PUBLISHED:January 24, 2022

New clinic to give students opportunities for hands-on experience with criminal defense


The Barton Family Foundation has made a $2.5 million commitment to fund a clinic that will train students to be leaders in ending racialized mass incarceration.

Students in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic work on a case in 2014 Students in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic work on a case in 2014

Duke University School of Law has received a $2.5 million commitment to launch a criminal defense clinic, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean Kerry Abrams announced.

The new clinic, funded by the Barton Family Foundation, will provide Duke Law students with a hands-on, experiential learning course in the practice of criminal representation and train them to be leaders in ending mass incarceration and racial injustice.

“Ending racialized mass incarceration will require investments and efforts across the nation and in many different types of institutions. Duke University and Duke Law School provide the ideal home for an important part of this undertaking,” Abrams said.

“With the right policy and litigation strategies, supported by research in disciplines across the university, we can begin to turn the tide on the pernicious effect of racism in our criminal legal system. We are grateful to the Barton Family Foundation for so generously supporting the training of future justice leaders.”

The Seattle-based Barton Family Foundation, begun in 2004 by Sarah and Richard Barton, focuses its support on organizations working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system and rectify societal inequities that lead to incarceration.

“America’s criminal legal system is broken. Biased and discriminatory, it also begets racial, gender, and income disparities and breeds despair,” the Bartons said in a statement. “Our reliance on mass incarceration has not enhanced public safety but has weakened communities by separating families and undermining mental, physical, and economic well-being. We are pleased to support a new clinic at Duke Law that will leverage the resources of the university and train future leaders in the fight against injustice.”

The new criminal defense clinic will increase learning and practice opportunities for students interested in working in the criminal legal system and build on the Law School’s existing strengths in this area, including the Wilson Center for Science and Justice, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, the Appellate Litigation Clinic,  and interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty and students throughout the university.

Under the guidance and supervision of practicing lawyers and clinical educators, students will provide pro bono legal representation to indigent clients in local criminal cases. Students also will be trained in scientific literacy and data analysis so they can effectively incorporate research into both their representation of individuals and policy advocacy. 

Such skills are especially important for criminal lawyers given the need to respond to disparities, including racial disparities, in outcomes in criminal cases; the high rate of mental health and substance abuse issues among the incarcerated population; and the need to understand and respond to forensic evidence presented in criminal cases, said L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law Brandon Garrett, director of the Wilson Center. 

“Research and policy work alone will not solve the problem of racialized mass incarceration,” Garrett said. “However, working with data, science, and research is a critical part of being an effective advocate. We aspire to combine our established success in community-engaged research with experiential education that will enable law students and graduates to pilot new lawyering strategies and bring their skills and knowledge to new communities."

Duke Law is presently conducting a search for a director of the new clinic, which will be the Law School’s twelfth. Adding a criminal defense offering has been a longstanding goal, said Clinical Professor Ryke Longest, director of clinical and experiential programs.

“As we augment our clinical program, we seek to meet the educational needs of our students as well as public service needs of the community,” Longest said. “Based on present and future needs, a clinic that seeks to end mass incarceration and promote racial justice in our criminal courts meets critical needs for our students and the larger community.”