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Law Students of the Year: Ahmed Lavalais, UC Berkeley School of Law

Third-year UC Berkeley School of Law’s Ahmed Lavalais is a remarkable law student who came to law school specifically to do public interest work, and he’s been a tenacious advocate for juvenile defendants and the poor.

For the past two years, Lavalais has been a key player in the law school’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC), leading student teams working to end regressive and discriminatory fees in the juvenile justice system. In one of PAC’s most gratifying success stories, Lavalais and his fellow students persuaded California’s Alameda County to repeal its juvenile justice fees — the first in the state to do so. The New York Times editorial board referenced the clinic study and cited Alameda County in its call for an end to such fees nationwide.

Based on the clinic’s work, three counties have now imposed a moratorium, relieving more than 10,000 families of millions of dollars in juvenile debt.

The work of Lavalais and his team of clinic students had tremendous impact because of the depth and breadth of their research. They surveyed all 58 chief probation officers in California and found that 48 of the state’s 52 responding counties charge families for detaining their children in juvenile hall, 37 for providing a public defender, and 28 for electronic ankle monitoring. Some counties also charge families for probation supervision, drug testing and investigation fees.

The team analyzed state statutes, submitted Public Records Act requests, and interviewed key stakeholders, including affected families. In Alameda County alone, they discovered that fees for an average youth in the juvenile system jumped more than 10-fold since 2009. Due to collection-related costs, however, the county saw no meaningful budget gain from this increase.

Lavalais gave a detailed presentation at an invitation-only convening at the U.S. Department of Justice about the clinic’s research and advocacy, along with a clinic supervising attorney. He’s currently working with California State Senator Holly Mitchell to pass SB 941, which would repeal county authority to assess and collect juvenile system fees statewide.

Due to his leadership, command of the issues and presentation skills, Lavalais was chosen to speak on a panel at the law school’s alumni weekend on “The Future of juvenile Courts and the Decriminalization of Childhood Poverty.”

“Bias is endemic in U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems,” said Lavalais. “Because these fees are directly linked to the severity of punishment, they impact most heavily groups that are already the most discriminated against.”

In other advocacy roles, Lavalais has worked for the law school’s affiliated legal clinical practice, “Education Defense & Justice for Youth,” representing low-income youth in school expulsion and juvenile delinquency proceedings. He’s also worked in a public defender’s office, representing minors in similar proceedings. At the policy level, he has worked on legislative advocacy and impact litigation related to the decriminalization of youth poverty and the sexual exploitation of children.

At the law school, he’s taken an active leadership role in a number of groups: as treasurer of the Law Students of African Descent; as a member of the Berkeley Law Admissions and Law Library Student Advisory Committees; and as an executive board member of the Juvenile Hall Outreach pro bono clinic. As part of that clinic work, he taught incarcerated youth at maximum-security ward in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall.

Lavalais is one of 25 future lawyers honored in the National Jurist’s 2017 “Law Student of the Year” feature. Find more honorees here.

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