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Lawndale Christian Legal Center

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National Seed Community: Chicago, IL

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Lawndale Christian Legal Center Group
“When we started in 2010 we were just serving one kid at a time. In our first five years, we built a Community based-defense model based upon the express needs of the young people that came through our door. Transforming the criminal justice system wasn’t on our radar. About 7-8 years down the road, we realized we were onto something and it became clear that our work could have very serious system implications.”
- Cliff Nellis, LCLC Executive Director

Transforming the Criminal Justice System From the Ground Up

Founded in 2010, Lawndale Christian Legal Center’s (LCLC) mission is to provide legal services grounded in restorative justice for youth in the Lawndale area.  In addition to legal services, LCLC provides vital wrap-around services including housing, social services, mentorship, employment and other positive options that are key to interrupting the cycle of recidivism. 

Over the last two years the LCLC model has seen astounding success.  Of the clients LCLC represented, only 11% were re-arrested for new offenses versus the national average where 75% of people return to the criminal justice system within three years.   

Executive Director Nellis explained the importance of the wrap-around services LCLC offers. “Our legal services effectively make sure that a minor or emerging adult does not suffer the oppression and harm of a permanent felony record for the rest of their life for something they may or may not have done at 17.  It’s critical that we are successful in getting them through the criminal justice system without those permanent ramifications. But if all we did is legal representation that wouldn’t be the case.  We must also provide resources to address some of the things going on at home, school, and in the community in order to meet the basic needs. Our efforts have kept our clients out of jail and in many cases without a permanent record. ”

Dr. Dennis Deer, Cook County Commissioner and LCLC vice President, explained that “ LCLC’s unique approach has added a unique familial component to the work that we do.  We provide an atmosphere where young people feel like somebody’s got their back and are going to support them.  We are going to help them if they need resources for education, groceries and gifts.  Encourage them and inspire them.”  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as the court systems closed down and switched to remote, LCLC continued its support of their clients and families. Hundreds of boxes of food were distributed per week, laptops were given to all clients and caseworkers and lawyers continued to provide direct services outdoors using social distancing safety measures, wherever possible. 

Over the course of the two year grant, the LCLC organizational budget grew by nearly 55% going from 30 staff a couple of years ago to nearly 65.   MBK provided the relationships and national exposure to accelerate this growth. The path to this growth had some growing pains and lessons learned along the way.  “ We learned you can’t grow so fast without making continuous improvements to your infrastructure. ” reflected Nellis.   

As LCLC has evolved, the importance of data driven decision making has become a core value of the organization.  For the organization, having sophisticated data collection and analysis tools are essential for the alliance to meet its lofty goals. LCLC is currently building out a customized database as previous models don’t fit.  “Legal databases don’t really meet our needs because they don’t have the social element. Social databases don’t have the legal part so we are having to customize something to meet our needs.” LCLC has Elevated the importance of entering data from the front line into the database “because without it we can’t do our job effectively if we don’t do which kids are slipping through the cracks.”

A man with a beard wearing a hat laughs with a hand in front of his face.
A group of young people sit in a circle in conversation. The wall behind them reads "Black on Black Love."
A man wearing a suit smiles to and looks to the  left.
The front door of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Justice Rising: Project 77

Justice Rising - Project 77 aims to break the cycle of decades of policing, prosecuting and incarcerating Black and Latino communities in Chicago. Its main focus is to counterbalance the policies and billion dollar investments that are attributed to the massive numbers of permanent debilitating criminal records. It also  focuses on lengthy prison sentences that have exacerbated the cycles of poverty, violence and racial inequity in Chicago.  Justice Rising is the expansion of Lawndale Chrisitan Legal Centers Holistic legal defense model for Chicago youth and emerging adults up to age 24 years old that aims to provide four pillars of support: (1) Lawyers, (2) case managers, (3) outreach services, and (4) wrap-around supports (housing, food, workforce development, etc). The Justice Rising coalition is made up of three Chicago community based organizations, Breakthrough, BUILD and New Life Centers, two of which are also MBK grantees.  The model will immediately expand to three new neighborhoods in Chicago with a combined population of 250,000 residents.  The north star is to expand and institutionalize the model into all 77 Chicago neighborhoods.  

In early September, 2021 LCLC and its partners officially launched Project 77. LCLC received a high level of attention from the press and general public. “The event was more for the four partner organizations to get together.  We didn’t expect so much press attention,” noted Nellis.  “Worst case scenario we have good food, music and team building.  We were floored to have just about every media outlet from Chicago show up. And there are still some follow up stories.”  The kick off event generated a great deal of interest in funding as well.LCLC has very ambitious goals to transform the criminal justice system not only in Chicago but across the nation. Commissioner Dr. Deer broke it down:  “We have to strike while the iron is hot and I think project 77 is catching fire. We have a remarkable alignment across city, county and state elected officials right now. We also have the groundswell.  More and more people understand that the criminal justice system has failed and we’ve got to do something different. We are going to start by transforming all 77 communities in Chicago, then all 102 counties across Illinois and we won’t stop until we reach the other 49 states.”   ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re going to always get what you’ve always got.’ … The only way that we will break the cycles of injustice and violence in our communities is through projects such as this.”

A young person smiles off camera.
Lawndale Christian Legal Center young man in group
Lawndale Christian Legal Center group discussion
Lawndale Christian Legal Center woman smiling
A Black man smiles at the camera. He wears a white hoodie and stands in front of a wall showing green and blue graphics.

The Lawndale Christian Legal Center provides holistic legal services to boys and young men of color in the Lawndale community. The Center’s vision is to raise up justly treated youth who are embraced by their families and community, restored from trauma, empowered to lead, and free from the criminal justice system. During the pandemic, Lawndale continues to offer criminal defense legal services, social services, and mentorship.