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Meet the Fellows: Theodore Shaw

May 11, 2015
Zoe Schein


Recently, we spoke with Theo Shaw (shown above), a community advocate at the Southern Poverty Law Center of Louisiana. Theo  is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies. Theo was one of the "Jena 6," a case which drew national attention to the youth justice system's racial biases. He spent eight months in lockup before his release.

Congratulations on your full scholarship to law school at the University of Washington. How does that feel? 

Thank you! It’s an amazing opportunity to study law and not have the stress of law school debt. It’s amazing. I applied to other schools, but I was really interested in attending a school that was really open about emphasizing public service. The fellowship I received is a public interest fellowship. So it means a lot to me to be selected, for the school to believe in me and my potential as a public interest attorney enough to invest those types of resources.

Considering my background, at first it seems unbelievable. If you’d told me, even before I was arrested, that I’d be going to law school someday, I wouldn’t have believed it. Even as an undergrad I didn’t believe I’d go to law school. Even though I told myself, “I want to go to law school and be an attorney,” I didn’t really believe it yet. It took a while for my own belief in myself to kick in.

When I was interviewing for the fellowship, I didn’t want to be competitive necessarily, but I wanted to show them who I am—how I’m different from other people. I wanted to express to [the fellowship committee] something so concrete that they’d have no ambivalence about me as a public attorney. So I wrote out a vision statement. First to remind myself why I’m going to law school, but also as a tool to find other students at school and talk to them about getting involved in this type of work. A lot of people don’t go to law school to do public interest law, you know, because it doesn’t make you a lot of money. But I want to use my vision to encourage and recruit other students.

Can you tell me more about that visioning process? 

I start with vision because it drives all of my actions after that. As far as youth justice leaders, it’s important for each of us to know: What’s my vision? That’ll help people understand why you’re seeking what you’re seeking. I always start by writing down my own vision.

 And what is your vision?

For the scholarship I just talked about my commitment to the right of competent legal representation for indigent folks and racial minorities, and my commitment to fighting systemic poverty and challenging racial injustice. That’s what I see myself doing as a public interest lawyer, and that’s what I see as necessary to get to equal justice for people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

My motivation comes from both my personal and professional experiences. My sense of justice and ethics is rooted in my experience with the justice system, and in consciously thinking about my experience as I was going through it. I wasn’t just in jail for those eight months doing eight months. I was thinking at the time about what my experience meant to me then and what it would mean to me years down the road. That awakened in me a consciousness about the reality of poor people and racial minorities in our juvenile justice system.

I’ve been at SPLC since 2012, and I’ve done hundreds of interviews with young people in adult jails here in Louisiana and in Mississippi where I monitor a facility. Doing this work from a distance is one thing, but going to these facilities and talking to these young people, trying to get as close as possible to their experience of being in lockdown, that invokes in me a responsibility, more than just a motivation. It’s like, this is what I have to do. I have no options. I haven’t killed an unarmed black man. I haven’t subjected a young person to solitary confinement, which I consider to be torture. But I have a responsibility because these things have happened when I had some potential to impact it happening. I have a responsibility to change the narrative that allows for such injustices to occur. So it’s a motivation but it’s also a responsibility, because if I don’t do something these injustices are going to continue. 

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a yearlong advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

During my eight months [in detention] I didn’t have access to my public defender. But because I wanted to get out of jail, I was forced to learn a lot of law myself. Trying to file motions to reduce my bonds to get out… that experience helped me appreciate the right to counsel. So my project is around post-disposition representation for young people in the juvenile justice system. The SPLC in Louisiana has five secure facilities we’re focusing on. I’m travelling to these centers and interviewing young people about concerns with the facilities. So I ask them about their communication with attorneys, if they have concerns with the facility, if they’re subjected to solitary confinement for longer than the law says is acceptable. They need an attorney to help them with these things. So I meet with them and talk to them about their experiences and their need for an attorney.

What I’m learning from my interviews is that once these kids receive their disposition, often they’re in these facilities doing exceptionally well academically, completing multiple treatment programs, and they have no major disciplinary infractions. These young people need help from attorneys to file motions to reduce their sentences, but they don’t have the help of an attorney. Maybe two of the kids I’ve talked to thus far have regular contact with an attorney, but the majority of young people don’t have that access. Once they’ve been rehabilitated, there’s no justification for their continued detention, but they still don’t have an attorney to get them out.

 What’s the ideal outcome of your project?

The ultimate goal of the project is to file some sort of lawsuit to make sure these kids are being represented post-disposition, so they’re not being incarcerated because of the state’s failure to provide them with an attorney that they’re entitled to under the law.

I was at the Louisiana state capitol recently, and I was testifying for the appropriations committee about the office for juvenile justice seeking 3.5 million dollars for additional staff because they’re building a new youth facility. Part of my testimony was cautioning the committee against giving resources to expand the number of beds available to incarcerate young people. On the other hand, I was encouraging them to use those dollars to make sure the kids who are locked up now have services they need, including post-disposition representation. We want to make sure that young people are not being unnecessarily incarcerated just because they don’t have access to an attorney.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

I spend a lot of my time doing this work, and when I’m not doing that, I’m across the country talking about the importance of this work. But New Orleans is, I think, the best city in the country. I go out and listen to my favorite artists, jazz shows, and I’m a huge New Orleans Saints fan, so I go to a lot of home games.


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