Attorney at Law Magazine Los Angeles Publisher Sarah Torres sat down with the founder of the Center for Life Without Parole Studies, Susan Lawrence, to discuss her career and her advocacy efforts.
AALM: Describe your early career. Why is prison reform such an important issue to you?
Lawrence: I graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in 1978 and became a board-certified internist and medical oncologist. In 1992, I closed my practice to start the Catalyst Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the impact of childhood trauma on society. I came to see crime was one of the clearest examples of the societal effects of childhood abuse, and became involved in prison reform as a way to address this problem.
AALM: When did you first know you wanted to become an attorney? What drew you to this career? And what compelled you to start the Center for Life Without Parole Studies?
Lawrence: In 2004, I began teaching a class on childhood trauma and criminal behavior at a California state prison. Prior to this, I believed LWOP was a “reasonable alternative” to lethal injection. But after meeting and getting to know many LWOP prisoners, I came to understand this sentence, as Pope Francis says, is a “hidden death penalty” and should be abolished. In 2008, I was instrumental in creating the Other Death Penalty Project, a prisoner-led organization, and served as its free world representative for the next 10 years.
But after meeting and getting to know many LWOP prisoners, I came to understand this sentence, as Pope Francis says, is a “hidden death penalty” and should be abolished.
I eventually realized I needed the training and status of a lawyer to make a greater impact. After passing the California Bar Exam in 2017, I launched the nonprofit Center for Life Without Parole Studies to continue the fight against this terrible human rights violation conducted in plain sight in our country.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Lawrence: Over a decade ago, I became very close with a prisoner serving LWOP. We collaborated extensively on prison/sentencing reform activities, initiated by him from within his cell and embellished and coordinated by me in the free world. I respected him greatly and grew to consider him family, referring to him as my brother. I also played a vital role in his ultimate commutation and release from prison.
Within three months of his release, for complex reasons, my brother and I ended our friendship and collaboration. The end of a long-term friendship is always painful. From this loss, I was affirmed in my understanding of the import of my work. Although I no longer have a connection with the person who was the initial inspiration for my mission, I now know my devotion to this cause transcends any individual relationship. I have more resilience and determination than I could have possibly imagined.
Although I no longer have a connection with the person who was the initial inspiration for my mission, I now know my devotion to this cause transcends any individual relationship.
I have chosen to continue my fight against LWOP with all my skill and resources as a lawyer and nonprofit leader.
AALM: What events are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
Lawrence: Currently, I am working with legislators and sentencing reform advocates in Vermont to end LWOP sentences there. Our bill, H. 382, was introduced by Reps. Brian Cina and Barbara Rachelson.
I reached out to Rep. Cina because I believed Vermont was the ideal state to affirmatively end LWOP sentences for adults as well as juveniles. Restorative justice is the law of the land in Vermont, and LWOP is the antithesis of restoration. Legislation to end LWOP would bring Vermont’s sentencing practices in line with its restorative justice mandate. Existing progressive criminal justice policies make Vermont the most favorable arena in which to begin this much-needed reform.
I am considering establishing a satellite office in Vermont later this year in order to expand this work to neighboring states. I am also looking forward to continuing to help California LWOP prisoners find relief from their sentences through low cost and limited pro bono legal assistance.
AALM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lawrence: If not for Concord Law School and its flexible online program, I would not be a lawyer today. Professor Steve Bracci is extraordinary and without his guidance I am not sure I would have passed the California Bar Exam! I am also grateful to Concord Law School for connecting me with the Bay Area Legal Incubator program, through which I receive important practical and mentoring resources.