Lawndale Christian Legal Center
October 15, 2014
“Tom” was just 15 years old and looking at a minimum of 31 years in jail. He suffered a challenging and disadvantaged childhood: his mother was addicted to heroin, and his father was in and out of jail himself.
At risk of losing his own life to prison, Tom turned for help to the Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC), one of the organizations you are helping to support through the annual Investing in Justice Campaign. Lead Attorney and Executive Director Cliff Nellis took on his case, which resulted in a jury trial, while Tom focused his efforts on school and took advantage of the opportunities the Legal Center provided.
“Kids like him are the reasons why we do this; they prove to us that the work we do is meaningful,” said Nellis. “Our youth are not lost causes.”
LCLC was founded by Nellis, a University of Chicago Law graduate, in 2010. Based in North Lawndale, LCLC serves the neighborhood’s youth, ages 24 and younger, involved with the criminal justice system. The organization’s mission is to provide holistic and integrated legal and social services.
“We don’t just deal with a youth’s legal case in isolation, but walk alongside them through whatever they’re dealing with socially as well to become good citizens and leaders,” said Danae Kovac, LCLC director of operations and development.
Adds Nellis, “We see ourselves as less of an organization and more as people who live and work in the neighborhood who are trying to mobilize community resources already here,” noting that he and most of the staff reside in or are native to North Lawndale. “There’s a sense of solidarity with the community that, I think, fosters trust, which is invaluable.”
The Legal Center’s mantra is to help kids walk through and away from the criminal justice system by exercising restorative justice practices. In addition to providing full legal representation, LCLC offers a well-rounded approach to serving the youth through case management, mentoring, after-school programs, a youth employment program, and advocacy and community outreach. Youth create a customized intervention program for success and utilize the various opportunities LCLC presents, such as integrated mental health and drug counseling, community service projects, and job skills training. In 2013, the Center helped 177 youth.
This summer, LCLC started a new diversion program in partnership with the City of Chicago and Juvenile Intervention Support Center, through which arrested youth residing in North Lawndale can be referred to LCLC for one-on-one mentoring and participation in a leadership development program, thus bypassing juvenile court. The Center anticipates serving an additional 30 youth through this program.
“We are now covering the whole spectrum, serving youth at every point of involvement with the criminal justice system,” said Kovac.
The CBF Young Professionals Board also awarded LCLC an additional grant for the Center’s Court Advocacy Apprenticeship/Mock Trial Program, a joint legal education and job training program that was expanded in 2014. This summer, 15 youth spent 20 hours a week training in all aspects of the criminal justice system and working through a real-life case as a trial attorney would. LCLC also shows them around major law offices in the city and the Daley Center to meet with a judge. The program culminates with a public mock trial performance, with youth playing attorneys on the defense and state’s attorney side. The job training portion helps youth with resumes, job interviews, and even financial literacy.
“It’s empowering for youth both to gain a better understanding of the criminal trial proceedings in general and be able to apply that knowledge to what’s going on in their own case,” Kovac elaborated.
Success at LCLC, in terms of pursuing educational and vocational achievement, is ultimately up to the individual who chooses to take advantage of the opportunities LCLC provides. However, the commitment and attention of the staff, which has grown to 12 full-time members, can also produce extraordinary results. On the legal side, attorneys take on a smaller caseload and are therefore able to offer a more thorough defense, which consequently results in more “not guilty” rulings or better plea results, like misdemeanor charges or probation.
“Most times, everyone is focused on the five minutes that this crime occurred,” said Nellis. “Part of the defense is to tell the story of the person and convey that bigger picture.”
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