Kelly Orians Joins Faculty as Director of New Decarceration Clinic

Students Will Help Formerly Incarcerated Make a Smoother Transition
Kelly Orians

Kelly Orians collaborated to found two nonprofit organizations to help the formerly incarcerated, Rising Foundations and The First 72+, which she later merged. She’ll bring that experience to the new clinic she’s directing. Photo by Julia Davis

November 10, 2021

Kelly Orians will join the University of Virginia School of Law in January as director of a new clinic focused on decarceration and helping the formerly incarcerated transition to new lives.

Orians comes from New Orleans, where she most recently served as co-director of The First 72+. The group helps formerly incarcerated people support each other upon release by providing free transitional housing, reentry coaching and mentorship, aid with finding work, access to health care, free legal assistance and other services designed to prevent reincarceration.

Orians’ semester-long Decarceration and Community Reentry Clinic will draw on her experiences to deploy law students in support of similar goals.

The clinic will provide students opportunities to develop legal skills oriented towards helping clients get out of prison and stay out. For third-year students with practice certificates, that may include direct representation in some instances.

She said the majority of people in the prison system are caught up in a cycle of reincarceration for various reasons, some of which are outside of their control. But often they don’t have adequate support in the days and years following release.

“The first 72 hours after someone is released are particularly crucial because that is when all of your important needs as a human come due,” Orians said. “You need to have a place to sleep at night, clothes, food, hygiene products, access to transportation. The second your sentence ends and you’re released, you don’t have access to any of those things as a matter of right. So either you’re welcomed home, or you’re going to have to hustle to survive.”

Students will build their understanding of the barriers associated with reentering society.

“Reentry from incarceration is zigzag full of adversity, discrimination, missteps and triumphs followed by setbacks,” Orians said. “It’s a complicated journey, a journey that often cannot be navigated alone.”

Dean Risa Goluboff said Orians and her clinic will add to one of the most robust criminal justice learning experiences for students in the nation, with faculty teaching a wide range of related hands-on, doctrinal and policy courses.

“Kelly brings deep knowledge from the field about how to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society and prevent recidivism,” Goluboff said. “She is a nationally recognized community collaborator and institutional and legal innovator. Our students and the Charlottesville area will greatly benefit from her expertise and energy, and from this new clinic.”

The clinic joins the Criminal Defense, Federal Criminal Sentence Reduction, Holistic Juvenile Defense, Innocence Project, Project for Informed Reform and Prosecution clinics among the 24 clinics at UVA Law providing students with real-world experiences.

Orians’ career interest in helping the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated started in her youth in Colorado. She had a family member who was incarcerated.

“A lot of people I was growing up with didn’t know what we were going through,” she said. “We kind of hid it.”

Through the ordeal, she realized that not all families in similar situations have the same experience.

“As much as my family struggled, we also enjoyed certain privileges that the average family impacted by incarceration do not,” she said. “And so it was through that lens that I really started to understand the role that economic privilege and racial privilege play in the United States, especially when it comes to who does and who does not end up in jail or prison.”

Even before earning her law degree from UCLA in 2015, Orians was a change agent for issues that concerned her. She worked for four years at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, where she helped coordinate public policy and impact litigation strategies, including the implementation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made juvenile life without parole unconstitutional in non-homicide cases. The two holdout states had been Louisiana and Florida.

As a coordinator for the project, Orians supported the legal team that secured the resentencing and release of the first two people in the country under the Graham v. Florida decision, Robert Caston and Joshua Carter, who each served close to 50 years in prison.

Joshua Carter and Robert Caston
Joshua Carter and Robert Caston walk out of the Angola prison as free men. Orians helped support the legal effort behind their release. Courtesy photo

In fact, she drove the two men home from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola the night they were released.

“I called the prison the day that the judge signed the order and asked the woman who answered the phone when my clients would be released,” she recalled. “I could hear the woman put the phone down on the desk and say, ‘How do we process a release?’ Actually having to ask people in the office, because it was so rare at that time — 11 years ago — to get anyone released from prison in Louisiana.”

Following their release, Orians helped the men get their IDs, enroll in disability benefits and find a place to live. She said they encountered initial housing discrimination on the basis of their felony convictions, which she helped to counter. She also provided ongoing guidance regarding staying in compliance with their post-release supervision agreement and to obtain recurring essentials, such as clothing. She even helped them learn to use a cellphone.

​​Moments like those reinforced her desire to be a lawyer, she said, because being an attorney would have given her even more access and ability to be helpful.

After law school, she worked for a year as a staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders in their special litigation division, focused on providing reentry legal services to people recently released from prison.

Simultaneously, from 2015-19, she served as executive director of Rising Foundations, a community development corporation that she created to help the formerly incarcerated own their own businesses and homes, and as a staff attorney for The First 72+, assisting clients with resolving reentry legal needs. In 2019, she merged Rising Foundations with The First 72+.

In addition to supervising externs and interns at The First 72+, and mentoring law students over the years, Orians helped run drop-in legal clinics while she was at UCLA and has taught courses for high school students working toward associate degrees through Bard Early College of New Orleans.

She is also author of several law review articles, and a forthcoming book chapter, which she co-authored with a formerly incarcerated colleague.

Orians has won numerous awards during her career. She was awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship to launch Rising Foundations. She has also received the Richard Cornuelle Award for Social Entrepreneurship from the Manhattan Institute, a fellowship from the Global Good Fund and the Michael Rubinger Fellowship for Community Development from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. In 2019, she was named a “leader in law” by New Orleans City Business, and she was awarded a J.M.K Innovation Prize from The J.M. Kaplan Fund in 2020.

Orians said she can’t wait to keep building upon her Charlottesville-area relationships when the clinic launches in January.

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.

News Highlights