Clinic Win Demonstrates Uphill Battle for Incarcerated Children
The teenage boy’s crime was recording a video of two other kids fighting while also egging them on. For that, prosecutors in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, stacked up charges and threatened him with life in prison plus 20 years.
The child pled guilty to one charge, malicious wounding by mob, and indeed received “life,” but in juvenile prison instead — incarceration until the age of 21.
Last week, University of Virginia School of Law third-year students Jah Akande and Jacob Bradshaw helped get the young man, now 18, released from the Department of Juvenile Justice early, and on release terms appropriate to a juvenile offender, rather than an adult.
“It was a huge win for the client, his family and the community,” Akande said of the outcome of the release-and-review hearing.
The Child Advocacy Clinic victory — achieving a sentence modification and release after just one year — was a rare one for over-sentenced children in Virginia, according to instructor Amy Walters of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville and a 2009 alumna of the Law School.
“Despite U.S. Supreme Court precedent that identifies the developmental differences in youth, Virginia is charging and convicting youth as young as 14 — our client was 15 — as adults,” Walters said. “Though many of these youth will serve time in the juvenile system, their adult felony will restrict their freedom and opportunities forever. The teen pled to the one malicious wounding charge rather than face the possible alternative.”
Walters said for black youths in Mecklenburg County, such as their client, the situation is particularly grim. African-Americans make up 34.5 percent of the Mecklenburg population but 62.2 percent of the children referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice by the county.
Statewide, the statistics are also troubling. Blacks make up only about 20 percent of the population but 41.5 percent of the children referred to the juvenile justice system in Virginia.
And the likelihood of a black child moving along the system toward incarceration increases with each step in the process, Walters said.
“This case exemplifies a critical issue that [LAJC’s JustChildren program] is trying to tackle in Virginia: the criminalization of youth, particularly youth of color,” Walters said.
Police said the group of boys who instigated the fight in question, including the clinic’s client, were part of a gang, which upped the ante for what authorities could charge.
The fight resulted in one of the combatants seeking treatment for bruised ribs, which upped the ante again.
Authorities, however, didn’t pursue the assault until about a year later, when they found the video of the fight on YouTube. The Child Advocacy Clinic argued that the group of children were not engaged in the organized criminal activity of a gang.
For the law students, it was a meaningful opportunity to see justice served: The case was the first win of their careers. Students are permitted to appear in court under third-year practice licenses.
Bradshaw, a student in this year’s clinic, was the first to identify and work with the client.
Akande was a member of last year’s clinic, but didn’t get to argue a case then. He returned to the clinic to bring his experience to bear on the case’s large work volume.
Bradshaw wrote the initial brief, and then the pair worked together to finalize the brief and prepare arguments.
Akande gave the opening statement, and Bradshaw closed, against the commonwealth’s attorney.
Though his first court appearance was a little nerve-wracking, Bradshaw said he couldn’t be prouder of the result. Mecklenburg County is “a place in Virginia where the problem has sort of been hidden for a while,” he said. “And this wasn't a case where the commonwealth backed down.”
Akande also was proud of the hard-fought win. “This experience allowed me to start my career committed to what really matters: confronting the ways in which our laws and legal institutions are still being used to perpetuate racism and subjugation of the marginalized.”
The duo put five witnesses on the stand. They also made sure the audience was filled with well-wishers, to make sure the court knew that the community was watching.
Shannon Ellis, a Powell Fellow at LAJC and a 2015 graduate of UVA Law, served as the students’ supervising attorney.