Corey Guilmette ’16 Works to Mitigate Criminal Convictions at Civil Survival

Portrait Corey Guilmette '16 outdoors
Former Liman Fellow Corey Guilmette ’16 works with a nonprofit that organizes people directly impacted by the criminal legal system.

Corey Guilmette ’16 is Managing Director of Legal Services and Operations at Civil Survival, a legal nonprofit based in Washington and led by and for formerly incarcerated individuals. Civil Survival offers reentry legal services alongside organizing, leadership development, and legislative and policy advocacy.

As a 2016 Liman Fellow, Guilmette challenged the discriminatory enforcement of trespass policies at the Public Defender Association in Seattle. There he worked alongside former then-Executive Director Lisa Daugaard ’95, a former Liman Fellow and who is now Co-Executive Director of Purpose. Dignity. Action.

In February 2021, Guilmette and his colleagues saw the potential to reduce the harms of criminal convictions after the Washington Supreme Court in State v. Blake held that the state’s law criminalizing “unintentional, unknowing possession of a controlled substance” was an abuse of the state’s police power and violated “the due process clauses of the state and federal constitution.” Because the decision applied retroactively, many individuals convicted of violating Washington’s drug possession statute were eligible to have their convictions vacated and financial sanctions refunded.

Civil Survival brought a class action lawsuit in King County Superior Court to request relief for all people who fell within the Blake parameters. That lawsuit did not succeed. The court ruled that appropriate means to have a conviction reviewed was not through class action or declaratory relief, but to file individual motions in the court where the conviction occurred.  

“The state has a massive obligation to go through and review every drug possession conviction,” Guilmette said. “Going back as long as those statutes have been in the books — since the 1950s — they all have to be addressed one by one, which is how the state has chosen to address them.”  

Guilmette’s path to law school and a career in criminal law draws inspiration from his experience of having been arrested for marijuana possession when he was 17 and living in upstate New York.

“I was acutely aware of the privilege I had, being white and in a suburb,” he said. “The arrest could have gotten in the way of my trajectory to college, graduate law school, and achieving some degree of professional and academic success — but it didn’t. My friends, several of whom were people of color, got arrested and it prevented them from going to college. These were friends who had the same academic success I had in high school and were otherwise doing well, but the criminal legal system's involvement got in their way.”

Guilmette’s work allows him to lessen the harms he sees as inherit to the criminal legal system.

“I've always been interested in policing and how the criminal legal system operates to exclude people from opportunity,” Guilmette said. “Civil Survival has allowed me to help people who have been harmed by the criminal legal system to rebuild their lives, whether that's eliminating fines and fees that they're too poor to pay, wiping their criminal record, or a host of other things we do.”

Since joining Civil Survival, Guilmette has helped the organization’s staff grow from three to 16 employees and to add to its programs. Guilmette is proud that, in 2023, Civil Survival’s advocacy successfully persuaded two Washington counties to waive more than $10 million in fines imposed upon people too poor to pay. He is now working to expand Civil Survival’s outreach in communities with large immigrant populations, where people can face the risk of deportation due to erroneous criminal convictions.

“We're excited to go to places like Skagit County, which is a big tulip-producing county in Washington; they do a lot of other farming there, too,” he said. “We're trying to build awareness in that county so we can be in contact with more Latinx immigrants to help them.”

Looking to the challenges and opportunities ahead, Guilmette foresees many more opportunities to use the leadership skills built early in his career.

“I’m glad that I can continue to build an organization with its own approach to dismantling the harms of the criminal legal system,” Guilmette said.