The new Holistic Juvenile Defense Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law represented more than a dozen young clients on both felony and misdemeanor charges in the clinic’s inaugural semester this spring, and with great success, according to clinic leaders.

Working more than 700 hours collectively, the six law students in the clinic negotiated outcomes for many of their young clients, avoiding trials and keeping those youths, ranging in age from 15 to 17, out of juvenile facilities. The students represented 11 clients on delinquency matters and two on parole matters.

“Because our clinic has been able to develop strong relationships and because of the students’ diligent and zealous advocacy, we’ve been able to reach favorable agreements,” said Professor Crystal Shin ’10, who directs the clinic.

Linden Atelsek ’22, Nicole Banton ’21, Cat Guerrier ’21, Elizabeth Harris ’22, Jordan LaPointe ’22 and Sara Wendel ’21 were the first students to take the course, leading Shin to refer to them as the clinic’s “co-founders.”

Shin co-instructed the clinic with lecturer Lacey R. Parker ’05, a Charlottesville public defender. Cases are referred to the clinic from the local defender’s office, which can come from the city or Albemarle County.

Shin said the clinic’s goal is to “keep kids in their homes, schools and communities with appropriate supports” and “to fight tooth and nail” to prevent felony convictions, which in Virginia, for children 14 and older, stay on the child’s record into adulthood. A felony conviction can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, can exclude applicants from enrollment in the military, and can affect federal student loan eligibility, as well as a host of other employment, educational and personal opportunities.

The clinic’s philosophy is to keep children on track to become productive citizens, rather than allowing them to be defined by their worst moments.

“These are youths. They’re still learning. They’re going to make mistakes,” Shin said. “The vast majority of youths simply outgrow their ‘criminal behavior’ by young adulthood.”

Representing clients on their delinquency charges in court was only a portion of the law students’ work. Much of the brainstorming and plea negotiations for alternative consequences occurred prior to hearings.

The students engaged in creative problem-solving and non-legal work to meet the expressed wishes of their clients, Shin said. When a client’s return home from detention was in limbo because of concern that the child’s home was not secure enough, one law student researched special locks for sliding glass doors in order to persuade the prosecutor and the judge to move the child from a juvenile detention center to a less restrictive placement, pending trial. The student attorneys communicated with their clients often to ensure they completed all of the court and probation requirements needed to get their charges reduced or dismissed.

Wendel, a recent graduate who is heading into a career as a juvenile defender, teamed up with LaPointe, who will be a third-year student this fall, on two cases, including one in which the child apparently suffered from severe mental health issues.  

“Through regular phone calls and multiple visits, Jordan and I were able to maintain a strong relationship with [the client],” Wendel said. “He updated us about his day but also shared with us when he was feeling lonely or anxious.”

LaPointe observed that there are both pros and cons with how the juvenile system works, as compared to the adult criminal process.   

“I think that the juvenile system is a bit more flexible than the adult system and wish that the same nuance could be applied to adults as well,” he said. “However, I still think that there is considerable work that needs to be done [in the juvenile system] when it comes to appropriately addressing mental health, substance abuse and housing insecurity.”

He added, “My biggest takeaway from my clinic experience is that when you are dealing with youth, you must be ready for anything and be flexible enough to adjust accordingly.”

Recent graduates Guerrier and Banton conducted the clinic’s initial investigation into a juvenile life-without-parole case — one of at least two the clinic will be handling over time. The Virginia General Assembly recently passed a law providing parole eligibility after serving at least 20 years in prison to people who were under 18 at the time of their offenses. The clinic is delving into the history of these now-adult clients, including their crime, any rehabilitation that has occurred since incarceration and comprehensive release plans to help them transition back into the community.

Banton, who also worked on child delinquency and special education matters, said the clinic developed her oral advocacy, drafting and case management skills, while introducing her to the special education process for youth offenders.

“I would absolutely recommend this clinic to other students,” she said.

Shin applauded the students’ work for not only being effective, but for resulting in new referrals to the clinic.

“I’m proud of the law students’ commitment to client-centered lawyering throughout the semester, whether it was preparing for court or sending weekly text messages to their clients to encourage them to stay on track and achieve their goals,” she said. “We have had a few clients and/or their parents call the clinic to ask us to represent other youths in need, which is the biggest compliment.”

For the 2021-22 school year, the clinic will continue to be offered both in the fall and spring.

Shin also teaches courses on juvenile justice and public service lawyering. She joined the Law School in 2017 and served as the first full-time faculty director of the Program in Law and Public Service from 2017-2020.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.