Race and Justice Clinic students fight extreme sentences for youth of color

The Tools for Social Change: Race and Justice Clinic was created by Kim Ambrose, UW senior law lecturer, as a problem-solving clinic dedicated to teaching students how to examine a social problem, specifically the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems.

After years of representing young people in various systems and seeing racial disparities increase, Ambrose decided to design a clinic experience that would focus on equipping law students with more than just traditional legal advocacy skills.

“I believe students need a range of skills and space to think and act creatively to develop solutions that are based on listening to and partnering with system-impacted youth and communities,” she said.

Students work in a wide range of domains, from school discipline hearings to post-conviction matters. Students gain litigation skills while pushing back against the school-to-prison pipeline, extreme sentences for youth and the collateral consequences of juvenile and adult convictions. They learn from impacted youth through focus groups at youth prisons, detention facilities and transitional group homes.

Results: A 93-year sentence is reduced to 30 years

More than 80 percent of the children prosecuted as adults in Washington state are children of color. Recent Washington Supreme Court decisions have opened up opportunities for those individuals who committed crimes as children to seek relief from lengthy sentences.

In July 2018, after more than seven years of providing legal representation, the Race and Justice Clinic obtained relief for Junior, a young man who participated in a drive by shooting that resulted in no injuries.

“Representing Junior allowed me to push back on the racist and oppressive system that allowed a 16-year-old boy receive a 93 year sentence,” clinic student Katharine Nyden, J.D. ’19, said. “Thirty years is still too long, but we learned that concerted legal advocacy makes a difference.”  

Nyden and her teammate followed more than a dozen other clinic students who represented Junior in the Court of Appeals, Washington Supreme Court and trial court over the past seven years.

In addition to engaging adolescent psychology experts on campus, clinic students employed creative tools, including a video they created of Junior’s family, friends and former teachers.

“Participating in the clinic was the best hands-on learning experience I had in law school,” said Nyden, even if she wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome of the case.

Welcoming community members home

The Race and Justice Clinic represented O.I. before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board in 2016, where the board found him releasable after spending more than 20 years in prison for a crime he committed at age 15.

O.I., who was welcomed home last year, faced deportation proceedings and was advised by UW’s Immigration Clinic. O.I. spent time locked away in immigration detention following his release from prison.

Now free, he attends the University of Washington and is active in community organizing for criminal legal system reform. He also joined Ambrose at the 2018 Spring Appellate Judicial Conference participating on a panel the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. 

“I thought I was going to die in prison, and then I got a second chance,” O.I. said. “I am so thankful for the representation and support of the Race and Justice Clinic and their dedicated advocacy on my behalf.”