BY: Elise Hanks Billing | DATE: May 18, 2022
In response to a call to action from student advocates, CUNY Law has expanded its access mission for justice-impacted people: application to the Law School will no longer ask students about any criminal history, making it the second law school in the country to do so. The decision aligns with both racial and disability justice goals and is part of a nationwide movement to remove barriers designed to exclude applicants who do not reaffirm the white carceral status quo.


Championed by members of CUNY Law’s Formerly Incarcerated Law Students Advocacy Association (FILSAA) students Rina DeFrancesco, Lauren Hunt, Matt Propper, and new graduate Colby Williams, the measure to remove the question was tantamount to the Law School’s mission to train lawyers the law would otherwise exclude, marginalize or oppress.  On this most recent success, FILSAA states: “Congratulations to all for continuing to demand CUNY live up to its missions and values by increasing accessibility for formerly incarcerated students and prospective students.” Founded in 2017 by Jerry Koch, FILSAA has found a groundswell of support among the student body as well as faculty and staff.


“A lot of people are talking about this issue right now. CUNY Law did more than talk about it. It was really exciting to be here the day they took action.

“FILSAA students have developed great relationships with members of the administration, faculty, and staff. We are grateful for the opportunities they give formerly incarcerated students to speak from our personal experiences. But this goes beyond that. They not only gave us a chance to speak, but they also listened. We believe that the legal profession could benefit from an influx of those who are most affected by it, and this move by CUNY Law just unlocked the door.”
– Colby Williams ’22, FILSAA Member


When students set out to put the issue of revising CUNY Law’s application before the Admissions Committee, they did so with characteristic diligence as they considered potential ramifications: could this lead to admitting students later disqualified from bar admittance? Would people have concerns about campus safety? It became clear there can be no penalty for a student not disclosing criminal history to their law school if the school does not ask for it. Further, schools are not obligated to ask about criminal history — either by statute or regulation. And since removing their criminal history inquiry, part of New York State’s Ban the Box initiative, the University at Buffalo School of Law “has not reported a serious incident on campus, exposure to liability, or a rash of applicants claiming to be unaware of the moral character and fitness requirements of the New York State Bar.”


Executive Director of Admissions, Enrollment, and Dual Degree Programs Gayla Jacobson is proud to have students as the driving force of change. “The student-led initiative to remove the criminal history question, even more than removing barriers to legal education for people historically excluded from the profession means that those who have acquaintance with the exponential implications of being justice impacted face one less barrier to affecting systemic transformation. I am grateful for the students’ leadership and honored to be a part of this important change.”


In September, the issue of Question 26, the bar’s version of a question about criminal history, will be up for reconsideration. In early 2022, due to the collective advocacy of Unlock the Bar (UTB), a New York-based campaign and coalition of allied and systems-impacted law students (including many from CUNY Law) and lawyers advocating for a just and equitable legal profession, the New York State Bar Association announced that Question 26 of the Character & Fitness is racist and illegal and the offending parts must be eliminated.


We stand with the movement to democratize admission to the bar and hope to see more law schools remove criminal history questions in an effort to influence C&F reform nationwide. CUNY Law is excited to be taking this step forward thanks to student leadership, and the community is looking ahead to supporting justice-impacted students with more resources, mentorship, and scholarship funds.