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August 24, 2016 | Lindsay Booker

UpStart with Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine

UpStart, Echoing Green's morning talk series features short, inspiring presentations of our Fellows' work and Q&A led by a guest from our community. June’s UpStart featured Joanna Visser Adjoian ’14 and Lauren Fine ’14, founders of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project. They were joined by Robert Schwartz, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, where he served as executive director until 2015.

It wasn't until 2012 that it was deemed unconstitutional to apply a mandatory sentence of life without parole to a child (Miller v. Alabama, 2012). At the start of 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that this decision be applied retroactively. In no place might this ruling have more impact than in Pennsylvania, which houses 20 percent of the world's population of people who received these mandatory life without parole sentences. In the wake of these rulings, what might the world look like if we thought differently about what happens to children who are charged with the most serious offenses?

Echoing Green Fellows Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian founded the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) in Philadelphia to challenge how we think about this question. Children as young as 10 years old are sentenced in adult systems where, often, judges must apply mandatory sentences without consideration of context. These same children are 34 percent more likely to return to adult prison, which, compared to the juvenile system, is not designed to rehabilitate children. For YSRP, thinking differently means finding ways to bring better life outcomes to children and their families. Their answer is to keep kids out of adult jails and prisons and instead find alternatives that can lead them to a brighter and more productive future.

Before YSRP, there was no organization dedicated to supporting these children and their families. By working with individual clients to create a network of support and advocate on their behalf, and by addressing policy, YSRP and its partners are working to carve out another path. It’s not just an issue of policy that compelled Joanna and Lauren to act – this is also a matter of racial justice. In Philadelphia, 89 percent of kids sentenced in the adult justice system are black boys, who are also ten times more likely to be charged as adults than their white counterparts.

In a world without YSRP, the likelihood that court-involved youth get to tell their story in full is slim. Instead, in part due to overtaxed attorneys and families unsure of how to navigate the experience, these kids are left unable to contextualize their experiences when they encounter the justice system. YSRP’s holistic and investigative approach addresses many of these issues by providing direct service advocacy for their clients. There is always more to a child’s story than a case file can show. By filling the gap between traditional legal services and social services and by providing robust reports for decertification hearings (when a judge can decide to move a case from the adult court system), YSRP helps decision makers determine that they can move cases into the juvenile justice system or community-based alternatives.

So what might the world look like if our potential was treated as more than our biggest mistake? Change is coming, and if Lauren and Joanna have their way, YSRP will be out of business.

UpStart Inspiration from YSRP

 Policy is important - but making it meaningful makes it matter.

Lauren and Joanna see the Supreme Court's Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, which guarantees the resentencing of people who received mandatory sentences without the possibility of parole when they were children, as as a step in the right direction. But they are also asking themselves how YSRP can help answer the question of what happens to these individuals when they are released into a world where they've never been an adult. In response, YSRP is adjusting course to take a continuum approach to the challenge by providing reentry services, resources for attorneys, counselors, social workers, and families, and centralized information for attorneys who represent these individuals.

 Stories are valuable even when a system is designed not to hear them.

Context matters. According to YSRP, "nearly 80 percent of juvenile lifers reported witnessing violence in their homes," and a majority also witness regular violence in their neighborhoods. YSRP creates a comprehensive report to present to a judge that contextualizes the child's family life, education, health, and any trauma they may have experienced. Their goal is to help the court see the full person standing before them - with the full story, a judge can make a more informed decision about whether to move the case to the juvenile courts or community-based services that have better odds of helping children and families find a brighter future. 

 Partnerships transform the work.

YSRP exists because it fills a gap - but they don't operate in a silo. By bridging gaps between law and social work, working alongside parents, juveniles, community partners, lawyers, policymakers, and more, Lauren and Joanna are able to listen, respond, and create solutions birthed out of collective, collaborative effort to create more opportunities for the future.

Go Deeper

Echoing Green's UpStart talks feature the bold ideas of our Fellows alongside a guest-led Q&A discussion about the broader implications of their work.

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