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Bringing Context into the Courtroom, and Beyond


By: Lauren Fine, Esq. and Joanna Visser Adjoian, Esq.

Co-Founders and Co-Directors, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

“In criminal court, I felt like I was the smallest person in the room, with the biggest problem.” This quote is from Marcus, who at age 16, was tried and sentenced as an adult here in Pennsylvania. Getting to know Marcus, we quickly learned things that his lawyer had not bothered to:  that he had been an honor roll student before his mother died and he was placed into foster care; that he had overcome bouts of homelessness; cared deeply about his family and aspired to go to college. Marcus never had the opportunity to develop a relationship with his lawyer, or any other advocate who could explain to him what was going on in the court process, or how he and his loved ones could help fight for his future. Marcus was presented with what he thought was a simple choice:  plead guilty in adult court and serve a 1-2 year sentence, or plead guilty in juvenile court and face a 2-4 year juvenile sentence. Being good at math, and not fully grasping the difference between an adult and juvenile sentence, he chose the 1-2. Marcus now lives with the lifelong stigma and barriers imposed by an adult felony conviction.

We co-founded the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) in response to Marcus’s experience, and the experience of thousands of young people like him, who face adult felony convictions as children. They are forced to surmount countless structural barriers, including the appointment of attorneys that are under-resourced and, as a result, show up to court unprepared or unfamiliar with who their clients are as people. These are often lawyers who cannot articulate both the challenges that their youth clients have faced, and also their strengths and goals for the future. YSRP is designed to remind attorneys, judges and other system actors that context matters, especially when we are talking about children.

We bring context into the courtroom by incorporating and adapting principles and techniques of sentencing mitigation from advocacy in death penalty cases. Like the sentencing phase of a capital trial, the proceeding during which a judge in Pennsylvania makes a determination as to whether a young person’s case belongs in the adult or juvenile system is a critical opportunity to paint a picture of who the young person is, beyond the information contained in the police report or charging document. As members of the youth’s defense team, we present this information in the form of a written report, and incorporate as much of the youth’s own voice, and that of his or her family and community as possible. The information we share highlights the complex dynamics presented by every young person’s experience: their uniquely individual strengths and challenges, who they were when they were arrested, how they have grown, and what their goals are for the future.

And this is where our model differs greatly from how mitigation has traditionally been used:  we add individualized reentry planning, believing it to be a critical component of effective advocacy for all people, but especially children. Young people thrive in resource-intensive environments, where they are provided with age-appropriate supports that reinforce their self-worth and show them what is possible. We connect young people and, importantly, their family members, to existing resources in the community that provide things like stable housing, education, job training and placement, and physical and behavioral health care. Things that all of us can benefit from, and as provided by organizations that may not traditionally consider themselves to be “reentry” or “service” providers. The reentry plans we develop and include in every report are informed by the information we have obtained during the mitigation investigation phase of our work, and provide a roadmap the young person and their family can follow upon his or her release from either a juvenile placement, or an adult jail or prison. Perhaps most importantly, our partnership with the young person and their support system does not end in the courtroom or the jail cell:  we continue our work with them throughout any period of incarceration and as they prepare to come home, and we do not impose any artificial time restrictions to the length of our engagement.

We work both with individual young people and families, and also on the system-level to change policies that affect families like theirs. Our work has led to a moratorium on Philadelphia charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration, and to the city reexamining its use of solitary confinement and adult incarceration for children.  

In January 2016, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, we expanded our scope to work directly with individuals who, as children, were unconstitutionally condemned to die in prison. Pennsylvania has the largest number of these so-called “juvenile lifers” — nearly 25% of everyone with such a sentence in the world. In creating and leading a citywide working group on the reentry needs of juvenile lifers , we feel privileged to work across systems, with lawyers, activists, social workers, judges, probation and parole officers, reentry and other service providers, on behalf of all of Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers. We also have been honored to work with and welcome home several juvenile lifer partners who have already been released. Now, we are hard at work planning for the resentencing hearings and return to the community of many others. Of the approximately 320 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children in Philadelphia, fewer than 100 have been resentenced thus far. There remains much work to be done to ensure that their stories are told before the judges who will resentence them, and before the Parole Board, who will be responsible for their release to the community. As we continue to walk alongside many of these individuals and their families as they go through this process, we are bolstered by the community of support that has grown around our work, and especially by the young people like Marcus who continue to inform the approach we take.