The Justice Lab at the U’s College of Law partnered with Salt Lake County to find answers to a big problem

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

The Justice Lab Clinic at the S.J. Quinney College of Law is a semester-long course taught by Professor Anna Carpenter that gives students an opportunity to work on real-life legal issues. Last fall, as Salt Lake County moved to a services-first approach with low-level offenders, it encountered a major hurdle: Many of the people they work with don’t have a government-issued ID and thus can’t access service programs. Enter the Justice Lab students, who studied the problem and then came up with solutions. You’ll hear about this project from Professor Carpenter and law students Scott McMurtrey and Dyana Thurgood in this episode of U Rising. Recorded on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. I like to say that we're very proud of being the University of Utah, but we're every bit is proud of being the University for Utah. And that really exemplifies our mission in supporting and serving the citizens of our state.

Well, today we're going to talk about a new course at the S.J. Quinney College of Law that really exemplifies and carries out that mission. My guest today, Professor Anna Carpenter of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, and a couple of students from our law school — Scott McMurtrey and Dyana Thurgood. Welcome! Glad to have you all here. Thanks for taking some time to join me.

Anna Carpenter: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate being here.

President Watkins: So, Anna, I understand that you joined the university about a year ago. Tell us a little bit about your background, where you came from and how did we recruit you here?

Anna Carpenter: Sure. Well, I got to say the recruitment was pretty easy. I taught in Washington, D.C., in Oklahoma at the beginning of my career. But I am from the West. I'm from the Desert West in Southern California, but I've spent most of my career sort of in the East, east of the Rockies. And I was both looking for a new professional challenge and looking for the opportunity to move back to the West. And when this job came open, it was a no brainer to apply. And so, I was really lucky to be chosen and to join the College of Law at the University of Utah.

President Watkins: Well, welcome. And it's our good fortune. Now, I understand that you brought some great new ideas with you and one of them was creating the Justice Lab Clinic. What's the purpose of the Justice Lab? And tell us about some of the projects and issues that students are tackling in the Justice Clinic.

Anna Carpenter: So, in the language of law schools, and I'll tag, we actually stole this language from the medical field. The course that I teach, Justice Lab, is known as a clinical course. And what that means for us is that students are representing real clients in real legal issues, working under the supervision of a faculty member — me —who also happens to be a practicing attorney. And so, in the world of clinical legal education, which is a space that we exist in, it's similar to engage learning and service learning in other educational contexts in that we have a two-fold sort of historical mission. And that is that we have a teaching and education mission and also a service mission.

So, I think of my primary job as training law students how to be lawyers, but we also are fortunate to be able to have a secondary goal of providing service to the community. And fortunately for us, there is no shortage of meaningful work that law students can do. In the clinic, students represent real clients. Our clients are organizations. We complete projects for them. The clinic is a one semester long experience and the students' projects launch and support systemic reform and social change work in our community. So, our clients include community groups, non-profit organizations, government agencies and our vision is powering change in the community.

President Watkins: Well, let's pick up with a specific example because I understand that last fall this inaugural class offering took on a project with the Salt Lake County mayor's office. Scott, maybe you can give us an overview of that project and tell us a little bit more about it.

Scott McMurtrey: Yeah. So, Salt Lake County is currently moving toward a services-first approach for low-level offenders. So basically, instead of arresting someone for a low-level offense, especially people who are facing homelessness or mental illness, how can we direct these individuals to services that address the underlying issue? They call these services alternatives to incarceration. So, the county was receiving some feedback from these service providers that many of these individuals experiencing homelessness or mental illness were unable to access the programs because they simply did not have a government ID. And so, that's where Justice Lab came in. They reached out to us and it turns out no one in the county or even the state has looked at this issue in any depth. And so, that was our task, to identify the scope of the problem, find out where and why there are barriers to getting ID. And then, if possible, offer some recommendations.

President Watkins: Seems pretty critical, Scott, so thank you for that really good example. As you go about conducting that research, how do you do that work? Do you look for other communities that have done this in what we think might be a better way, that was more supportive of our citizens? Or how do you approach this work?

Scott McMurtrey: So yeah, it was a pretty daunting task for three law students to get handed this, and we were basically starting from scratch. So, the first thing we did was we spent a few weeks exploring what other people around the country were doing. And unfortunately, this is an issue that's sort of across the country, so we had a lot of examples to draw from. So, we did a lot of research on the law of government IDs, how does Utah issue them, what are other people doing? And then we really sort of dug in with interviewing.

And we interviewed dozens of local and national service providers, local and national homeless shelter caseworkers, government officials, people working within the criminal justice system. We spent an afternoon here at a local homeless shelter with the staff, seeing what they do and how this affects their clients. We did a lot of listening. We wanted to know how a lack of ID affects vulnerable people and where the barriers were to getting these IDs. We put in over 600 hours as a team. We heard countless accounts of how lack of ID negatively impacts community members and often in devastating ways. And so, I think we got a really clear picture of the problem in Salt Lake County.

President Watkins: Thanks, Scott. And thanks for that good work. So Dyana, you're a critical of this team, too. Tell us a little bit about what you learned through that research and some of the findings that came to you.

Dyana Thurgood: Sure. So as Scott was talking about, we looked at this issue both locally and nationally and just found that it is pervasive. It impacts our community on multiple levels and just reflects the larger national theme of the issues related to getting government ID. We found that obtaining or re-establishing government identification is incredibly complicated and time consuming, and that vulnerable people face even greater difficulty in doing this, and that difficulty equates to a perpetuation of homelessness and then limits access to jobs and social services.

Our research specifically identified that there were three areas in which attention and mindfulness was needed. And the first one was human capital, which is essentially, we need people, we need groups of people, dedicated to helping people get IDs. Time, so time is critical. We need more time spent educating service providers and the public generally about this issue, and then allowing people to have the opportunity to become more efficient in getting IDs. So, it takes several months for people to get an ID sometimes, even upwards of years. And so, cutting that back would be a major change and a major progress in this area.

And then the last one is just resources. So, resource centers have resources to help people get this taken care of, to get it done, but they just need more resources, and that in doing so will help people get their ID. So overall our project really narrowed it down to being essentially a people problem, it's time intensive and resource dependent. And so, if we can really channel and focus energies on that, we're going to see a positive change within Salt Lake County.

President Watkins: So Dyana, I would imagine that once you have these findings and these recommendations, they have to go somewhere in order to be acted on. I imagine you presented to the county about this finding. Tell us how that went and give us a little overview for listeners of what was the reaction to your findings.

Dyana Thurgood: Yeah, absolutely. So as Scott and Anna mentioned, we were working with the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives, CJI for short, and we were fortunate to present to them on December 9 of last year to give them an overview of our project and our findings. We outlined specifically those three things that I had mentioned before about human capital, time and resources, and kind of gave them the workaround of what that looked like within Salt Lake County, as well as the national level.

At the end of our presentation, fortunately, everybody was incredibly motivated. The mayor was motivated and her board with them, and so they motioned to get a working group going based on our recommendation. And shortly thereafter, the working group was approved, and we were up and running. So, we've been working with amazing group of people. We have legislators, community service providers, and then departments within the county, and then the partnership with Justice Labs. So, we've just been really excited and thrilled to have such a positive response from the mayor's office and having such a great group of people dedicated to this issue.

President Watkins: Well, I have to say, Dyana and Scott, this seems to me like justice in action. So, if you could just dial up a little bit from this particular experience and say how do you think this has impacted your learning as a law school student and how you're thinking about your own future? And maybe, Dyana, you want to go first? And then we'll go to Scott.

Dyana Thurgood: Sure, absolutely. So, Justice Lab has honestly been wonderful. If the project doesn't speak for itself, the class does. So, Justice Lab is really the embodiment of why I chose to go to law school. It's student-centered, it's social justice, and it's a think tank that empowers community members to be at the helm of community change. And because that is the heart of Justice Lab, I then get to apply my passion for helping people while simultaneously learning new skills, honing in on some of my strengths, and then doing it with my amazing colleagues like Scott McMurtrey. So, Justice Lab has just been the pinnacle of my law school experience thus far and I'm really grateful to have worked under Professor Carpenter.

President Watkins: Wow. That was a pretty great endorsement, I'd have to say. How about you, Scott?

Scott McMurtrey: I could echo what Dy said. Justice Lab will undoubtedly be my signature law school experience. I think many of us came to law school because we wanted to gain the tools to make a tangible difference for good in our communities. And with Justice Lab, Anna has created this opportunity where that's happening in real time. And the way that she's pushed us out of our comfort zones was always challenging and often painful, but I know that I will be a better attorney because of it.

President Watkins: I think this might turn out to be my favorite of the U Rising podcasts because that is exactly what is supposed to happen in law school and in learning and this experience. So, thank you, Scott, Diana, for your efforts and your hard work. And really warmest thanks to you, Professor Anna Carpenter of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, for joining us and bringing such fabulous ideas and learning opportunities to our students and to our community. So, Anna, tell us, this is going to inspire a lot of interest in your class. Is it going to be offered again? Who's eligible to participate?

Anna Carpenter: Yes. So, Justice Lab is generally offered every semester. There will be some semesters where we don't offer it. We'll offer it in the spring of next year and second year and third year students are eligible to participate.

President Watkins: How spectacular!

Anna Carpenter: Yeah. The one thing that Dyana and Scott didn't make quite clear, they are running the working group. They are the drivers who call the meetings. And what's really amazing about it, we were just debriefing about it yesterday, there's no question about kind of who's in charge and who's running the show. So, these law students are sort of organizing legislators, government officials, community agencies, and they're off to the races so it's incredible and just a testament to Scott and Dy and Jess.

President Watkins: Well, we owe you some gratitude here, Professor Carpenter. I'm sure this is an enormous amount of work for you, too. And it's also a fabulous thing that you're challenging our students to learn how to be the kind of attorneys they want to be and while doing so, enacting our mission as the University for Utah, with our partners in the community. Professor Anna Carpenter, thanks to you. Scott, Dyana, thanks to you for joining us, and also very best wishes for the next phase of your careers.

Dyana Thurgood: Thank you. We really appreciate that.

President Watkins: Listeners, thank you for joining us today for the U Rising podcast. I hope you'll tune in for the next episode.