the different things we do in the Mithoff Program,” says Andrea Marsh, the program’s director. “We helped a student incubate a legal services project idea; we’ve provided professional training and experience to hundreds of law student volunteers, many of whom have remained involved in the project as alumni; we’ve filled an urgent legal need in Texas and supported dozens of women seeking parole; and now we’re developing statewide resources and building a larger network of Texas Law alumni and other attorneys who are working with the law school to provide parole representation in Texas.”

Indeed, Gaebler has her sights set on further expanding the program, including forging partnerships across Texas to serve both incarcerated women and men. Typically, there’s a student waitlist to join, and the project receives over a dozen letters monthly from incarcerated individuals asking for help. There’s still much to be done, Gaebler says.

Student Idea

The Parole Project kicked off in 2018 after Fine returned to law school for her 2L year with a big idea.

Fine had done parole-related work over the summer and thought working on parole packets could be a great project for Texas Law students. She talked to Andrea Marsh, director of the Mithoff Pro Bono Program, and turned the idea into her pro bono scholar project. Texas Law pro-bono scholars are upper-level students who take on a leadership role in the pro bono program, helping to train and manage other student teams.

Gaebler supervised Fine’s project. They started with low severity offenses, taking on three clients who would be eligible for parole that spring.

“Parole is unique in that it’s mitigation work,” says Gaebler. “You’re trying to humanize the client and provide a fuller picture of the context of their life, what brought them into TDCJ to begin with. The women are so thankful someone is listening to them and elevating their voice.”

That can make an impact. To determine parole, the state’s board uses a matrix that involves computing a score consisting of factors in a person’s life and then combining that score with a “severity” ranking of the person’s offense. “Parole in Texas is 100% subjective,” says Gaebler. “The first thing anyone will tell you is that parole in Texas is a privilege and not a right. The matrix is meant to ‘guide’ the board’s discretion but does not limit it in any way.”

At Texas Law, each fall groups of students are matched with clients coming up for parole. A pro-bono scholar guides the group through the process. Students interview the parolee, often multiple times, to gather information on efforts made toward rehabilitation. Students source photos and words of support from friends and family. All information goes into the client’s parole packet, a document students write, edit, and revise, with the pro-bono scholars’ and Gaebler’s help.

Students outside a Texas Department of Criminal Justice unit ahead of meetings with clients.

Without the students’ efforts, these clients wouldn’t have the support necessary to create a packet that tells their full story.

The process culminates in the women’s parole hearings, which are informal administrative proceedings before the lead voter from the parole board. Students present the packet, making the strongest possible case for parole, followed by one or more family members or supports whom the Parole Project team has asked (and prepared in advance) to speak for 2-3 minutes each.

“I tell students to think of it as a closing argument,” says Gaebler.

Anywhere from 24 hours to a week after the hearing, the parole board makes its decision. In the Parole Project’s first year, all three women got parole, including a woman in her 50s with no prior criminal offenses and one in her 70s. Gaebler says that none of the 55 women they’ve helped secure parole have re-offended.

The women themselves have sent the Parole Project numerous cards and letters over the years expressing their thanks. One client wrote “I am blessed to have you in my corner,” while another called the Texas Law team “a beacon of light in the darkness.” One woman appreciated the students that recognized her “as the women under all my scars.”

“You are doing wonderful work for those with no voice,” said the mother of another woman who was granted parole.

Lifelong Lessons

Ana Cruz ’24, a 3L and pro bono scholar, knew that she wanted to work as a public defender when she started at Texas Law.

During her 1L year, Cruz’s project involvement sharpened her focus. “The Parole Project was one thing that kept bringing me back to why I’m here,” she says. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my law school career.”

Last year, Cruz managed students working on five cases. Four of the women were granted parole. Now, Cruz hopes to apply lessons learned during the project as a public defender. She’s applied to several positions and is waiting to hear back.

“The Parole Project has been crucial in building both written and oral advocacy skills as well as client interviewing and team-building skills. From crafting their written packets to speaking on behalf of clients in their hearings, the project gave me opportunities to practice effective and humanizing advocacy,” Cruz says.

Emily Bloom ’23 was inspired in part by her time working on the Parole Project to join the Burnet County Public Defender’s office where she worked for a year after graduation. Now, she’s a litigation associate at Ford O’Brien Landy LLP’s Austin office. Her Parole Project work, plus her experience as a public defender, taught her skills that serve her well in her new job in litigation, including teamwork, speaking skills, organization, and record requests.

The Parole Project hooked her before law school even started, Bloom says, when she heard about it during orientation. “I definitely learned a lot about the process of parole, but also getting a look at state criminal procedure was invaluable.”

In one case Bloom worked on, she secured 14 letters of support for the client. The woman up for parole, who had served more than a dozen years in prison, was granted a conditional (now full) parole. She returned to her family after taking a mental health class. Bloom connects with the woman each year on the anniversary of her release.

“It was an incredible experience to help her,” Bloom says. “It just feels so good to see somebody able to recover and to heal and to be successful.” Bloom’s current work entails helping people so they never enter the criminal justice system in the first place.

New Partnerships, Projects

In 2022 when the Parole Project received a one-time donation from a private donor, Gaebler brought on former law student volunteer and pro bono scholar Cassie Geiken’22 as a legal fellow for two years.

As a student, Geiken loved the practical application and working with one client all year. “Parole was my favorite part of law school,” she says. “Even in cases when we didn’t win, it’s still felt like meaningful work because there’s a whole team in the woman’s corner.”

Now, as a fellow, she supervises students while leading outreach to national and local law firms, bar associations, and former parole project alumni to offer free continuing legal education classes and other trainings to encourage the private bar to take on parole cases. In February, Geiken and Gaebler led a training hosted by global law firm Shearman & Sterling.

In March, they led a second nuts-and-bolts, CLE-approved training for attorneys online, which is still available for viewing.

“An attorney can step in and make a huge difference in someone’s life,” Geiken says. “There is a massive need for representation.”

She’s also working on two projects related to the creation of reentry resources for the formerly incarcerated, one with Lioness, an organization led by currently and formerly incarcerated girls and women in Texas, and another with students in Gaebler’s Reentry Challenges & Practices class.

In other efforts, Gaebler has started conversations with the Steve Hicks School of Social Work to see if graduate social work students could help with client assessments. She also linked up with protection and advocacy agency Disability Rights Texas to get incarcerated individuals with disabilities the treatment they need to be better positioned to earn parole. In addition, and with help from research assistant Jordan Schuck ’25, Gaebler has a project following up with the women to track their reintegration into society.

Gaebler would love to involve more Texas Law alumni, whether to lend their expertise during a complicated parole case, or take on parole cases themselves. Any of these forms of support would help the program to continue to grow, giving law students an enriching hands-on experience for years to come.

“This project really gave me a lot of confidence,” says Yang. “It teaches you to be curious about people and to go a step further, and both of those really just make you a better lawyer in general.”