Strong advocate


Newly minted Michigan Law grad Peter Calloway received the Jane L. Mixer Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to advancing the cause of social justice.

Photo courtesy of Peter Calloway

Law grad aims to advance social justice

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

If Peter Calloway could empty America’s jails and prisons, he would consider that a career well-spent.

“No sense in aiming low,” he says, adding that there would need to be “a more humane alternative for the tiny fraction of our incarcerated population who might actually need to be kept away from other people.”

A May graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Calloway says he is appalled that the U.S. has more people incarcerated—almost 2.5 million—than any other country, now or in recorded history. 

“We’re caging unprecedented numbers of human beings, mostly people of color, and mostly for petty crimes or crimes of poverty and mental illness,” he says. “They’re exposed to malnutrition and disease, to physical and sexual violence. They’re given virtually no rehabilitative programming, and then they’re branded upon release, making it difficult or impossible to find jobs and housing.

“And we expect them to somehow reintegrate, deeply damaged, dumped back into communities that have been destroyed by the same system of mass human caging to which they themselves fell victim.

“This is a racial justice and human rights issue. It’s a crisis, to put it simply, and I think it demands far more attention and action than it’s getting.”

At his MLaw graduation in May, Calloway was honored with the Jane L. Mixer Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to advancing the cause of social justice.

“That was quite a surprise, and a real honor,” he says. “There are so many incredible people in the public interest community at Michigan that I felt really lucky to be among those to receive the award.

“Every single thing I did here that could be considered as having advanced social justice was made better or possible by the people around me.”

Calloway has always felt compelled to stand up and speak out against injustice.

“Growing up, I came to see the law as this thing, this set of tools as it’s sometimes called, that puts advocate on equal footing with oppressor,” he says. “It turns out that view of the present system was a bit naïve, but this path has made it possible to fight back in a way that I think suits me well.”

After studying at Lansing and Oakland community colleges while working full time, Calloway earned his undergrad degree from U-M, and remained a Wolverine to earn his J.D.

“This place is full of some really amazing people. I’ve made lifelong friends, some of whom I may even get to work with in the future. That makes me really happy, and it’s already been personally and professionally rewarding in ways I couldn’t have predicted,” he says.

“There are a lot of things that made Michigan Law such a great experience.  The professors, the mentorships, the career support, the clinics— they were what drew me to Michigan in the first place, and yet they were all better than I even imagined.”

His 3L-year externship at the Washtenaw County Office of Public Defender, where he worked under First Assistant Public Defender, Tim Niemann, included what was the most gratifying moment of his law school experience.

“I was arguing a bond motion, and I managed to persuade the judge that my indigent client should not be forced to remain in a cage prior to trial simply because he could not pay the money to buy his freedom that a wealthy defendant would be able to pay,” he explains. “The judge seemed a bit stunned by the argument. But after pausing for several seconds, he said ‘I agree,’ and released my client on his own recognizance. My client was able to go back home to his family and to his job, rather than remaining in a cage because of his poverty.”

As the very first intern at Equal Justice Under Law in the nation’s capital, Calloway began to learn more concretely about how the law can create change, and he was able to work on exciting cases, including investigative work for a challenge to the D.C. Metro Police’s system of illegal searches and seizures.

“They’ve been terrorizing impoverished neighborhoods populated exclusively by people of color with militarized home raids for things like drug possession,” he says. “These raids involve some really violent and dehumanizing behavior by the police, often perpetrated not even against the people accused of crimes, but against their families.”

At Equal Justice, he also did preliminary research and writing for what has become an increasingly successful national litigation campaign to end the use of money bail in the United States.

“I learned how important it is to challenge aspects of our criminal system that have become normalized, things that even experienced attorneys tend to take for granted,” he says. “That understanding continues to inform everything I do as an advocate.”

Calloway interned last summer at the Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans.

“OPD is full of some of the most talented and passionate people I’ve ever met. I learned so much from so many of them,” he says. “They are all so deeply committed to their clients, who are under constant assault by nearly every other actor in the system.

“Just the other day, I read an article about the deplorable conditions in Orleans Parish’s new jail – created in part because conditions in the old jails were so awful, and things are already so bad at the new one that a federal judge has taken control. It’s tragic what’s happening down there—New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world—and it was incredibly rewarding to be a part of pushing back.”

After an upcoming clerkship, Calloway is aiming for a career as a trial-level public defender.

 “I think it’s one important way that one can help to mitigate some of the damage and misery created by this profoundly unjust system,” he says.

“Eventually, I’d like to bring civil rights cases targeted at things like the system of debtors’ prisons still operating in cities across the country, the use of money bail, prison conditions, and so on.  Inequality in our criminal system is staggering and pervasive. A person without money is disadvantaged at every turn, often in violation of her constitutional rights. That has got to change.

“It’s really strange the way we think of crime and wrongdoing in this country,” he adds. “We think that when a person steals some food or some money, the crime is that she stole the food or the money, rather than seeing the crime as the fact that our society and our economic system produce people who don’t even have enough to survive – it’s bizarre.”

A native of Orchard Lake in Oakland County, and now a resident of Ann Arbor, Calloway credits his family with his success.

“My parents and family have been so incredibly supportive that it’s impossible to imagine having done any of what I’ve been so fortunate to do without them,” he says.

An avid motorcyclist who enjoys touring around the U.S., Calloway is now planning a trip across South America.

“There’s no better way to see a place, connected to the road and really in the environment,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about the parts of the country I’ve traveled through, and I’ve met so many different people who let me learn a little bit about their lives and struggles too. It’s taught me a lot, and I hope it’s something I’m lucky enough to continue doing for some time.”


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