By Sean Kennedy, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
A mother contacted Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy for help. Her two teenage sons, who both suffer from autism, had just been expelled from their special-education program because they were frequently absent and had “behavior problems” in school. The mother explained that the family had become homeless, which made the boys especially anxious and caused difficulties getting them to school. The Center successfully litigated the brothers’ case against the school district, and they were readmitted to the program with specialized services to address their disabilities.
The Promotion of Justice For At-Risk Youth
The Jesuit educational tradition stresses “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.” The “promotion of justice” requires students to confront the structures of our world that perpetuate poverty and injustice, and to embark on well-planned strategies for making the world more just. Law students are especially well-equipped to promote social justice by using their legal education knowledge and training to help the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. These include at-risk youth, who face serious challenges brought on by poverty, trauma, addiction, mental health problems, educational deficits and myriad problems associated with growing up in violent, gang-infested neighborhoods.
In 2004, Loyola Law School (Loyola Marymount University) started the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy to help at-risk youth in the neighborhoods adjacent to its downtown Los Angeles campus. The Center is comprised of three separate clinics: the Juvenile Justice Clinic (JJC), the Youth Justice Education Clinic (YJEC) and the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic (JIFSC). In these clinics, under the supervision of experienced clinical law professors, Loyola students represent children in a variety of legal, educational and administrative matters in hopes of making a difference in each client’s life, as well as effectuating systemic change in the juvenile justice system.
Representing Teens in Delinquency Court
JJC students represent inner-city youth charged with crimes in delinquency court. Los Angeles has one of the biggest juvenile justice systems in the world. Despite the volume of serious cases and the high cost of living, payment of counsel in juvenile matters is limited to a flat fee of $350. Such low fees discourage counsel from filing motions or proceeding to trial, and almost all matters are resolved by plea bargains.
Unconstrained by this unconscionable flat-fee system, JJC students fully investigate the facts of the case, research potential motions and defenses, and consult with their clients in juvenile hall to determine whether to proceed to trial or reach a plea bargain. Guided by JJC social workers, students move beyond traditional legal representation to ascertain the root causes of why their clients have ended up in the criminal justice system in the first place.
Consistent with the Jesuit ideal of educating “the whole person,” JJC students thoroughly investigate each client’s background and upbringing in order to identify potential mental-health defenses and mitigating factors. Students then use mitigation to oppose transferring youth to criminal court for adult prosecution, where they face draconian sentences, and to reduce the sentence in the event of a conviction.
Los Angeles has a history of generational gangs and is often identified as the “gang capital” of the United States. Many JJC clients joined street gangs at a young age as a way of dealing with absent fathers, family problems and the pressures of living in poor, violent neighborhoods. Despite the popular mythology of “blood in, blood out,” most teens join a gang between the ages of 12 and 15, and stay as members for only one or two years; consequently, thoughtful intervention and treatment can make a huge impact on a young person’s life even if he has some gang involvement. JJC social workers provide counseling and support services so that minors can gain insight into why they became involved in illegal activities and hopefully learn how to avoid further contacts with the system.
Representing Students at Educational Hearings
YJEC students tackle juvenile delinquency from a different but related perspective: using available administrative and civil remedies to keep at-risk youth in school, thereby ending the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” Los Angeles public high schools currently have a graduation rate of 67%. Many incarcerated youth dropped out after being suspended or expelled from overburdened, under-performing high schools. Often these schools overuse expulsion because administrators are unable or unwilling to address a student’s unique educational needs or deficits. YJEC students seek to compel school district administrators to comply with existing laws requiring public schools to make good-faith efforts to address each student’s educational needs. YJEC clients who receive individual education plans and services often thrive in school instead of dropping out, which in turn reduces the risk of their becoming involved in criminal activities.
Representing Prisoners Who Were Wrongfully Convicted Or Over-Sentenced
JIFS students redress the injustices of wrongful imprisonment and over-incarceration for children. California has more incarcerated youth than any other state in the nation. In fact, the number of incarcerated youth in California rivals that of Texas, New York and Florida combined. Many of these youth have been tried as adults and are serving extreme sentences in adult prisons.
Because juveniles are immature and less sophisticated than adults, they are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than adults. Some prisoners convicted as children have credible claims of innocence, but no right to counsel in post conviction. JIFS students reinvestigate such cases and, when appropriate, file habeas corpus petitions alleging actual innocence. The JIFS students litigate actual innocence claims to exonerate inmates who are wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
California prisons are also full of people who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. Three years ago, the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama held that “children are constitutionally different for the purposes of sentencing.” The Court held that because juveniles have reduced culpability and greater potential for rehabilitation, they should rarely be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). To that end, JIFS students represent inmates who were unconstitutionally over-sentenced as juveniles. JIFS students present mitigation and evidence of rehabilitation to advocate for the resentencing of prisoners sentenced to LWOP as juveniles.
Social Justice In Action
The Center advocates at every level to return the juvenile justice system to its rehabilitative roots. Clinic professors publish articles and host national conferences on juvenile justice and education law issues to encourage systemic reforms. Clinic students advance social justice by honoring the dignity of even the most troubled young offender through holistic representation. Students’ personal involvement with the suffering of others results in a deeper understanding of the root causes of poverty and injustice. By modeling high quality, client-centered representation, the Center hopes to inspire the next generation of lawyers to advocate for at-risk youth.
Sean Kennedy is Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director of Center for Juvenile Policy at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. The immediate past Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California, he is a graduate of Loyola Law School and Loyola Marymount University.