Vidhi Sanghavi Joshi ’15

Vidhi Sanghavi Joshi, who graduated in May 2015, has started a program aimed at providing legal advocacy aimed at helping individuals who have served prison time for criminal convictions reenter society as a 2015 Skadden Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.

Joshi’s two-year Skadden Fellowship, which began in summer 2015, has enabled her to launch a new and badly needed program at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and achieve her career goal: a career focusing on criminal justice. The Skadden Fellowship was the culimination of Joshi’s efforts, throughout law school, to prepare for a career in public advocacy by seeking out opportunities to gain experience.

In 2014, Joshi helped an inmate at Alabama’s notorious Tutwiler Women’s Prison win parole. Because of her advocacy, her client, a 53-year-old grandmother sentenced to three years for a drug-related offense, is now back with her family, working a steady job, and helping to care for her six grandchildren.

Joshi won her client’s release in June 2014 while working at the Southern Center for Human Rights as a Garrison Public Interest Fellow. Surprised to learn that Alabama inmates are not allowed to be present at their own parole hearings, Joshi worked with her client and the client’s family to develop a release plan covering where she would live and work if released.

Several family members attended the hearing where Joshi successfully presented her client’s case to the parole board. “When they granted her release, her sister was crying, her son was teary-eyed—everyone was emotional and excited,” she said. “But many inmates had no one there to represent them, and every single person in the parole hearing line was asking me for help.”

Joshi can’t remember a time when she wasn’t committed to a social justice career. Her family immigrated to rural Indiana from Bombay, India, when she was a young child. “We lived in an impoverished, run-down neighborhood because that’s where my parents could afford to live,” she said. “I had close friends whose parents had encounters with the criminal justice system. These early experiences pushed me to learn what I could do to empower people society marginalizes.”

People convicted of crimes, she discovered, not only suffer from their experiences in prison but also face significant barriers after release. They have few employment options and are ineligible for many benefits that might help them get back on their feet. Some also face significant debt because of laws requiring them to pay expenses related to their incarceration. “With such limited options and financial pressures, they commit crimes of poverty and end up back in prison,” she said. “We’ve created a disposable class of people.”

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University, Bloomington, Joshi worked for three years before entering law school. As an intern with the American Civil Liberties Union, she researched school-to-prison pipeline patterns. Then she taught English, speech and debate as a Fulbright Fellow in Medan, Indonesia, where she founded an after-school leadership and empowerment program for girls. She chose Vanderbilt Law School because of the school’s reputation for collegiality.

In 2014, Joshi received the Justice-Moore Family Scholarship, which is awarded to students who show an interest in working in the nonprofit sector or in public service following graduation. “My career goal is criminal justice reform, but there are multiple aspects to that goal,” she said.  “To effect change, I need to understand every aspect: What causes people to commit crimes? What happens to people once they are in the criminal justice system? What happens to them when they get out?”

During law school, Joshi sought to learn as much as she could about each stage, both in the classroom and as an intern. During summer 2013, she worked with a criminal defense attorney, assisting with interviews and preparation of cases for trial. As an intern with the Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, she dealt with state and federal habeas proceedings. Her Skadden project grew out of an internship with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, where she explored ways to help people with criminal records find housing and employment and gain access to benefits.

Joshi found her coursework at Vanderbilt invaluable in preparing her for work focusing on criminal justice. “The understanding I gained of constitutional protections in Professor [Nancy] King’s Criminal Procedure-Adjudication class enabled to me to help one of my clients who didn’t have a lawyer at his probation hearing assert his constitutional right to counsel this past summer,” she said.  She also cites Actual Innocence, taught by Professor Terry Maroney, as eye-opening. “We learned the many causes of wrongful convictions, including junk science, poor lawyering, use of eyewitness testimony, or prosecutorial misconduct,” Joshi said.