Wherever she practices law, Maya Weeks wants to be backed by theory.
This month, she is earning two degrees from the University of South Carolina: a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and her Juris Doctor.
She completed the dual-degree program in only three years because she is anxious to bring a holistic approach to criminal justice.
"I want to take my work in criminal defense or prosecutor work and try to help with the theory to better communities,” Weeks says. “You get to understand how people feel and think. Our criminal justice system needs more of that.”
Only a few years ago, though, Weeks had a simple, police-and-prisons view of the justice system. When she majored in criminology at UofSC Upstate, she was inspired by the way theory can expand opportunities to reduce crime.
“I fell in love with that idea," she says. "There’s a theory; We can test it and figure out how we can help communities solve crime. I just knew I was going to go on with it.”
She not only has the theoretical and empirical knowledge to understand how and why people get entangled in the system, but the legal and practical knowledge to help people out of it
— Deena Isom
She said UofSC’s dual-degree program was perfect for her. Romona Keith, her advisor at South Carolina Law, helped her create a plan to complete both programs in only three years — the amount of time required for the J.D. alone. Her accelerated schedule required a heavy course load, but taking so many classes at once allowed her to see connections more quickly.
Her studies in the law school focused on the technical and practical aspects of the law, while her experience in the criminal justice classroom focused on underlying theory of criminal behavior, offender rehabilitation, crime prevention and more. She also learned about the interaction between the criminal justice system and agencies that serve the community, Weeks says.
Deena Isom, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a mentor to Weeks, says the additional background in theory will help Weeks in the courtroom.
“By earning her M.A. and J.D., she not only has the theoretical and empirical knowledge and skill sets to understand how and why people get entangled in the system, but the legal and practical knowledge to help people out of it,” Isom says.
That benefit was obvious when Weeks worked in South Carolina Law’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, where she represented young people in the courts system.
“In the Juvenile Justice Clinic, Maya put together her commitment to justice, legal knowledge and skills, and her understanding of what leads young people to commit crimes,” says Josh Gupta-Kagan, director of the clinic. “She provided excellent representation to youth accused of crimes. She helped win good results for them, and I look forward to seeing the impact she will have after graduation.”
I fell in love with that idea. There’s a theory; We can test it and figure out how we can help communities solve crime.”
— Maya Weeks
Lately, Weeks has been studying for the South Carolina Bar Exam. She is considering several kinds of legal work where she sees opportunities to change the justice system for the better. She could become a prosecutor who champions non-prison rehabilitation programs, a criminal defense attorney who advocates for clients’ complete needs, or even an employment lawyer.
Regardless of her line of work, though, her focus stays the same.
“No matter which side I’m on, I think I can use my criminal justice knowledge to help people," she says.
Her professors agree.
“Maya has a justice-seeking heart, with aims to fight for equity for those marginalized by society and particularly our criminal justice system," Isom says. “She is going to be a force for good in this world, and I cannot wait to see the attorney she becomes.”
“Maya is a force,” says Susan Kuo, associate dean of academic affairs and professor
at South Carolina Law. “Her intensity of focus and commitment to righting wrongs
will make the world a better and more just place for all.”