A Passion for Law and People
College of Law graduate putting her degree to use helping people in need access legal resources.
In 2011, Jessalyn Hopkin was working as a psychosocial rehabilitation worker for people with mental illnesses.
One day, while working with a 9-year-old boy, he pulled out a binder and began showing her all of the foster homes he had lived in: Eight families in five years. The brokenness of the foster care system hit her hard.
“I could work with these kids my entire life, but I couldn’t fix the systematic problems that put kids in these situations,” she said. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
Hopkin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Idaho in 2010, returned to U of I to pursue her Juris Doctor, and to change the system from the inside. She is set to graduate from the College of Law in May 2018.
Changing the Differences
After finishing her first year of law school in Moscow in 2016, Hopkin and her young son moved to Boise.
“Boise was a better option because my family is close and my son’s father is in Pocatello, so it just makes everything easier,” she said. “My professors here have been so understanding about me bringing my son to class or missing class when he’s sick, if needed.”
Living in the state capital also offered Hopkin the opportunity to explore the legal field through several internships. Hopkin has been a legal intern for the Idaho State Bar and the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program. Currently, Hopkin works at the Idaho State Appellate Public Defender’s Office.
“I want to be a public defense attorney for a few years and then go into law making or politics to change the way Idaho deals with people in the criminal justice system,” she said. “It makes sense for me to be closer to the capital and the legislature.”
While learning about the law, Hopkin said she noticed how differently the criminal justice system treats people.
“If you need a public defender, you are probably poor, and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get what is constitutionally afforded to you,” she said.
‘An Easy Solution’
During the 2018 legislative session, Hopkin and a classmate have been working to pass a law that would require all Idaho law enforcement agencies to preserve evidence found at a crime scene for the length of the sentence of the convicted person.
“We imprison innocent people all the time,” she said. “As technology gets better, our ability to test DNA gets better and we need that evidence to test DNA to ensure the right person is in prison.”
Hopkin’s research indicates DNA evidence is already being preserved. She said she is working with a senator and a representative who have agreed to introduce the bill next year.
“We want to make it a law and provide structure so the police can better preserve evidence,” she said. “When I started law school and learning about our justice system, I realized how many problems they are. This is an easy solution to ensure people aren’t punished for a crime they didn’t commit.”
Learning to Communicate
Hopkin was inspired to write the bill through her volunteer internship with the Idaho Innocence Project.
“It has been so rewarding working for an organization that helps people who are at the end of their rope,” she said. “We take cases of people who are in prison for life, because they have fewer options than someone on death row.”
Hopkin started volunteering with the Idaho Trial Lawyers Street Law Clinic in May 2016. The bi-monthly event gives the public a chance to bring legal questions to attorneys. It helped her learn how to communicate with people.
“In law school, there aren’t many classes that teach you how to be an attorney, they teach you about the law, so these experiences helped me learn the nuance of being an attorney,” she said. “I know how to sit down with a client and get the information I need to assess what their legal issues.”
She also volunteered for the ACLU of Idaho in 2017.
In February, Hopkin was named to the NationalJurist Top 20 Law Students, a national list of 20 law students across the country.
“Law school is hard. It’s very competitive and it’s easy to feel like nothing you do is right or good enough,” she said. “But this showed me that you can work hard and you can make a difference. It was a huge surprise but I’m so grateful.”
Hopkin plans to find a job in Pocatello and continue volunteering with the Idaho Innocence Project after commencement.
“In all my experiences, I’ve learned something new every single day, and it’s helpful to be able to draw from the strong background I learned in my classes at U of I.”
It’s a busy time of year for the Capitol. I have been working on a bill that will hopefully be going before a committee sometime in the next couple weeks. In preparation I sat in on a hearing today where proposed legislation was heard and voted on whether it would move past the first reading. Super interesting stuff. #TakeoverTuesday #UIdahoLaw
Article by Tess Fox, University Communications & Marketing
Published in April 2018.