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Fighting for the Youth

Second-year student Chalak Richards advocates for Toronto’s inner-city children.

One boy was put on probation at age 9. One fell sick from a heart attack at age 8. Countless other children were failed or forgotten by the justice system. These were the stories Chalak Richards saw firsthand as an urban missionary in inner city Toronto, Canada.

The turning point for Richards came when a young boy in another program was arrested and assigned an attorney who felt that because he was from a bad neighborhood, it was likely that he had committed the crime. After seeing children treated so poorly by a justice system that was neglecting to tailor its punishment to the individual, Richards decided that law school would be a way that she could make an immediate and hands-on contribution to the lives of children in jeopardy.

She expresses the challenges in a river analogy that her former supervisor used. “When a river is polluted, some people are needed downstream to be taking pollutants out, but some people are needed further upstream to make sure it doesn’t get polluted in the first place, and God calls us all to different places along that river, but it’s all for the same goal of keeping those pollutants out,” she explains.

With aspirations to become a juvenile public defender and to help change the way communities view juvenile justice, Richards set her sights on law school. She knew the first step was to take the LSAT exam, and the children in her ministry, ages 5 to 10, helped her study. Now as a second-year at Pepperdine, she keeps their stories at the forefront of her mind.

Richards, who grew up in Canada after her grandparents emigrated from Jamaica, sees justice as an issue intertwined with her faith. “I see justice and the law entwined so much in the Bible. If you don’t have justice, then you can’t see God, and to me all of those things go hand in hand."

With her goals on the horizon, Richards has taken on leadership roles at Pepperdine, where she is the president of the Black Law Students’ Association, a teaching assistant for Professor Babette Boliek’s contracts class, a research assistant for Professor Harry Caldwell, and a co-organizer of the women's small groups for the Christian Legal Society.

In the end, it's the children that keep her motivated. “I really just want to keep kids out of jail, and if they have to go there, I want to make sure that they don’t have to do it again,” she says of her aspirations. “We need a paradigm shift in the judicial system; this focus on sending kids to jail is not how you get children to straighten out. Our goal in the justice system should not be to create more work for ourselves later and in the future, it should be so that eventually I’m working myself out of a job. That’s really idealistic and utopian, but if it keeps one kid from going to a life of crime, it’s one less person in the system later on, and if you keep doing that, things can get better.”