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More than my own worst mistake

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Harvard Law graduate Michael Zuckerman could have taken a job anywhere after he completed his clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why did he choose to come to OJPC?

Michael Zuckerman, Skadden Fellow, Second Chance Attorney

I’m thrilled to return to OJPC as a Skadden Fellow after interning here during my first summer in law school. Ever since my time here in 2015, I have hoped to come back and be part of a team so committed to the idea that no one should be written off—that each of us is more than a particular set of actions, and that we all deserve to be treated with dignity, understanding, and respect.

We live in a time in which writing people off is too common. We have a political culture in which people with different opinions or backgrounds don’t often hear each other out. We have an economy that leaves huge numbers of our neighbors just barely scraping by — or worse, trapped in cycles of poverty. And, most relevant to OJPC, we have a system of criminal law and practice that continues to charge, prosecute, and lock people in jails and prisons at a rate otherwise unheard of in modern society.

For some lucky people, involvement with the criminal courts can be a brief corrective. I was one of those lucky people. After losing my dad to a heart attack at age 12, I began making a series of bad choices that culminated in my pleading guilty to criminal trespassing at age 13. Thanks to a diversion program, I found myself performing hands-on community service that helped me see first that there were kids who had it much worse off than I did, and second, that I could channel my own frustration and energy into trying to do something about it. I didn’t appear before a judge again until I was a third-year student at Harvard Law School, representing clients through the school’s Criminal Justice Institute.

My brush with criminal adjudication was mercifully brief and ultimately productive rather than scarring. But we know that stories like mine are not the ordinary course of business. And even less so when the defendant is not, as I was, a middle-class white kid.

Through OJPC’s Second Chance project, I feel fortunate to be able to assist individuals who have made their own mistakes in life yet find themselves still trapped under the weight of a past conviction as they try to build flourishing lives for themselves and their families. For some, it may be crushing fines, fees, or other financial obligations that continue to accrue even as they hinder the person from finding a decent job that would enable them to make even a modest payment. For some, it may be a decades-old conviction that now creates an automatic barrier to affordable housing or a professional license, no matter how much the person has turned his life around.

The circumstances will vary, but our mission at OJPC remains the same: we will walk alongside anyone who wants to walk the path of reintegration into the community, and we will do our best to help them navigate whatever legal roadblocks they find in their way.

I am proud to be part of an organization that is so committed to this work. It is essential to any decent society, but it is especially crucial when our own society’s decades of mass incarceration have left so many excluded from the community for so long. And just as I have felt lucky that people have treated me as more than my own worst decisions, I am grateful that OJPC stands for the recognition that everyone else is, too.

Michael Zuckerman joined OJPC in October 2019. Prior to joining OJPC, he served as a law clerk to Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court.