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VOL. 131 | NO. 237 | Tuesday, November 29, 2016

U of M Children’s Defense Clinic Assisting Local Youth with Legal Woes

BY MICHAEL WADDELL, Special to The Daily News

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Students at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law are making a significant impact in the courtroom this semester working to assist the city’s youth.

University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law professor Lisa Geis (center) with students Jackie Hicks (left) and Nesanet Temesghen. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The newly formed U of M Children’s Defense Clinic gives student attorneys the opportunity to provide legal representation to youth facing criminal charges in delinquency proceedings in the Shelby County Juvenile Court.

This semester the clinic’s six students have represented 22 young clients, with four cases resulting in dismissal of all charges and three resulting in one of multiple charges dropped.

“The minute we hit the case, they start investigating,” said Lisa Geis, visiting assistant professor of law and director of the U of M Children’s Defense Clinic.

The new clinic is the result of an academic partnership between the Public Defender’s Office and Shelby County.

“It comes in on the back of the Department of Justice investigation,” Geis said. “The DOJ came in 2009 and did a long investigation, and they found that there was an overrepresentation of black youth in the system, kids weren’t getting their due process in court, the public defender’s office needed some support and training and they needed a juvenile-specific unit.”

The DOJ continued similar investigates in 20-plus other states and discovered some of the same types of issues.

“The idea is that we will train practice-ready lawyers that are specialized in juvenile defense,” said Geis, who prior to joining the Memphis law school’s faculty served as a clinical professor and supervising attorney in the DC Students in Court Program, an organization that serves several Washington, D.C.-area law schools.

She said the Supreme Court has had five cases ruling that kids are different from adults, and the juvenile defense policy world is pushing the idea that juvenile defense is a specialized field and needs to have specially trained defenders.

“Brain science has shown that critical parts of the human brain involved in decision-making and impulse control are not fully developed until the age of 25,” said U of M law student and Children’s Defense Clinic participant Nesanet Temesghen, who is a juris doctor candidate for May 2017. “This means that we, as advocates for these children, have to dig deeper and look into the child’s educational, mental health, and family/social background in order to provide holistic representation. It is our responsibility to make sure that their voices are heard and that they know they have someone fighting for their interests every step of the way.”

Geis has worked in the juvenile defense arena for the past 10 years, and one of her first cases helped to reform laws in New Jersey limited isolated confinement. She realized early on that law school clinics are uniquely situated, functioning like mini law firms. Because of the work she is required to do as a professor, she’s also looking at bigger picture trends, problems and solutions.

“We start to also get to identify systemic problems locally, regionally and nationally and then weigh in,” Geis said.

Jackie Hicks-Jones, another U of M law school juris doctor candidate for 2017, is also one of the clinic’s students this semester. She has a goal to practice some facet of defense work after graduation.

“I believe that juvenile defense is an up-and-coming area of the law and should be a specialized area,” she said. “Hopefully, as science is involved and disseminated, it will become apparent that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice and this will lead to more attorneys becoming involved in the changes that must be made.”

After getting a volunteer position last year with the Public Defender’s Office in Shelby County, an attorney Hicks-Jones worked with was working on a juvenile felony murder case, and she was allowed to sit in on a status meeting about the case.

“That’s when I found out that, even though this child was not the actual shooter, he would automatically be sentenced to life if he was found guilty and would spend over 50 years in prison, no matter what,” Hicks-Jones said. “At this point, I realized that the system is flawed and needed reform, and this led me to apply for the clinic so I could get an inside view of the system.”

Temesghen interned in Washington, D.C., this past summer with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy through a grant from the University of Memphis Law School.

“My time in D.C. exposed me to systemic issues facing juvenile systems throughout the country, such as due process violations and the use of solitary confinement,” he said.

A focal point for the new U of M clinic is maintaining contact with clients post-disposition and making sure they are getting the mentoring and other assistance they might need.

Geis hopes the clinic provides a much-needed support system for local juvenile defenders.

“The hard thing as a juvenile defender is you often feel like you are out there alone, and one of my goals with this clinic is to foster a community of the juvenile defense bar,” she said.

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