Lawndale legal organization aims to keep young people out of criminal justice system

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As Chicago violence continues to soar, a Chicago community organization is guiding young people through the criminal justice system and then hopefully away from it.

"I had a pretty powerful experience happen across a guard shack actually in Springer, New Mexico's Boys' Correctional Facility," said Cliff Nellis, Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Fresh from University of Chicago Law School, Cliff Nellis said he felt a calling to help underserved teens get legal help, and then stay out of the criminal justice system. The idea came to him during a cross-country cycling trip.

"I was asking the guy for directions and he told me that the kids in this facility had no hope, they come in at 13, and spend the rest of their life in adult prison, and I just kept saying, God, what can I do," Nellis told the I-Team.

Nellis helped create the Lawndale Christian Legal Center; a community-based, community-led legal center in North Lawndale. Fifty-one percent of the board is neighborhood residents along with 70 percent of the staff.

"I saw that sense of calling that I had, this sense of ministry to justice involving young people, that I could use my law degree and my law practice as a way to serve them," said Nellis.

Started in 2010, the center serves ages 24 and younger who live in Lawndale and are accused of a crime that happened in the neighborhood.

"Our model is really addressing the legal and social needs of every young person that comes through our doors," said Nellis. "We are throwing people in jail at exponentially high rates, in North Lawndale in particular, and most of them are 24 and under, and it's a serious problem."

Nellis has lived in North Lawndale for 11 years and is raising his three young kids in the neighborhood.

"To see the criminal justice system from the lived perspective of the community is to flip the world upside down on its head. The way that young people are policed here, the way old people are policed here, the way they treat them versus me. I mean I'm outside mowing my lawn, and police will come over and be like, you know you need to get out of here before dark. I'm like, I live here, and then they'll say, oh well, we'll keep an eye on your house. I'm like, will you keep an eye on my neighbor's house," said Nellis.

Nikki Brown was represented by attorneys from the Legal Center in the past for disorderly conduct and drug charges, and now works there as a case manager.

"I used to walk down here just to come to the Legal Center to get away from home because you know they were selling drugs in front of my house...it's like a safe haven for the community," Brown told the I-Team.

Brown is now mentoring young residents, including Leeandrew Holloway, helping them navigate job placement, housing and other support programs through the Legal Center.

Holloway tells the I-Team he believes he needs to get out of the neighborhood to stay on the right path.

"The challenges...dying. I mean like you shouldn't have to wake up every day thinking about losing your life," said Holloway.

The center's mission of restorative justice aims to end the arrest, incarcerate, release, repeat cycle in one of Chicago's most segregated and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"It's a good place for young men, my age, to go, because they're not being heard. And they listen to you," said Holloway.

"You don't have to go the violent way, or you don't have to go the prison way, there's other routes," said Brown.

"I am honestly in the, probably the most hopeful point of 11 years of doing the because I actually think we are at a tipping point. I think that the stars have aligned in ways that nobody could possibly orchestrate, I think we can do it," Nellis told the I-Team.

The center has served more than 1,200 young people since opening in 2010, and their budget has grown from $30-thousand to $5-million. The center helps run a restorative justice community court and plans to collaborate with other programs and expand to other neighborhoods in the City.
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