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Prestigious Award Goes to SPLC-Connected Lawyer

A Louisiana attorney with close ties to the Southern Poverty Law Center is among a handful of winners of a prestigious Ford Foundation award.

David Utter, founder and director of the Center-supported Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), was one of 17 winners of the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award.

The award, given annually, recognizes “individuals and leadership teams tackling some of the nation’s most entrenched social, economic and environmental challenges,” according to the foundation’s website.

“This is an incredible honor,” Utter said. “But it really is an award to the JJPL staff. I’m grateful to be able to work everyday with the people that I do.”

The JJPL opened its doors in January 1998 after receiving a $145,000 grant from the Center. The Center has continued its financial support of JJPL’s work, and its attorneys have collaborated with Utter and his staff on litigation strategies. Center president Richard Cohen serves on the JJPL board of directors.

A graduate of Emory University and the University of Florida Law School, Utter has spent his entire career in public interest law, representing indigent individuals throughout the South. In 1993, he helped open the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center to address the predicament of indigent persons facing the death penalty.

In 2003, the Louisiana Bar Foundation recognized Utter’s contributions by naming him that year’s Distinguished Attorney.

Utter said he feels a “mandate” to do the kind of work he does.

“I’ve inherited the privileges that are attached to being a white male in our society,” he said. “I can only seek to utilize my education, experience and privilege to create a different kind of society where privilege and power are not conferred based on the color of a person’s skin.”

Over the years, Utter and the JJPL have seen a number of successes. Since the JJPL’s founding, Louisiana’s juvenile prison population has dropped to 500 from nearly 2000. The JJPL’s work also led to the closing of the notoriously brutal Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth.

Utter and the JJPL also worked to establish the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC). The group was the result of an effort to include the families of incarcerated youth in the public debate and decision-making process affecting their children.

Each Leadership for a Changing World awardee will receive $100,000 to advance their work and an additional $15,000 for educational opportunities to strengthen their individual or organizational effectiveness over the course of two years. Utter and the 17 other winners will also participate in a multi-year collaborative research initiative to explore how community leadership is created and sustained.