Graduate earns prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship

(May 26, 2010) A 2010 graduate of Seattle University School of Law won a coveted Equal Justice Works Fellowship to work on projects aimed at ensuring that those convicted of crimes successfully re-enter society.

Nick AllenNick Allen will work with Columbia Legal Services for two years to provide legal representation, community outreach and legislative advocacy for persons convicted of crimes with legal financial obligations.

Under state law, all juveniles and adults convicted of a crime are assessed LFOs, including fees, fines, and/or restitution. They accrue interest at 12 percent from the date of sentencing. The goal of his project is to identify legal rights and options for people who have LFOs so that those debts can be made more manageable. This in turn will lead to reduced levels of recidivism and help those with a criminal history contribute to society.

"LFOs accrue from the date of sentencing, so it is highly likely that individuals will never be able to pay them off," Allen said. "It ends up pushing people back into the underground economy, preventing people from getting housing or a legitimate job. Most people want to pay off their LFOs, but if they can't, they can be re-incarcerated and end up with a lifelong attachment to the Department of Corrections."

Allen will create community legal clinics and conduct outreach to help those who are making payments prepare paperwork to ask a judge for a modification to make it more affordable or help those who have satisfied their debts go to court to get a certificate of discharge. Those who haven't paid can get direction about where to start with payments. He also will work on policy reform, such as proposing legislation to have some LFOs converted to community service hours.

He is one of only 54 law students in the country and the only one in the state to be named an EJW fellow. Because of his deep commitment to social justice, Allen also was the recipient of the law school's 2010 Dean's Medal, awarded to a student who the dean determines has the greatest potential to achieve the legal profession's most noble aspiration for justice and ethics throughout his career.

Allen's interest in social justice is deeply rooted, and the idea for this project started years ago. He worked for King County Councilman Larry Gossett for seven years before law school, and said he heard from people in the community that this is an issue that needs addressing. His law school experience, including an externship with Disability Rights Washington, an internship with Columbia Legal Services and a semester in the Mental Health Court Clinic prepared him for this role. Many of his future clients likely will have issues related to disability or mental health, he said.

"We have to start from the bottom of the ladder if we want to make change," Allen said. "This project epitomizes that. There are not a lot of people looking out for people who have been incarcerated."

He is grateful for the opportunities he had at the law school and for the fellowship from Equal Justice Works, which creates partnerships among public interest lawyers, nonprofit organizations, law firm and corporate sponsors and other donors in order to afford underrepresented populations effective access to the justice system. His fellowship is sponsored by the Bill Brockett Public Interest Foundation.

"This is why I came to law school," he said. "It's really been a blessing."

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