Check out our new podcast! Listen

Lifting a Brother

A BYU professor and his students reach out to help redeem a troubled neighbor.

The Slate Canyon Youth Center is unmistakably a jail for children. Each child is showered and strip-searched on arrival. Doors open only when an unseen worker in the building’s control center presses a button. Well-hidden cameras are everywhere, watching. For some of these kids, Slate Canyon is a way station to a life of crime.

Tomorrow morning—in 12 hours—a juvenile court judge will make a seemingly simple decision about the future of Rudy Martin (name changed), a teenager preparing to spend his first night in one of Slate Canyon’s small cement cells. The court will decide if it is safer for the community to keep Rudy locked up until trial or to release him to his family. The chief accusation against Rudy is terribly serious, that he assaulted a police officer. Like most youths in juvenile detention, Rudy has no lawyer, and Utah law offers him no option for bail. With nothing more than a list of accusations, a brief incident description from the police, and a probation officer’s recommendation to hold Rudy, the judge is expected to order Rudy to remain in detention.

But is that the best outcome for Rudy or for the state of Utah? Tonight, in the same small room where tomorrow morning’s hearing will take place, that question occupies BYU law professor David Dominguez and three students from his community-lawyering class. They are sitting at one end of a long rectangular table that would dominate the room except for the ominous presence of a slightly raised wooden box in one corner. Three times a week, the box serves as the judge’s bench.

“We have a young life here,” Dominguez tells the students, “and the question is will you be an instrument in God’s hands? This is a moment where you can open the eyes of a young person.”

Piled face down on the table is the paperwork from the cases of eight other teenagers brought to Slate Canyon in southeast Provo since the last set of hearings 36 hours ago. Those eight are repeat offenders already familiar with the system and are therefore poor candidates for the BYU project. Rudy has no criminal history, and the three students take turns telling Dominguez why they think they should mount an 11th-hour quest to change an equation that they believe adds up to Rudy’s continued confinement.

Rudy is sitting about 10 yards away, in a secure conference room, unaware that anyone is taking an interest in him.

Wi07_2660No matter what the BYU law team decides, it won’t assume the role of Rudy’s lawyers. If the students decide to wade into his case, they will reject the traditional role of a lawyer, a passive expert reacting to a dispute by taking a side. Instead, they will begin to tackle an emerging social and legal problem with the goal of remaking a part of the community, in this case the initial hearing process of the juvenile detention system, in a way that will strengthen the whole community. They will offer help not only to Rudy but to the judge, the parole officer, and the detention staff at Slate Canyon Youth Center. Rudy’s case would be the first for these three students in BYU’s latest community-lawyering project, which helps prepare teens and their parents for these initial detention hearings. This effort is part of a larger effort to provide second chances and prevent future crime while developing a network of people within the system who will carry on the effort after the BYU law project is done. But the project goes one large step further. The students will engage in what Dominguez calls redemptive lawyering.

“Our vision,” Dominguez says, “is to introduce legal services to empower our new friends to love their enemies.”

PROFESSOR Dominguez is convinced he should have died during his own teenage years in gang-infested South Central Los Angeles. Once, a bullet sped by him during a gang fight in front of his house. Another time, a knife only nicked his shirt because of a timely punch to his mouth that twisted his chest—and heart—out of the blade’s path. Dominguez still lurches awake some nights in a cold sweat. But it’s not old fears that attack his slumber; instead, it’s a close relative of fear—his keen sense of survivor’s guilt.

“Young boys and girls easily as talented as myself—several I can think of were more talented—were just cut down at 16 and 18,” he says. “I was caught up in it. Why was I spared? Between the kids who died from drug overdoses, gang activity, and the Vietnam War, I’m not sure there’s a handful of us left. Why am I here at BYU in 2006? South Central should have claimed me, too.

“I was one bad kid,” Dominguez says. “I make these kids at Slate Canyon look like saints and angels. But I had no record, no detention, and I got to go to Yale.”

Wi07_2661The guilt drives him, an equal force in a combination of motivations that includes his faith and his father’s relentless demand for excellence. This mixture fuels a combustible passion in Dominguez that sweeps up a strange mishmash of law students, police officers, volunteers, government workers, judges, and probation officers—a community of people who care but can’t always see how their roles might mesh instead of clash. He compels them to uncover new ways to make the larger community safer, stronger, and fairer before problems even begin, or before they and the costs to the community spiral out of control. And it all happens with the help of a small team of community lawyers. This semester it’s Dominguez and 11 students, regularly backed by other professors, campus groups, and a network of BYU law grads—using intensely practical methods to achieve an idealistic goal based on a distinctly Christian term: redemption.

EACH CHILD brought to Slate Canyon represents a frightening crossroads for the community. A child may be lost. A criminal may be born. The web of the community will be affected for better or worse, and only a handful of people will notice. The endless crime stories in newspapers and on television rarely touch on juvenile crime. When they do, the stories are faceless and usually fuel the sentiment that kids these days are bad and getting worse.

But communities ignore juvenile crime at their own peril, says Debbie Waro, a treatment supervisor at Slate Canyon. “It’s not like the adult system. These kids will get out, and they will be living on your street and your block, and how do you want them to be? This has to be treated as a great opportunity.”

The BYU team—Dominguez and students Joseph L. McGregor (’07), Bradley D. Liggett (BA ’05), and Elizabeth E. Lisonbee (’07)—is ready to interview Rudy. They are standing in a corner of the hearing room, waiting for the unseen worker in the control center to buzz open the metal door.

McGregor, Lisonbee, and Liggett are a long way from a BYU law classroom. It’s the fifth week of the semester, and the stakes are high as theory goes into practice. The three students are all married, in their mid-20s, and seriously excited about applying what they’ve been learning. They purposefully elected to take Dominguez’s class, but all three are clearly surprised by the extent to which it is changing them.

“I went to law school specifically to work for a nonprofit, a public-interest group, or to do pro bono work,” says Lisonbee, a third-year student from Kaysville, Utah. “You easily get swept up in the competition in law school. It’s about getting the best job at the best firm at the best salary. I went along with it, and I was miserable. This has been great for me because it reminded me of what I actually wanted to do.”

Earlier in the evening, the students had carefully prepared their first dose of preventive medicine, Lisonbee reviewing with the team a meticulous outline of topics she had revised and making assignments to McGregor and Liggett so the students don’t forget to share anything that might help Rudy. Now, waiting to see Rudy, Liggett, a second-year law student from Salem, Ore., reminds the others they represent the community as a whole, not Rudy. “We need to teach him to be responsible,” he says, “not help him beat the system.”

The students think Rudy and the community might be better served by releasing him to his parents, if they’re willing to take him. Many are not. Some parents like the idea of sending their children a message by leaving them in lockup. Dominguez doesn’t care for this strategy. He believes that the message to the child should be that parents care. The community cares.

“We try to tell them this is a huge wake-up call, a chance,” Dominguez says. “I looked around once and tried to calculate the cost of having all of us here at a hearing for one kid, the expense of productivity lost by a company when parents are missing from work, the tax dollars tied up in a judge, a probation officer, a bailiff, a recorder, treatment supervisors. I thought, ‘This kid has no idea how much we care.’ This is a moment when you can open the eyes of a young person.”

The door buzzes open. On the other side is a surprise. Rudy is not alone.

BYU’S community-lawyering program has adopted the position that a teenager accused of a crime for the first time provides an opportunity for the community to intervene. That stance is one reason Dominguez, an energetic man with dark curly hair and a graying mustache, and his students are popular with staffers at Slate Canyon. They share the same goals.

“The Division of Juvenile Justice Services has three objectives when a kid comes in,” Waro says. The first is to protect the community and the child, which sometimes means the system must protect the communityfrom the child. The second is to hold the teenager accountable for his or her acts. The third objective is to help each child achieve competency: inmates attend school in the detention center every day, learning the skills necessary to avoid a life of crime. Waro and others in the system care deeply about these youths, and this is why Dominguez’ audacious program is welcomed here.

Dominguez spent the 2005–06 school year studying the societal crossroads where Rudy stands tonight. Dominguez attended hearings at Slate Canyon and talked to parents and kids, treatment supervisors and detention staffers. The survey of the situation raised many concerns in Dominguez about the juvenile court system, which doesn’t offer bail for juveniles or provide attorneys. Dominguez is particularly worried about the practice of locking up boys and girls for truancy and believes that truants brought to Slate Canyon should always be released at the first hearing. He began bringing student teams from his community-lawyering class at the beginning of fall 2006.

It’s easy to imagine a law professor riding in with legal briefs blazing, using confrontation to battle in a system that he perceives as unjust, but Dominguez is not about the court battles. He is concerned that fewer and fewer people can afford attorneys and believes skilled lawyers can, and should, help communities fix societal problems before they trigger litigation.

“Community lawyering is lawyering without opponents—lawyering without taking anyone’s side, because you take everyone’s side,” he says. “It’s inclusive.”

And it’s preemptive. Find solutions before the problem matures, before enemies are made, or soon after, when it’s possible to find friends among enemies. Community lawyering allows lawyers to step in and help without pitting the good guys against the bad guys.

“It’s a Christian principle,” says Dominguez, a Catholic. “When we love our enemies, God showers blessings on that endeavor.”

Even better, Dominguez believes a community lawyer is capable of literally saving people. And a community lawyer makes communities safer and fairer.

THE DOOR BUZZES open, and the team sees Rudy for the first time. Rudy looks like a high school wrestler with a thin build, powerful arms, and a broad chest. He is wearing a blue jumpsuit with white socks and clay-colored plastic slippers. But Rudy is not alone. His parents are here, a bonus for the students and for Rudy.

The meeting takes place in a small room crammed with seven plastic chairs. A glass wall gives the control room a full view of the conversation. White cinder-block walls contribute to a discrepant echo, as if the cramped space is a vast hall in a castle. Ligett puts to use his BYU bachelor’s degree in Spanish translation because Mr. and Mrs. Martin speak little English.

Rudy appears withdrawn until Dominguez issues a passionate challenge in Spanish. “Listen,” he says, “you need to wake up. You need to be responsible for your life and the things you want.”

Momentum builds as the team learns more and more about the family and the case. When the meeting breaks up, the Martins say gracias again and again. Rudy and his parents have agreed to sign a critical contract to attend a teen-parent mediation session taught by Velvet Rodriguez Poston (BA ’97), an alumna of Dominguez’ community-lawyering class. Poston will teach them new ways to communicate about curfews, family rules, and goals.

The students now have new information for the judge. Rudy has a job and does well in school. He wants to be a marine. The mediation agreement will help because the judge and others have seen the benefits through years of mediation service provided at the youth center by Tamara Ashworth Fackrell (BS ’94), a part-time BYU law professor and another product of the community-lawyering class.

Rudy is prepared too. “We gave him confidence to have something to say to the judge tomorrow,” Lisonbee says. Bewildered and usually alone, children seldom say much during hearings and nothing that helps their cases. Waro, who as a Slate Canyon treatment supervisor has seen many youths go through this process, can tell immediately at hearings which teens have worked with the BYU teams. “They’re more verbal,” she says. “They’re willing to tell the judge what they’re willing to do.”

In his research, Dominguez found that first-time alleged offenders and their parents were typically overwhelmed and unprepared for hearings that can change the direction of their lives. Too often, Dominguez says, uninformed teenagers admit to accusations to avoid extended detention. That can create a downward spiral, because if they are picked up again, the system reacts even more strongly. And any detention can be a detriment, in his view, because it can expose these youths to more hardened teens and separate them from their families just when they have the need and the chance to create an entirely different relationship.

The BYU team feels strongly now that the judge should hear the additional information about Rudy and rule that, as a whole, the community is better off returning this teenager to his family, his school, and his job so he can get back to becoming a contributing citizen.

“He has some very specific goals,” McGregor says. “He’s on a path to get there. This incident definitely won’t help, but he understands now he needs to get out and get back on that path.”

BYU community-lawyering projects, like the Slate Canyon intervention and a highly successful effort to strengthen a struggling neighborhood in 2003 (see “Building a Community,” p. 39), do more than just resolve conflict. In redemptive lawyering, a concept created by Dominguez, “we try to redeem the people we meet as children of God,” he says. “We seek to open their eyes so that they can see themselves as precious lives reflecting the image and genius of the Master.” He calls the growing legal-rights culture in the United States a “false gospel” and challenges Christian attorneys not to place their faith and jobs in separate compartments.

According to Dominguez, a redemptive lawyer is engaged in a spiritual exercise to serve God and love the neighbor, promoting justice, equity, and fairness throughout American social networks. Redemptive lawyering, he adds, “challenges us to demonstrate how much we care for the healthy as well as the ‘least of the brethren.’”

BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School is the perfect place for this experiment, Dominguez says, though he has seen what Lisonbee, Ligett, and McGregor say they have experienced—the tendency for law students to believe that the legal industry will judge them on how much money they make, where they live, and what firm hires them.

“Deep inside they’re begging someone to say that’s all rubbish,” Dominguez says. “Real success is to take strangers and open their eyes to the fact that they are sons and daughters of God. To tell them when they ask, ‘Is there any way out of this?’ that ‘Yes, there is, and because we’re brothers and sisters, we’ll show you and help you.’ I’ve seen our students cry for the people we’ve worked with, how hurt they are. We’re doing this as Christians, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ; God has a desire to build a Zion community. I don’t know of any other law school where this could happen.”

PROVO STILL lies in fall’s mountain shadows just before 8 a.m., but sharp beams of sunlight streak through a canyon just south of the detention center. The rays illuminate Springville and trumpet the promise of the coming day. The students have met with Rudy, who spent most of the night doing push-ups in his cell. Now they are in the lobby discussing some new problems with Dominguez. Rudy has signed the mediation contract, but his parents aren’t here. If they don’t show up to ask for his release, he has no chance.

The probation officer assigned to the case is also missing, an equally bad sign. The students believe the woman filling in will have a natural aversion to agreeing to something that might be questioned later by the assigned probation officer. As if on cue, the substitute probation officer approaches the BYU team. “That’s a serious charge,” she says. “There’s no chance he’ll be released.”

Fortunately, the hearings begin six minutes late. Rudy’s frantic parents arrive minutes later, their normal 45-minute drive complicated by construction and traffic. Also, Rudy’s case is last on the docket. The parents sign the mediation agreement, and within few minutes, a deputy passes a wand over them to check for weapons and escorts them and the BYU team into the closed hearing.

The first eight cases of the day took a total of just 15 minutes. Rudy’s hearing lasts 16. The BYU team members explain they are part of a community-lawyering program that is providing mediation and has commitments from Rudy and from his parents, who are willing to take him back into their home and be responsible for him. The team has also arranged for an attorney to represent Rudy from a new group called Legal Equity for Minority Youth (LEMY), founded by community-lawyering alumus Jose “Pepe” Silva (JD ’00).

The judge also hears from Rudy and his parents. Rudy tells the judge that he knows he has done wrong and that his behavior must change and explains how he will do this. His parents then express their plan to work more closely with Rudy and be more accountable for him.

The judge listens closely to the witnesses, and soon the hearing becomes a conversation about what is best for Rudy and his family.

In the end—despite the seriousness of the accusation—the judge decides that Rudy should return home. However, she still places him under house arrest. He can attend school and continue to work, but he cannot contact his girlfriend or anyone else outside of school. Although the judge’s conditions for Rudy’s release amount to punishment before the boy is proved guilty, Dominguez and his students know this resolution beats the alternative.

Afterward, the probation officer tells Dominguez and the students that Rudy “just got the break of his life.” She joins the BYU team in another cramped meeting room to discuss the outcome with Rudy and his parents. Dominguez drives home the point that if Rudy violates any of the judge’s orders he will be arrested again, and he emphasizes that Rudy’s parents, the judge, the probation officer, the BYU community-lawyering program, and LEMY are putting their credibility on the line for him.

“If Professor Dominguez hadn’t done this for you, you hadn’t a chance,” the probation officer tells the boy. “You’re a good kid, Rudy. I’ll tell the prosecutor that. You’re a good kid.”

Before the meeting breaks up, Rudy thanks the BYU team.

More remains to be done at Slate Canyon. Dominguez expects the project will last another school year beyond this one, maybe two, until the detention staff is willing and able to take over the same role.

As Rudy walks out of the Slate Canyon Youth Center and into a sun-splashed fall morning, the future seems to hinge on the actions of one boy under house arrest who dreams of being a Marine.

Tad Walch is the Utah County Bureau chief for the Deseret Morning News.

FEEDBACK: Send comments on this article to

Before becoming involved at Slate Canyon Youth Center, BYU law professor David Dominguez’ community-lawyering class found resounding success in another community project. It began in earnest in the fall of 2003, when students interviewing residents of the Boulders apartment complex in south Provo learned that bus service to the complex was being cut. The Boulders was a poor city within a city, covering nearly 17 acres and housing 1,400 residents, most living below the poverty line. Crime was rampant, with more than 1,600 calls to Provo Police in 2002—more than four calls per day.

The effort began with students working with residents to form a “bus-line committee.” Other committees followed as the program drew on BYU’s Political Science Department to staff an after-school program, the Spanish Department for English classes, and the School of Nursing for health surveys. The effort would include several other BYU departments and lead to the restoration of the bus route and the establishment of a police substation in the complex. Crime calls fell by more than 50 percent.

The program also joined forces with Joan Dixon (BA ’76), a BYU employee who had formed a group called Provo Partners to help neglected parts of the community. With the help of Dominguez and his students, her group reorganized as the Timpanogos Community Network, which spawned a popular annual Latin American festival in Provo and a weekly legal seminar for immigrants.

And in 2005, in the spirit of community lawyering, the BYU law students withdrew, turning the effort over to the United Way, which landed a grant through the Americorps program Volunteers in Service to America to provide a full-time person to work with residents at the Boulders and the community.

“It’s the beginning of the Boulders residents taking over the program,” says Dixon. “That’s really the goal of community lawyering, to teach people what they can do for themselves.”