UF Law Student Awarded Fellowship to Advocate for Developmentally Disabled Offenders

Published: February 25th, 2008

Category: Feature, News

Katy DeBriereMany University of Florida law students are looking forward to leaving small-town Gainesville to begin work in larger cities after graduation, but Katy DeBriere is excited to have the opportunity to stay in the small town she loves to help seek social justice for developmentally disabled individuals in the criminal justice system.

A third-year law student, DeBriere was recently awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to work with Florida Institutional Legal Services (FILS) to advocate for developmentally disabled offenders in Alachua County for two years after graduation in May 2008.

While at UF Law, DeBriere has worked with FILS to help advocate for the rights of prisoners. She has spent the past two years doing informal advocacy, legal research and conducting client interviews in order to address individual client problems as well as tackle general problems within Florida prisons.

In addition to her work with FILS, DeBriere has involved herself with other public interest activities at school. She was a Law College Council representative for the Association of Public Interest Law, which works to increase awareness of public interest law and raise scholarship money for students who work in non-paying public interest jobs during the summer.

After interning with FILS in May 2006, DeBriere quickly felt as though she fit well within the organization and was pleased to work with people with a similar passion for legally representing individuals in institutional environments. After working with the organization during the summer, DeBriere knew she wanted to work closely with the organization throughout law school and hopefully after graduation, she said.

DeBriere’s passion for social justice came about from her lifelong tie to the mental health care system as a result of both of her parents working within state hospitals. Seeing firsthand the stigmas associated with developmental disabilities and the abuse of power that occurs when individuals’ lives are shut away from the public, DeBriere became passionate about taking on this non-traditional public interest job.

While many students veer away from public interest jobs because of the income and lifestyle stigma attached to them within the legal community, DeBriere insists that students can have the best of both worlds. Public interest lawyers can make a sufficient living wage and pay off student loans while having a rewarding job of helping those who cannot otherwise afford legal services, she said.

To be considered for this post-graduate fellowship program, DeBriere had to create a public interest project for a population underserved and underrepresented. She continued her commitment by choosing to work with developmentally disabled offenders whose disabilities are unaccommodated by the criminal justice system and thus have an increased risk of incarceration, she said.

To address this abuse, DeBriere plans to develop and provide education and resources to key people within the criminal justice system and caretakers of developmentally disabled individuals, who then will be connected to relevant community organizations.

The goal of her project is to test and implement successful strategies in Alachua County and then recreate the successful components of the project in other counties, she said. DeBriere realizes the importance of securing accommodations in the criminal justice system for the developmentally disabled all over the state, not just in Alachua County.

She believes that her legal education has certainly helped prepare her for taking on this public interest fellowship but knows that creating programs for her clients will be a learning process. DeBriere is excited to work one-on-one with clients because “they know best” when it comes to creating programs that work with their needs, she said.