The other day, I saw a stat that I can’t vouch for but seemed accurate. It claimed that polls show that when you ask Americans if inmates should be allowed to pursue a degree, a majority says no. But if you ask if inmates should be forced to pursue a degree a majority says yes. Which says a lot about how Americans view the carceral system as a vector of mindless punishment.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about it, there are folks out there trying to bring education to prisons and one program is about to score a historic first.
Maureen Onyelobi is set to become the first incarcerated law student at an ABA accredited law school this fall. The Mitchell Hamline School of Law will have Onyelobi taking online courses en route to a JD degree, bringing new meaning to the idea of a jailhouse lawyer.
Per Bring The News:
Onyelobi’s historic acceptance follows a path forged by The Prison to Law Pipeline, an extension of an existing partnership between Mitchell Hamline and the criminal justice reform nonprofit, All Square.
The pipeline’s first cohort of students features Onyelobi — the first and only juris doctorate scholar — and five paralegal students.
On the one hand, Onyelobi’s life sentence without possibility of parole severely limits the value of this degree. On the other hand, the circumstances of her incarceration suggest that — in a saner world — she would someday be released.
Onyelobi’s conviction stems from a 2014 murder where she lured a man outside and a business associate of hers killed him. The gunman testifies that “he’d never told Onyelobi about his intention to shoot Fairbanks and had no reason to believe she knew of his plans,” but prosecutors used the felony murder rule to convict her for life without parole.
The guy who actually murdered the victim got a 40-year sentence and is eligible for parole.
There’s a certain cold and mechanistic logic to the felony murder rule. You don’t want to incentivize folks to advance deadly criminal plots and walk away because they manage to stay above the fray of the actual violence. Everyone volunteering to be a lookout knows they’re taking a bigger risk when they sign on.
But assuming there’s ever a value to holding someone criminally responsible for something they didn’t actually do, the felony murder rule keeps coming up in these egregious miscarriages of justice. It’s hard to justify the maximalist approach of the rule as is and there’s always hope that legislators will someday get around to junking it altogether or at the very least converting it to a crime with its own, more reasonable sentence.
Meanwhile, Onyelobi continues to seek a pardon while pushing forward with law school.
Woman serving life in prison accepted to Mitchell Hamline law school [Bring Me The News]
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.