By Andrew Cohen
For most first-year law students, just navigating a new, rigorous, and often perplexing area of study is a notable achievement. But Justine Kentla ’16 isn’t most law students.
Honored recently with a prestigious UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Award for Public Service, Kentla is the co-founder of the Focus Forward Project. The nonprofit provides educational training and support to people charged with federal crimes who are awaiting trial or sentencing in New York. While acclimating to her first year at law school, Kentla co-managed the growing East Coast program from 3,000 miles away.
“It was challenging at times, but well worth the effort,” she said. “Everyone at Berkeley was extremely supportive, which made it much easier for me to see this through.”
For three years before law school, Kentla worked as a paralegal at a federal public defender’s office in New York City. Much of her job focused on sentencing litigation in Manhattan and Brooklyn—home to the nation’s largest pre-trial jail. That involved visiting incarcerated clients, obtaining letters of support from friends and family, and documenting reasons to mitigate sentences.
More than 18,000 individuals are jailed in U.S. federal pretrial detention facilities and more than 26,000 are under pretrial supervision with limited access to educational opportunities. The waiting period for those charged with a federal crime before trial or sentencing is eight months.
“I’d ask our clients there what they’d been doing while awaiting sentencing,” Kentla recalls. “Every time, they’d say ‘There are no programs for us here.’ They felt frustrated, and I felt frustrated repeatedly getting that same answer. There were many re-entry programs focused on people already serving time in prison or a halfway house, but none for people still in the pre-trial phase of their criminal case. Re-entry training should be available from day one.”
In response, Kentla and her fellow paralegal Alexandra Katz developed a 12-week pilot program, during which they met with about a dozen men and women charged with federal crimes. In the first part of each session, participants shared their highs and lows from the past week and discussed the book A Long Way Gone. The book was written by Ishmael Beah, a former Sierra Leone child soldier who suffered myriad horrifying experiences before being rehabilitated and becoming a successful writer.
“We chose that book because it has many themes that are relevant to our participants, such as continuing to persevere, getting past drug addiction, and overcoming a tough childhood,” Kentla said.
The second part of the class offered practical training for various life skills that included goal setting, resume writing, interviewing, and public speaking. Class members also wrote in a journal and share their entries with the group.
“I was overwhelmed with the positive response we got after our first 12-week session, not only from the participants, but from judges and the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Kentla said. “That’s when we decided to turn this pilot program into a nonprofit.”
Having co-taught the first class themselves, Kentla and Katz enlisted six new instructors. The program now boasts more than 100 graduates, all of whom have pursued additional educational courses. For each graduate, an instructor drafts a letter of support to the sentencing judge and attends the sentencing hearing.
Focus Forward’s programming was recently extended to people who are out on bail, in addition to those awaiting sentencing, and plans are in place to expand beyond New York. Toward that end, Kentla is creating a new Student-Initiated Legal Services Project at Berkeley Law. After co-managing Focus Forward from across the country, she is eager to generate more hands-on training for herself, other student instructors, and—of greatest importance—pre-trial prisoners.
Multi-tasking, after all, is nothing new for Kentla. Her first-year of law school also included working on two student-initiated projects and the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law. Ending the school year with the Chancellor’s Graduate Student Award for Civic Engagement provided an unexpected lift.
“It was a great surprise and a huge honor,” Kentla said. “Hearing all these amazing things students had done, it made me feel like Berkeley was home. I’m incredibly grateful I decided to come to Berkeley Law, where so many people have a genuine passion for helping others.”