Spotlight on: Malcolm Clarke, Elizabeth Zitrin Justice Fellow and CRRJ Attorney

Criminal justice reform, community advocacy, reparations legislation: Malcolm Clarke’s vision for his legal career has expanded in unexpected directions following his tenure as an Elizabeth Zitrin Justice Fellow at Northeastern Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

“This fellowship really opened my eyes up to the different possibilities with a legal degree,” said Clarke, who joined CRRJ in fall 2022 and will be moving onto the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender this August.

Originally from Jersey City, New Jersey, Clarke earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Howard University and, after graduating in 2016, worked for several consulting firms in Washington D.C.

The following year, as President Donald Trump entered the White House and Executive Order 13769 – the Muslim immigration ban – came into effect, Clarke was sat at this desk overlooking Reagan airport, in-between projects and contemplating “Am I going to be doing this forever? Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my career?”

“When I turned on the news,” said Clarke, “there were lawyers going down to Dulles airport helping people get into the country and fighting the Muslim ban. I looked at the work that I was doing, which was making spreadsheets and PowerPoints at the time, and I looked at lawyers on TV actually helping people, tangibly, and I thought ‘That’s the kind of work that I want to do, I don’t want to do this, I want to do something that’s going to help people.’”

But while this was the catalyst that would ultimately lead Clarke to make a complete career change, sit for the LSAT and study law at Georgetown University Law Center, Clarke said he always had an interest in the law. “I came of age at a really interesting time,” said Clarke. “When I was visiting colleges, Trayvon Martin had just happened, and in my sophomore year Michael Brown was killed. So that criminal justice piece has overshadowed my whole educational career and my personal life.”

Clarke enrolled in Georgetown Laws’ four-year evening program in 2018, working at a consultancy firm during the day and studying at night. Two years in and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Although it created a degree of uncertainty, the nationwide shutdown that resulted “allowed me to take advantage of a lot more academic activities because things were remote,” he said. He took classes online, attended more seminars, joined the board of Georgetown’s Criminal Law Association, and even decided to run for section representative in his last year of school. “The pandemic really allowed me to engage with law school differently than I had before,” he said.

“Most of my interest in law school was in criminal law,” said Clarke. “I always thought I was going to go directly into a public defender role.” But, after graduating from Georgetown in 2022, Clarke said he failed to find an office that was “the right fit.”

While searching Georgetown’s public interest jobs board, Clarke came across CRRJ’s advertisement for an opening as an Elizabeth Zitrin Justice Fellow. “Prior to that, I hadn’t thought about academia at all. I thought I was going to be in a courtroom,” he said.

The two-year fellowship was established by the Zitrin Foundation of San Francisco in 2016, and is designed to support work that seeks to create meaningful criminal legal reforms. Elizabeth Zitrin (NUSL ’79) is the former president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and vice chair of Witness to Innocence

After meeting with CRRJ Director and Founder Professor Margaret Burnham, Law and Business Professor Melvin Kelley – the first scholar to receive the fellowship and CRRJ advisory board member – and former program director for CRRJ’s Racial Redress and Reparations Lab, Katie Sandson, Clarke said he found his fit. “Everything they were saying made this the place I wanted to be.”

Over the last two years, Clarke has explored many different roles, and he said he has grown both professionally and personally. “We say that we wear a lot of hats here,” said Clarke, who is one of less than 10 full-time CRRJ team members. “That’s because Professor Burnham pushes us to do our best work. She’s such a tremendous example, based on what she’s done throughout her career, throughout her life,” said Clarke. “I feel like I’m always living up to that example.”

Clarke was instrumental in the launch of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, and in supporting Professor Deborah Ramirez’s Criminal Justice Task Force (CJTF) rethinking public safety project/ CJTF’s program considers the potential for unarmed public safety responders to take on many of the roles currently served by armed law enforcement officers.

In the Spring 2023 semester, Clarke co-taught with Burnham CRRJ’s historical injustices and reparations course. He has also worked on drafting proposed legislation as part of CRRJ’s federal, state and city reparations projects.

One of the most rewarding roles he said he has fulfilled has been in working with CRRJ’s descendant community. He has passionately supported the Strickland family in Atlanta, Georgia in their pursuit for a permanent memorial for their relatives.

On October 17, 1932, 52-year-old Denna Strickland and her daughter, 25-year-old Estella Strickland, were killed in their Coweta County home by a law enforcement officer. Bailiff Sam Thompson arrived at the Strickland home, accompanied by civilians Cecil Hunter and Theo McDonald, to arrest Denna’s son for damages from an automobile accident several days prior, damages which had already been repaired by the Stricklands. According to newspaper accounts, the men searched the Strickland home and threatened to arrest members of the family. Thompson shot and killed Denna and Estella Strickland when they attempted to protest.

“That has been really fulfilling work, and that’s something I didn’t think we could do as attorneys and as lawyers,” said Clarke.

Last summer, the fellowship also afforded Clarke a month’s sabbatical to work on a written piece for journal publication. “It allowed me to think about a few different things that I’ve been turning over in my head,” said Clarke, who used the time to explore potential models for expanding access to pre-trial diversion programs. These initiatives aim to break the “arrest-trial-conviction-sentencing-incarceration cycle,” Clarke explained.

“That’s the other thing that I’ll take away from CRRJ,” he said, “just having the opportunity to do scholarly work of my own.” Clarke said that before arriving at CRRJ he didn’t understand how to access academic publishing, but that through the guidance he received at CRRJ, this process was demystified.

“There’s a lot of different things CRRJ has introduced me to and afforded me the chance to do,” said Clarke. He looks forward to continuing his legal training, and honing his writing skills, as he moves on from CRRJ.

“I don’t know if I would have been the best lawyer that I could be without this experience,” he said. “CRRJ has really prepared me to be a better version of myself, both professionally and personally.”

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