By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent
Clifford Nellis was on a more conventional legal career path when a fateful trip and, he would say, divine intervention placed him on a much different one.
His spiritual journey led him to become a co-founder of Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal services for young people in and around the North Lawndale neighborhood. The center helped establish the country’s first-ever restorative justice community court.
The Associates’ Committee, a grant foundation consisting of attorneys who pool together funds for public interest organizations, in September awarded the center $75,000 — its largest grant in any given year — to help launch the Restorative Justice Community Court. It opened Aug. 31.
The idea is to take young people out of the conventional legal system and provide a more holistic approach designed to lower recidivism: They are screened out of bond court and referred to the community court, which is run in partnership with the Cook County Circuit Court.
Nellis said the court was a natural manifestation of a long-gestating need to combat the current judicial system, which he believes is biased against the people it impacts the most.
“The goal is to move away from punitive justice,” he said. “The system either destroys your life through incarceration or by labeling you a felon forever. It’s a lose-lose and no one gets serviced the way they need to.”
The following interview has been edited for lengthy and clarity.
CL: How did you get to working for a social justice cause in lieu of a traditional legal career?
Nellis: It’s a story of faith. I didn’t grow up in the church and considered myself an atheist. I was against religion and I believed it to be mostly oppressive, but I had a grandmother who was Christian. I had respect for her, but I didn’t think her faith was why she was a good person. My turning point was borne out of youthful adventure: I clerked for a judge out of Denver and decided to do some traveling before going to a big firm because I knew what kind of hours I would be putting in. In 2002, I rode my pedal bike from Denver to San Diego to Miami. The spring before the trip, my brother Garold became a Christian; I wasn’t yet sold on it, but it motivated me to buy my first Bible, which I took with me on the trip. It became a spiritual journey for me; I got to the heart of my grandmother, and what I felt God revealed to me was that she became the person she did because of her faith to Jesus. It was a cognitive dissonance moment.
CL: How was Lawndale Christian Legal Center founded?
Nellis: I biked into Springer, N.M., and stayed at a tiny cowboy inn. After attending church, I looked for a lake to cool off, write in my journal, read the Bible and pray. I passed a prison guard from a boys’ correctional facility and engaged him. Out of nowhere, this guy starts going off about how kids these days have no hope. I’m this new Christian, believing anything is possible for the first time, that there’s hope for anyone and everyone, and that God could change me and anybody.
I did research and realized what the recidivism rates are and realized that he was right about the system’s revolving door. I believed I spent the rest of that [three-month, three-day] trip praying for kids in correctional facilities and even wrote out a business plan during the trip to help them. It was such an insignificant point in time, but it put me on this path.
After the trip, I came back to Lake Zurich, went to seminary school and got my law license. I practice a little law to pay bills while doing youth pastoring. We started doing work [on LCLC] and created an advisory board in summer 2009, but didn’t formally open with nonprofit status until April 2010. We focused the center on young adults and emerging adults — we didn’t know exactly what that meant back then, but now we know what we’re doing eight years later and it’s a very effective model.
Holistic services are better than just legal services — lawyers working with social services from the point of arrest through completion of case and parole or supervision is better on every front. You get better legal outcomes and social outcomes. We help them get jobs, go back to school and become better role models.
CL: How does the LCLC manage in terms of funding?
Nellis: Right now, we’re in a good place financially, which I would define as having a diverse set of funding. It’s roughly broken up in thirds: private foundations, individual donors and government. But we’ve always been over capacity and had to turn away people — we’ve never gone as deep as we’d like with kids. We have attorneys, case managers and workforce development staff, but we need more mental health services and more housing services — the kids we work with are often homeless, couch surfing or in an unstable environment. When I was a staff of one, I would be in court five days a week. Now we have 24 full-time staff and five lawyers including me, but I’m now the executive director and only have one case. The needs are many and can be overwhelming.
CL: How will the Associates’ Committee grant benefit you?
Nellis: It will allow us to recruit people from the neighborhood to be trained in “circle keeping” — the adjudication process is essentially deferred to community members who are trained in restorative justice and can keep a peace circle, which entails sitting with defendants and victims to hear everyone out and determine what would make everyone safe and everyone whole. The people in the circle are closest to the pain and the ones whose voices need to be heard.