Photo of Rachel Barkow wearing a bright yellow mask with an exaggerated black smiley face smile on it

Rachel Barkow (LAW)

Fighting to Ease Overcrowding and Protect the Health of Those in Prisons

By Ray Suarez (WSUC ’85)

Rachel Barkow, vice dean and professor of regulatory law and policy at the School of Law, follows what has become a well-known adage to never let a serious crisis go to waste. COVID-19 gave her a push to accelerate the Clemency Resource Center (CRC) at Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, where Barkow is faculty director. CRC saw governors, who seemed unsure of their legal options to ease prison crowding, grappling with prisoner safety as the virus spread. “We’d done work in the past urging governors and the president to use clemency to release people as part of an effort to reduce mass incarceration,” Barkow says. “With COVID, we were making a concerted effort to show them specifically what they could do.”

The CRC created a first-of-its-kind 50-state database for elected officials and advocates for incarcerated people. “We cataloged in each state what the governor’s reprieve powers were, so that they could see that, if they wanted to, they could release people for however long they needed, to get a handle on the virus, to make sure their prisons were safe,” Barkow says. “As soon as the danger had passed, people could come back and continue to serve their sentence.”

Barkow has seen the CRC’s resources put to work in Pennsylvania, and she’s watching as advocates try to appeal to New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has said he has few powers when it comes to granting state prisoners reprieves. She begs to differ: “He has said something to the effect of ‘I can’t. I don’t have the authority.’ We came out and said, ‘Yes, you do!’ But he hasn’t acted on it.”

As the country continues to wrestle with the pandemic and anti-racism protests, there's an evolving national sentiment around ending mass incarceration and reviewing sentences. “COVID has shown us it’s good for public health to reduce prison populations. It’s good for freeing up limited financial resources that a jurisdiction has for other things," Barkow says.

The initiative was flooded with student offers to help out. “They didn’t get paid for it. They didn’t get credit for it,” Barkow says. “This was like a volunteer ‘We’re putting this together, does anyone happen to be interested in this?’ thing in the middle of a semester that had been turned upside down for them. And we almost had more volunteers than we knew what to do with.”

The vice dean has tremendous admiration for her students, who were already thrown into a difficult situation by the pandemic. Says Barkow: “I do think that people who come to law school feel really deeply about social justice issues, that the justice system protects people, fights for people, vindicates their rights.”