David Utter is a lawyer who has dedicated his entire career to human and civil rights. In 1986 he graduated from Emory University, and in 1989 he earned his law degree from the University of Florida law school. In 1990, he started work as an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, where he represented indigent prisoners in Alabama and Louisiana challenging illegal treatment and conditions of confinement.
Mr. Utter moved to New Orleans in 1992 and expanded his advocacy for human and civil rights to Mississippi. In 1993, he and Clive Stafford Smith opened the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center to address the crisis in the defense of indigent persons facing the death penalty in Louisiana. In late 1997, after Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of Justice documented unspeakable violence and brutality in Louisiana’s juvenile prisons, Mr. Utter co-founded the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and served as its director.
When JJPL first opened its doors, Louisiana had firmly established itself as having one of the worst juvenile justice systems in the country. Starting with a staff of four and building to a staff of sixteen, JJPL drove the debate for juvenile justice reform in the Bayou State. In 2001 JJPL helped launch Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), a parent and community organizing group to help fight for reform. In 2003, JJPL and FFLIC’s work culminated with the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, legislation nationally recognized as the most progressive and comprehensive to pass in any state in years.
In 2004, Gov. Kathleen Blanco acted on a JJPL inspired campaign pledge and closed the infamous Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth. Mr. Utter is the recipient of the Louisiana Bar Foundation’s Distinguished Attorney of the year for 2003 and the Ford Foundation and Advocacy Institute’s Leadership for a Changing World Award for 2005.
After Katrina flooded most of New Orleans, JJPL helped create Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to reforming New Orleans’ criminal justice system as it rebuilt, and Juvenile Regional Services, a public defender office delivering high-quality legal services to New Orleans youth. On August 31, 2007, Utter stepped down as director of JJPL. He served as a consultant to and lawyer for the organization through December 31, 2007.
In 2008, David started juvenile reform work in Florida with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In late 2014, after many successes, including working to close two notorious juvenile prisons—the Dozier School for Boys and the Thompson Academy—and reducing Florida’s juvenile prison population by over 50%, David moved to Savannah to be with his family. He served as a juvenile justice specialist for SPLC until June 1, 2015. Since that time he has been in private practice. In addition to directing the Fair Fight Initiative, David is a lawyer at the Claiborne Firm, representing plaintiffs in civil rights and personal injury matters, and defendants in criminal matters.