UK lawyer Shauneen Lambe is working to change the treatment of young offenders caught up in the criminal justice system, from punishment and stigmatization to one defined by positive intervention. The organization she founded, Just for Kids Law, offers a holistic approach toward achieving that goal by training legal practitioners, advocating for legislative reform, and tackling the root causes of youth offending.
SEE Change recently chatted with the Ashoka Fellow (2012) to discuss what inspired her to launch the social enterprise, the challenges she faces each day, and the successes she’s most proud of.
What inspired you to launch Just for Kids Law?
I had the idea for it when I was in New Orleans in 2000. We were doing death penalty work, and it appeared obvious to me that if there had been intervention in the lives of people facing the death penalty, they may not have ended up in that situation. It was really depressing doing that work in the Southern U.S. One of the young people got 190 years and he was 18. He said he wished he was shot on the street like a dog instead. He lived a stereotypical life – a drug dealer used him at an early age, and he just got involved; the path was set out for him. When you’re in the system its really hard to get out. So we thought, if you intervene at that age when they’re going off the rails, perhaps you can stop it from spiralling out of control, as it becomes inevitable.
When did you launch JKL and what is its mission?
We became a company in 2006 first, and then a charity (the charity rules here are really complicated). We want children to be able to reach their potential. I think that really sums it up because there’s different things for different children. And their aspirations are different too. What’s unique about the way we do it, and what the kids like about it, is that we can help them with all the problems in their life. What we find happened as legal aid lawyers is that we’d win a case but that wouldn’t necessarily effect change in their lives. Or we’d keep someone out of custody but that wouldn’t really bring about the change. You need many other things for that – you needed a stable home life, education of some kind, keeping kids in proper activities, etc. London is similar to a lot of U.S. cities, with gangs and other problems. So we try to get kids into positive activities so the gang lifestyle is not that appealing. It’s very hard to pull them away from it; there’s a lot of money and it feels cool.
For example, we have an ambassadors program. A lot of kids have been in prison, have a troubled past. We engage them, give them some authority so they feel they have a voice, can be heard. They talk about their experiences. What’s interesting is how many of those kids eventually say they want to be a lawyer. Because at first they feel outside of the mainstream, but if they see their voices can be heard, it’s really different than living on edges.
There’s so many elements of JKL- advocacy, policy, training, education etc. What’s the model for your social enterprise?
We’re trying to set up a replication model. We started with one office, we now have two and will soon be opening our third. We found that kids are territorial; they can’t travel to certain areas. So having a community-based service, with everything under one roof works well. We embed these offices within local communities, with central funding for two years. And during that period, the central office gradually extracts itself and we start looking for community members to support the organization. In London, there are very wealthy neighborhoods bordering onto impoverished ones. So people can take community responsibility for what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
Our model is each office will become a local community hub and that we will provide a supervisory central role. It’s not really a franchise but there will be autonomy after two years. Hopefully there will be a fourth office next year.Shauneen Lambe, Executive Director, Just for Kids Law. Credit: Just for Kids Law
What does the advocacy component of JKL focus on?
It’s non-legal matters. Lot of young people don’t feel they can have conversations with people in authority and they get frustrated. Our advocates act as their mouthpiece, liaising with social services.
Where do you focus your energies?
My particular focus is strategic litigation. I take on cases that will have systemic change. For example, there’s a petition I’m involved with now about the lack of protection for 17-yr-olds at police stations. We just took a case to high court – a boy killed himself after he was arrested for drunk driving. He thought he ruined his life; his parents didn’t even know he was taken into custody, since the police have no duty to inform the parents. We’re waiting judgement in high court right now.
You’re also the chair of the Global Dignity Summit. Tell us about that and why you took it on.
It ties in with our principles and the work we do. The Summit was set up by the crown prince of Norway. There’s an annual summit in Norway, and in 2012 we had the first Global Dignity Day in the UK. And it’s the first time the UK has chair. The aim of Dignity Day is to instill people with dignity. It’s important to the way we work with young people. They feel like they’re struggling in the city; they see no jobs available and are seen as a negative force. It’s about bringing dignity to their voice, to show they’re relevant. We know what it means, but it’s hard to articulate. We like to teach young people to articulate, to talk, to treat themselves and others with dignity. They have lightbulb moments when they do that. They stand up in front of schools, tell their dignity story. It’s a very unifying process. Girls stand up and talk about their eating disorders; there’s a range of stories, it’s so enormous. And it humanizes kids you may not have even talked to.
What would you say are your greatest challenges?
I think it’s obvious to me that it’s poverty, without a doubt. It’s very rare that we represent children of affluent backgrounds. Opportunities and problems can’t be fixed in the same way perhaps. For example, kids with learning disabilities from middle class families can be overcome by taking kids out of the situation or finding ways to deal with it. But lots of families want to move out of the area they’re in but can’t. The gap between rich and poor is huge and that leads to a lot of disenchantment and disenfranchisement.
Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.