Posted March 21, 2017

Law students’ work helps struggling families

Law students’ investigation of Philadelphia’s policy of billing parents for the cost of incarcerating their children prompted the city to put an end to the practice.

City Hall tower from an office window.
Photography By: 
Betsy Manning
A report by students in the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab clinic prompted Philadelphia officials to make a major change.

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a mother of four, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility after a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she received a summons from the City of Philadelphia—for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the city to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. She asked the city’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in Davis-Spears’ family’s already-inadequate budget, to a hearing earlier this month before a committee of City Council.

The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report on the city’s practice of charging parents for children’s incarceration costs authored by Wesley Stevenson, Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger—all third-year students in the Beasley School of Law—as part of their work in the Justice Lab, a clinic housed in the Sheller Center for Social Justice. With help from Associate Professor of Law Colleen Shanahan, who teaches the clinic, the students conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, produced the report and testified before the council committee.

law students, supporters and an associate professor standing in City Council chambers

Law students Wesley Stevenson (left), Sela Cowger (second from left) and Kelsey Grimes (second from right) are joined by Associate Professor Colleen Shanahan (right) and Steve and Sandy Sheller, after whom the Sheller Center for Social Justice is named, at City Hall. 

The students’ work paid off: When Stevenson testified at council, city officials announced an immediate stop to the practice of collecting the costs of juvenile incarceration from struggling families.

Read more about Double Punishment and the Justice Lab’s win for families.

—Rebecca Schatschneider and Len Rieser