Kristen Henry '07: Making Equal Justice Work
After graduating from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Kristen Henry ’07 began a two-year fellowship with Equal Justice Works (EJW) in Columbus. EJW, which began in 1992, is designed to address the shortage of attorneys working on behalf of traditionally underserved populations and causes. Kristen’s project with EJW is designed to help provide representation to juveniles incarcerated in the Ohio Department of Youth Services prisons as well as raise awareness of the need for representation.
“The reality of the juvenile system is shocking to me,” she said. “In a regular school system for instance, around 10 percent of the students have special education needs, but in the juvenile detention system that number is conservatively around 40 percent. Even though the Individuals with Disabilities Act applies to the prison system as well, oftentimes the needs of these students are not met.”
While growing up in the small town of Amherst, Ohio, Kristen always expected to go into law. In fact, she liked to argue so much that members of her family often told her that she would make a good lawyer. So when she graduated from Ohio State in 2004 with a degree in English focusing on 19th century British literature, she didn’t have to ask herself the difficult question of “what now?” Instead, the question was where to go to law school, and according to Kristen, that choice was relatively easy.
“I really liked Ohio State as an undergrad,” she said. “It’s great to be a part of a large University with so many opportunities for students. I chose to go to Moritz because of its excellent children’s law program, as well as the Justice for Children Practicum.”
During her time at Moritz, Kristen enjoyed taking classes in children’s law and became involved with the Advocates for Children student group. After her second year, she interned at the Equal Justice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides civil legal representation to disadvantaged people and groups throughout the state of Ohio. As a 3L, she had the opportunity to actually represent juvenile clients through the Justice for Children Practicum.
While interning at the Equal Justice Foundation, Kristen worked with Equal Justice Works fellow Dianna Parker ’05. After working with Dianna and talking with other attorneys on the EJF staff, Kristen decided to apply for a fellowship with EJW.
“EJW is a great program because you get to design your own job,” she said. “Things worked out perfectly because Dianna’s fellowship ended right at the time when mine started.”
Incarcerated juveniles can face a variety of legal issues related to their detention, from security issues with gangs to having records released to apply for college. According to Kristen, they don’t always know how to get the help they need.
“The Department of Youth Services (DYS) was sued because they were not providing adequate access to the legal system,” she said. “As part of the settlement, DYS agreed to start a legal access program. An attorney travels to the different facilities to meet with youth who feel they need help, and when their cases have merit, they are referred to me. It’s important to be an advocate in these situations to let the kids know that they can get help.”
Violence is also a major concern in the juvenile system. In addition to inmate on inmate incidents, there have been many complaints about offenses committed by prison officials.
“We put them in there for rehabilitation, to help them make better decisions and lead better lives,” she said. “How can that happen when the people in charge of these facilities are beating them up? What makes it even worse is that two of my clients have actually been charged with assaulting guards, but none of the guards ever get charged.”
In addition to providing legal assistance to incarcerated juveniles, Kristen actively reaches out to the legal community to encourage others to provide support.
“If people are interested in this kind of work, I’m building a network,” she said. “This is not necessarily pro bono work, either. These are civil rights cases that I’m filing, so you can get attorney’s fees.”
After her fellowship ends in 2009, Kristen plans to continue her work with juveniles, possibly as a public defender. Ultimately, she hopes to be a magistrate in the juvenile system.
“I want to make an impact in the community that lasts beyond my fellowship,” she said. “I’m sure that I’ll continue work on some of these cases. Sometimes civil cases go on for a long time. If I take a case toward the end of the fellowship, that’s something I’ll have to stay committed to.”
If you are interested in working with incarcerated juveniles, please contact Kristen at firstname.lastname@example.org