NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side legal aid group was recognized as one of the most impactful nonprofits in the country for its work reshaping how young people in North Lawndale interact with the justice system.
Lawndale Christian Legal Center is one of the only community-based legal aid clinics in Chicago. The organization is rooted in principles of restorative justice and provides wraparound support for people 24 and younger to address the root causes of how they got involved with the legal system.
The organization’s model for community-based justice earned it accolades from the Stand Together Foundation. The legal aid group was selected as one of 12 nonprofits to join the foundation’s Catalyst Program, which will offer leadership development for the organizations to further maximize its impacts in the community.
The legal aid organization was selected for the cohort based on its achievements in breaking cycles of poverty, violence and incarceration on the West Side, said Evan Feinberg, Stand Together executive director.
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show at least 75 percent of young adults involved in the legal system are re-arrested within three years. But re-arrests are much rarer for Lawndale Christian Legal Center: In 2019, only 8 percent of young adults who were part of the program were re-arrested, according to the clinic’s data.
“These nonprofits stand out in their field with the way they approach poverty: believing in and empowering the people they serve to tap into their gifts and talents to escape poverty,” Feinberg said.
The Lawndale Christian Legal Center is also a leading partner of the North Lawndale Restorative Justice Hub. The group worked with the Cook County Circuit Court to create the first Restorative Justice Community Court in 2017, which allows young people charged with felonies to repair the harm they’ve caused to the community while avoiding incarceration.
The restorative justice model helps break cycles of incarceration and generational poverty by allowing young people to be redeemed and find opportunities without being weighed down by a criminal record, Deer said.
“They can get themselves a clean slate and move on with their lives. And they have the necessary support for their case management … to make sure they have the necessary resources to be successful and take their lives to the next level,” said Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who is a vice president at Lawndale Christian Legal Center.
The secret to the legal aid organization’s success is the familial atmosphere and the abundance of resources it offers to people who have had a brush with the law, Deer said.
“Young people get involved in criminal activity because they don’t have a familial atmosphere they are seeking,” Deer said. “They seek that by involving themselves in gangs.”
While many young people are made to feel they are disposable by their difficult social conditions, they can find allies at the legal center who have experienced the same challenges and are “willing to fight for them, and not just hang them out to dry,” Deer said.
The organization also helps clients get adequate housing, employment, education resources, food and mental health counseling.
“We use a holistic model: not just legal services, but case management, outreach services and wraparound services to help our youth continue to be stabilized … once they’ve dealt with their legal issues to grow in other areas,” Deer said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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