The University of Virginia School of Law is launching an ambitious new project focused on criminal justice reform that will expand the scope of the school’s Center for Criminal Justice and build upon lessons learned from the Innocence Project at UVA Law.
Led by Professor Deirdre M. Enright ’92 starting in the spring, the Project for Informed Reform, or PIR, will be a clinic in which students will work alongside scholars and experts to conduct extensive research and investigation on issues relating to criminal justice, and then generate evidence-based data and policy recommendations. Enright also will take on a new role directing the Center for Criminal Justice alongside Professor Rachel Harmon. The center serves as a hub for faculty scholarship and activities involving criminal law, with the aim of making a more just society.
Dean Risa Goluboff said the project will both advance criminal justice reform efforts and offer students a unique opportunity to work with faculty on meaningful and practical research and policy projects.
“PIR will harness the extensive expertise of our world-class criminal justice faculty, facilitate collaboration between research and clinical faculty, and put our students to work all in the service of real-world impact on criminal justice,” Goluboff said.
The focus of the project emerged from conversations Enright, a director of the school’s Innocence Project, had with Harmon, an expert on the law of the police. The two, who co-teach a Seminar in Ethical Values course relating to criminal justice issues, realized they were interested in addressing how both legal scholarship and criminal justice reform are hampered by inadequate data and analysis.
“There’s a dearth of information about the institutions and processes that make up our criminal justice system,” Enright said. “This clinic aims to change that dynamic.”
Harmon, who will remain a director of the center, added: “One of our many goals with PIR is to create more opportunities for academic and clinical faculty to collaborate and share their work.”
In light of her new role, Enright will step down from directing the Innocence Project Clinic, which she launched in 2008 as the founding director. Professor Jennifer Givens, who has served as a director of the Innocence Project since 2015, will continue to serve as director, teach the course and oversee its related pro bono project. She said Enright’s departure won’t slow down the project’s efforts.
“The Innocence Project at UVA Law has an exciting year ahead as we continue to work on behalf of our clients and seek the release of innocent Virginians from prison, as well as exonerations for wrongful convictions,” said Givens, who previously represented death-sentenced inmates for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and with the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “PIR will extend the reach of reform efforts that began with the Innocence Project at UVA Law, and we’re eager to see where Professor Enright takes the new clinic.”
The Innocence Project Clinic was launched with support from then-Dean John C. Jeffries Jr. ’73 and Jim Ryan ’92, at the time the Law School’s academic associate dean, and now UVA president. What started as a yearlong clinic for academic credit has expanded beyond its original scope over the years. In 2014, the project began a pro bono project that connected student volunteers with innocence work; this year it boasted 45 student volunteers. Another team of students focuses on public policy reforms, and testified before the General Assembly this year in support of changes to four laws involving criminal justice concerns.
Juliet Hatchett ’15, a former clinic student who joined the project as a staff attorney in 2019 as the Jason Flom Justice Fellow, has focused on leading and growing the student pro bono project over the past two years and will continue to support the Innocence Project going forward. Serena Premjee, a Stanford Law School graduate and a federal public defender, will be joining the Innocence Project as the new fellow in August.
Enright said she is proud to have helped grow the project and lead efforts that resulted in the release from prison or exoneration of Edgar Coker, Maligie Conteh, Bennett Barbour, Messiah Johnson, Darnell Phillips, Gary Bush, Emerson Stevens, Rojai Fentress, Michael Hash and others.
“I spent many years trying to undo the horrific mistakes made by our criminal justice system,” Enright said. “Now I want to take those cases and figure out how to prevent these mistakes from happening in the first place. Undoing all these wrongful convictions that were created and then protected by the criminal justice system has given me unique and practical insights into the many ways we might begin to make improvements, repairs and changes in favor of fairness and equity.”
Before launching the Innocence Project at UVA Law, Enright worked at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, where she represented clients and consulted on cases in all stages of capital litigation, and also served as a staff attorney with the Mississippi Capital Defense Resource Center.
She said working on such cases over the years helped her learn more about what reforms would make an impact. The need for more research and education of stakeholders is paramount in her view and will be a critical part of the new project’s work.
“For example, the General Assembly might be more persuaded to reform Virginia’s system of fines and fees if it knew how often offenders are jailed for failing to pay,” she said. “A city might consider adopting the use of body-worn cameras in policing but have no idea what the costs and benefits have been for other communities.”
Enright said she expects the PIR clinic will engage faculty and student teams to help produce reports, databases, policy recommendations and other products to inform and assist litigation, legal scholarship and public policy.
She anticipates that over time, nonprofits and government actors, such as a city council or police chief, might commission projects from PIR.
Harmon added that students want to do more than study and practice criminal law — they want to “transform it.”
“The new Project on Informed Reform will allow students to start that while they are still in school,” she said. “It offers our students a terrific new way to make sure they are ready to participate in today’s critical legal and policy debates about criminal justice reform.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.