By Michael Bazeley
Tejal Kothari began working with the law school’s Juvenile Hall Outreach clinic to help change the lives of incarcerated youths. What she didn’t realize is how much the experience would change her, too.
“It made me not want to be a lawyer,” says Kothari, laughing. “I kind of see my role now as creating alternative programs that are supplemental to the existing legal system.”
Kothari ’10 is co-director of the Advocates for Youth Justice program, a student-run organization that oversees four clinics, all of them focused on youth advocacy. In addition to the Juvenile Hall clinic, AYJ manages clinics that provide education advocates for foster children, represent youths at school expulsion hearings, and help Berkeley High School students with a peer-based discipline system.
All of the programs thrust Berkeley Law students into real-world situations, where they view, first-hand, the experiences youths face when they butt up against legal and disciplinary systems. About 60 students are involved in the clinics, many of them 1Ls who cannot participate in Berkeley Law’s formal clinical program until their second and third years.
“We are advocating for youths in different contexts,” says Kothari. “I think there’s definitely an unmet need. Most of these students have no representation at expulsion hearings. At Alamdea County (juvenile hall), there are no “know-your-rights” programs. There are more foster care children than there are surrogates.”
In the Juvenile Hall clinic, Berkeley Law students teach six-week classes, once a week, to groups of incarcerated youths. The classes focus on the criminal justice process and the youths’ legal rights, from search-and-seizure to the role of public defenders. They also look at the long-term consequences of certain crimes and provide information about alternative programs. The Berkeley Law students are trained by Fresh Lifelines for Youth, a South Bay group that provides role models for at-risk youths and educates them about the law and consequences of crime.
“Overall, I think the kids have a really positive reaction,” says Marina Sideris ’09, co-director of AYJ. “We have terrific meetings with the kids and get to know them while we’re there.”
In the Expulsion Representation Clinic, law students represent youths who face possible expulsion from school. Lawyers from Legal Services for Children train the students in the California Education Code and school discipline hearings. They are also paired with student mentors who have handled expulsion hearings before. Last year, the clinic handled five expulsion cases, as well as some less-formal representations of other students.
The Education Advocacy Clinic was the first AYJ clinic. Students are paired with foster children who are in special education programs. They represent the children at the meetings with school administrators where the youths’ individualized education plans are discussed. The law students receive training from the Oakland-based Disability Rights California.
Berkeley High partnership
The fourth clinic under the AYJ umbrella is the Berkeley High Student Court. Started during the 2005-06 school year, the program works with students there to run an alternative discipline system for students facing suspension. Students who have broken school rules are brought before student juries, and student attorneys argue both sides of the cases before adult judges. The student attorneys are trained by Berkeley Law students in an elective course. The high school students must take responsibility for their offenses, so the “trials” are focused on consequences, instead of guilt or innocence. In its second year, 50 cases were referred to the court.
Like Kothari, working at the clinics has made Sideris rethink her future.
“It has profoundly changed probably everything I do from here on out,” said Sideris. “I came to law school having worked with adults in prison,” she says, “and I’m really interested in working with youth when I get out, and hopefully helping them not get there (in prison) in the first place.”