Tonkon Torp attorney Gwen Griffith has been honored with the 2017 Pro Bono Award of Merit. The award, which is sponsored by the Multnomah Bar Association (MBA) and Legal Aid Services of Oregon, is given annually to a lawyer or group who strengthens and enriches the community by donating time and expertise to provide services to clients who would otherwise be unable to afford them.
A busy tax lawyer advising individuals, businesses, nonprofit entities, and local governments on federal and state tax issues, Gwen (along with former colleague at Tonkon Torp, Vicki Ballou) founded the CLiF (Changing Lives Forever) Project in 2011 as a collaboration with Youth, Rights & Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to juvenile law. Their common goal was to help obtain registration relief for Oregonians who were adjudicated for sexual offenses as juveniles. Oregon is one of only six states in the nation that places juveniles adjudicated for a felony sex crime on the sex offender registry for life. Given the stigma and difficulty in obtaining employment or housing when someone is labeled a sex offender, critics of lifetime registration believe that permanent placement on the list is overly harsh punishment for juvenile offenders who have been rehabilitated and pose no threat to the public. The CLiF Project provides volunteer attorneys around the state to assist low-income registrants with relief from registration. Most case referrals come from Youth, Rights & Justice, but treatment providers, probation officers, juvenile court counselors, and even the State Police also refer cases to the Project.
To date, the CLiF Project has worked on at least 42 matters. Twenty-six CLiF cases have gone through the full petition and hearing process, and 100% of these cases have resulted in a victory for the CLiF client. This phenomenal success rate is due in large part to the Project's unique collaborative structure and Gwen's dedicated support of the program. More than 25 Tonkon Torp attorneys, as well as another dozen attorneys from the broader legal community, have helped CLiF clients and assisted with program design and outreach. Gwen has personally volunteered her time on 22 cases and recorded over 266 hours of pro bono time to CLiF matters. In addition, Gwen dedicates hundreds of hours to running the CLiF program, conducting intake, organizing logistics, creating infrastructure and templates for others to use, and generally serving as the program manager for the entire operation. She attends CLiF hearings, meets with juvenile justice professionals around the state, and is front and center at the Capitol when legislation is proposed that would affect people who are registered because of offenses they committed when they were children. Gwen and her colleague Jon Stride are currently working to expand the CLiF Project to help registrants represent themselves in court, which will allow even more people to obtain relief.
Mark McKechnie, Executive Director at Youth, Rights & Justice commends Gwen for tackling an "extreme form of injustice in our state" and building "an impressive program and coalition of support from her firm and with attorneys throughout the community." Reflecting on the CLiF Project's success rate, he adds, "Judges frequently comment on how deserving petitioners are of relief and how happy they are to grant it. It is only because of the CLiF project that these petitioners and their cases ever get back in front of a judge."
The CLiF Project's importance to the pro bono clients it serves is immeasurable. In the words of one client,
I have lived in fear for much of my adult life. The requirement to register as a sex offender denied me the opportunity to put foolish behavior behind me and move on from my mistakes as many others do. The CLiF Project helped me navigate the court system and remove the label, fear, and embarrassment that accompanied it. As a father, a husband, and an active business partner in my community, the fear of my past no longer resides in the back of my mind. The CLiF Project's dedication to youth rights allows those of us who made mistakes as children to remove the finality of those decisions and give us hope for the future. I feel I was completely reborn this past year with the label of "sex offender" removed from my name. Words can't express the gratitude I feel towards the CLiF Project program and the value they add to Oregon's children and families.
Tonkon Torp Managing Partner Darcy Norville comments, "By founding and developing the CLiF Project, Gwen is truly changing lives forever. She takes clients who do not get much sympathy or understanding from the public and helps them reclaim their lives."
Gwen Griffith was presented the Pro Bono Award of Merit on May 16 at the Multnomah Bar Association's annual meeting and dinner.