An American woman and Dushore native Caitlin Lambert is setting up a Children’s Legal Defense Center in Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, Africa, to provide legal assistance to imprisoned children and their families.
Lambert has been working in Somaliland since 2015 when she was the first part of a justice project with a local nonprofit and was able to experience what every young lawyer wants to, which included working with judges and prosecutors to develop their criminal justice system and researching, writing, and talking about human rights.
In 2018, for that same organization, Lambert started a prison paralegal project after working with a number of children under the age of 18 who were wrongfully jailed or imprisoned for petty crime.
As a point of clarification, she noted that paralegals in Somaliland are not the same as paralegals in the United States, who are essentially assistants to lawyers.
“Paralegals are legal advocates who basically work side by side with people in the criminal justice system or in other legal justice systems to teach them the law and show them how to use it,” Lambert explained.
Before she started spending a lot of time working with people in jails and prisons, she thought that prosecuting people under the criminal justice system was how communities heal from crime and advance as a society.
“My feelings started to change completely because when you go in and you work alongside people, especially children, who are in jails and prisons, you realize it’s not necessarily the right response, especially not to petty crimes by juveniles,” she said.
Many of the juvenile cases she has seen involve behavior like fighting or minor stealing, which often sends kids to prison for at least a year.
“When a 14 or 15-year-old is doing it, it may amount to a crime, but just possibly, the best response may not be to imprison them and take them out of school for years,” Lambert quipped.
Working face to face with wrongfully imprisoned children and their families made Lambert and her colleague Idiris Muhammed, of Somaliland, realize that there was a strong need for a local organization dedicated to free legal defense for poor families who couldn’t otherwise afford the legal assistance to get their children out of prison.
“There’s not a public defender system like we would think about in the U.S. There’s not a practice of pro bono law – providing free legal assistance to the poor and vulnerable – and lawyers are really expensive,” Lambert explained.
In Somaliland, when a child is charged with a crime, they go in front of a court with no legal representation or legal assistance.
In a country where the GDP is estimated at $350, according to Lambert, there is a strong need for free legal services to prevent kids from being imprisoned.
“This is really problematic because the criminal justice system in Somaliland is a lot like ours; it’s adversarial. So the prosecutor makes their case and the defense has to answer it. Children and teenagers really can’t answer for themselves and oftentimes, their families don’t really know what the law is or how to respond in the best way, and so kids are just going to prison when they really don’t need to,” she said.
The issue of juveniles being imprisoned is further complicated by the law which states that people must be 15 to stand in front of a criminal court in Somaliland when the country doesn’t have birth certificates for its citizens. This is because the criminal justice system in the country is a system imposed during British colonialism, according to Lambert.
“It’s the mentality where, of course, if you live in the United Kingdom, you know your birthday and you can easily prove that, but in Somaliland, you can’t,” she said. “Say someone accuses a child of a crime. A lot of the time, the police will arrest the child and they will write down on the rap sheet that the child is 15, 16, or 17, not because that’s the actual age of the child, but the police officer knows that’s the law.”
From there, unless the parents of the child can prove that they’re a different age from what the police officer claims, that age will follow them through the system, starting with a prison sentence.
While working with families, Lambert often explains what the law entails and asks for the age of the child who needs help. From there, she works together with the parents to find evidence that can prove the child’s age to take to the judge in the absence of personal identification.
“One thing that always strikes me when working in detention centers with kids is they talk about wanting to be an engineer or a doctor, or anything they want to be. They’re dreaming of the future, but the fact is when they’re spending years in prison in Somaliland, they’re not getting their education,” she said. “There’s no education services in Somaliland, where the prisons are concrete groups of cells where often children are with adults.”
From Lambert’s perspective, it’s essentially the opposite of a rehabilitative system that prepares inmates on how to help advance their country once they are out of prison.
“Their future is being snatched from them,” she stated. “There are laws in the books that say imprisonment for a child has to be the last resort in Somaliland, and I think that’s what we’re really trying to look towards with the CLDC.”
Lambert and Muhammed partnered up on what they call a pilot project in November 2020 to see if they could begin to take on these cases as two dedicated lawyers.
So far, they have helped 90 individuals either get out of prison or have their sentences reduced. The majority have been children, and Lambert noted that while most of the cases are juveniles, they just can’t say no to wrongfully imprisoned adults who go to them for legal assistance.
She and her partner have received a lot of positive feedback so far from families that they’ve helped bring back together, as well as from judges and prosecutors who also see the need for quality legal defense services.
After the number of cases they received in a short time, they decided they needed to do some seed funding and pull enough money together to establish a nonprofit children’s legal defense center, similar to what would be known as a legal aid organization in the U.S.
“It will provide legal assistance and legal representation to children and their families; basically what we’re doing now, but we’ll be able to expand, get new more team members, be able to formalize, and really take this work forward,” she said.
Lambert has organized a GoFundMe page found at https://gofund.me/e74d3f3b with a $65,000 goal to make the CLDC a reality. A breakdown of how the funds will be used is available towards the end of the introduction, which shares the story of Abdihakim (12) and Ismail (13) who spent 51 days in a jail cell before Muhammed discovered their case. An adult had accused them of stealing his cell phone and a police officer arrested them, jailed them, and charged them while falsely recording their ages as 15.
She explained that as a paralegal, teaching parents the law and how to use it works well for cases that just need some evidence, but the process is a lot harder for kids that make it all the way to trial. In those cases, children need traditional legal representation, which usually takes the form of a defense lawyer to at least lower their sentences.
Long-term, Lambert sees the organization growing into an institution in Somaliland that can counterbalance the prosecution process and provide free legal services to children and their families, and ultimately uphold those protections.
Lambert and Muhammed are self-funded through the end of April. If they reach their target of $65,000 by the time May comes around, they will launch the CLDC as an official nonprofit organization.
At the time of publication, they were less than $20,000 from reaching their goal.
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