Former Jailhouse Lawyer Works for Prison Reform

Most lawyers begin their legal education in law school. But Georgetown associate law professor Shon Hopwood began his in federal prison.

KPEP’s Bill DeBoer, Ann Webb and former KPEP participant Christina Hayes heard Hopwood’s surprising story at a recent Economic Club of Grand Rapids program on the topic of criminal justice reform. It’s a topic Hopwood advocates for nationwide – and he speaks from first-hand experience.

“Prisons aren’t filled with evil people,” he contends. “They’re filled with people who made very bad choices. But character isn’t static. People can change.”

Hopwood is proof of that. He was born and raised in David City, Nebraska, where he committed his first bank robbery. Hopwood and accomplices stole roughly $200,000 in five robberies before he was caught and sent to federal prison for 10 years.

While there, he became fascinated with the legal system and spent hours studying in the prison library. Soon he turned his passion to practical application and, as a jailhouse lawyer, saw two of his cert petitions granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued and won one of those cases – Fellers v. United States (2004) – and became Hopwood’s mentor, encouraging him to go to law school upon his release in 2008.

He did and received a J.D. as a Gates Public Service Law Scholar from the University of Washington School of Law. He was licensed in the state of Washington in 2015 and the same year joined the faculty at Georgetown Law where he serves as an expert on federal courts, criminal procedure (including federal sentencing) and prisoners’ rights.

When advocating for sentencing reform and for more effective prison-based education and rehabilitation programming, he points out that our current practices aren’t working.

“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Almost three-quarters of released prisoners are back in custody five years later,” he says. “Prisons don’t reform people; they often make them worse. Why do we keep giving people long sentences, neglect to teach them meaningful life and work skills, then release them and expect them to turn their lives around?”

He is encouraged by criminal justice reform legislation currently making its way through congress, including the “First Step Act” that aims to incentivize prisoners to participate in programs that reduce their likelihood to reoffend after they’ve been released.

According to Bill DeBoer, “We need to look for bi-partisan solutions. This is an issue that transcends political affiliation – everyone can get behind reforms that help offenders get their lives back on track.”

Hopwood agrees. “Most of the people inside prison have the potential for rehabilitation,” he says. “The difference with me was that I was afforded many second chances that others are not.”

You can read more on Georgetown Law’s website about Hopwood and his work representing Matthew Charles in a clemency petition that recently drew national attention.