Edwin “Ned” Chester ’77 was recently awarded the American Bar Association’s 2012 Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award. Long before he received the award, however, his wife gave him a button that reads, “My inner child is a juvenile delinquent.” Both milestones – albeit of differing significance – are borne of his commitment to working with juvenile defendants and the juvenile justice system in the state of Maine.
“There is something ironic about receiving an award for doing work that you love to do,” observes Chester. He readily acknowledges an unusual empathy for his young clients, vividly recalling his own teenage years.
“I was 13, living in Kansas, and fireworks were legal. We spent a whole summer blowing things up in the back yard,” he recalls. He notes that under current Maine law, that would be a felony level offense. Unlike many of his clients, he says he had a family with assets and he was on track with his education – but he understands how without the bolster of family, education, and community, the short-sighted decisions of adolescence can lead to a date in court. With that understanding, he builds relationships with his clients so he can advocate for the best outcome that will help them get back on track.
“Criminal law is interesting work. You deal with facts and constitutional issues. But I particularly like the idea that the juvenile code is future-oriented,” says Chester. While prosecutors are concerned with the consequences of adult criminal behavior, juveniles are more likely to receive “treatment, rehabilitation and second chances,” a phrase Chester uses often.
He started his career in criminal defense working primarily on behalf of adult defendants. When he was called to defend a man who allegedly sexually abused two minors, he says, “I realized I wasn’t cut out for that. I have the utmost respect for defenders who do that work, because they are protecting my legal rights and yours, but I couldn’t do it,” he recalls.
Instead, he started to work with juvenile offenders. Maine is a relatively rural state and levels of crime are not high, which meant that when Chester began his career, juvenile defendants were somewhat at the mercy of geography and fate. Judges assigned cases to lawyers without regard for the attorneys’ experience with juvenile defense. And the distances between cities, courts and the two detention centers where juveniles might be held were such that many defendants never met or even knew of their attorney before arriving in court. Chester argues that in a system where young people may have the opportunity to build a legal and social services team to improve their future, they need attorneys who invest in getting to know them.
“I always say to my clients, ‘What you do between now and the time your case gets resolved will have a significant impact on how it gets resolved,’” he says. He meets with his clients, feeds them, and drives them around .“They are much more likely to open up and build a relationship if they are eating and listening to their music,” he says. He urges them to find a therapist, go back to school and/or take other steps to turn their lives around; it’s good for them, and it gives the prosecutor and the court a reason to agree to a better deal.
The work he does now – working with juvenile defendants and reforming the juvenile system in Maine – couldn’t have been predicted while he was at Carolina Law. He was working on a dual degree in urban planning and law and fully expected to be working in that field.
A dual degree option worked well for him, says Chester. Each field helped provide context and greater depth for the other. After graduation, he and his wife Barbara Vestal ’77, moved to Portland and opened a law office in what was then a low-income neighborhood.
Since that time, Chester has actively participated in a sea change in the juvenile justice system in Maine. He worked with the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law and other groups to provide the education and resources attorneys need to provide the best representation for juvenile clients. He has advocated for and seen the juvenile justice system become more successful at referring juvenile defendants towards rehabilitation instead of incarceration. He was part of a professional team that crafted a competency statute for the state of Maine. And he’s active in making changes in the juvenile justice system that will accommodate an increasing immigrant population. Such changes include simplifying the wording of the letter that is first sent to parents of juvenile defendants asking for a meeting to discuss the process and options. The letter also will be translated into 35 languages.
“These kids have not been given a fair shake,” says Chester, who argues that success for them looks the same as success for any child of a more privileged home. “Providing them with the skills to lead a healthy and productive life is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. They are going to be part of our lives for years to come. We need to intervene and make available all the treatment and support we can muster.”
-November 13, 2012