From her personal experience in working as a defense attorney for young people on death row, Shauneen Lambe realized that with early intervention many of her clients would not have ended up facing the death penalty. She saw that the moment young people first came into contact with the criminal justice system was a crucial tipping point in their lives. At this point they could be given the appropriate guidance and support to change their futures. She realized that lawyers are uniquely positioned to identify and address the broader needs of child defendants at that juncture. Her NGO, Just For Kids Law (JKL), is aiming to leverage the power of the law to hold all players in the youth justice system accountable. JKL’s staff provides direct representation for children and young people in court as well as in proceedings where legal help is not traditionally available. They help children access housing, training, and/or education. Their lawyers will not hesitate to take formal action against legal practitioners who do not abide by regulations. Their youth advocates also ensure that young people with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and/or special educational needs are properly assessed and receive the support they need. JKL therefore acts as a bridge between the criminal justice system and the social support available for young people.
The way that lawyers traditionally argue a court case is focused narrowly on the act of the crime itself and whether a judgment of guilty or not-guilty can and should be reached. However, Lambe believes that a broader perspective must be used, which incorporates mitigation. Understanding the personal stories that might have led a young person to offend, such as their parental situation, housing needs or medical circumstances, and using them as mitigating factors when judging and sentencing is crucial. She sees JKL as a connector between the two key parties in the criminal justice system: the judges, magistrates and lawyers with the young people they represent. Lambe therefore personally takes on the most complex and strategic court cases to set legal precedents of a child’s rights based approach for the rest of the youth justice sector and to introduce elements of mitigation to youth cases. By training lawyers to reveal the reasons that may have caused a young person to offend, Shauneen is introducing empathy to the courtroom and is addressing the root causes of a young person’s criminal behavior. In a legal system and cultural climate that criminalizes the youth, Shauneen offers a successful, multi-level solution that will fundamentally change how children experience the youth justice system.