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To Shobha Mahadev, being fearless means playing the long game, being patient, and pushing to make change. Though she is now assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, a clinical professor of Law, and project director for the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Shobha didn’t originally set out to be a lawyer. She originally planned on a career as a scientist and spent her time as an environmental science major at Berkeley researching native grasses. But then a friend at Berkeley took the LSAT and the idea of law school intrigued her. She took the test, moved to Chicago sight unseen, and enrolled in Northwestern’s J.D. program. And from that new beginning, she knew she wanted to focus on public interest law. 

As a first year law student, Shobha volunteered for a satellite juvenile justice clinic office run by Angela Vigil (a current member of the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee (CRLC) Working Group). That inspired her to do juvenile defense. In her third year, she joined the juvenile justice clinic supervised by Vigil and it formed the basis for her future legal career. Shobha spent her first three years after graduation at a law firm seizing every opportunity to engage in pro bono criminal representation. There, she represented an individual facing the death penalty and it motivated her to continue this work. She took that experience and her legal expertise to the Office of the State Appellate Defender (OSAD) and spent five years honing her defensive advocacy skills. In 2007, on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, Shobha began talking to Bernardine Dohrn, then director of the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) at Northwestern (and co-founder of the CRLC!). Following Roper, the death sentences of thousands of individuals were commuted to juvenile life without parole, and there were 103 individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences in Illinois. Bernardine and a small coalition of individuals and organizations were working to establish a project to track that population and publish a report on it. So, while still at OSAD, Shobha worked with the CFJC on authoring a handbook for attorneys representing children in juvenile court and ultimately was invited to apply for a position with the legal clinic to lead the coalition. There, she was charged with expanding the coalition to work with partners in the state and nationally to end juvenile life without parole. She worked to grow the coalition, which came to include faith-based organizations, families, advocates, and pro bono attorneys, including founding member (and CRLC Working Group member), Anne Geraghty-Helms. She combined legal advocacy with pushing for policy change in Illinois.

As Shobha grew in her role, there was increased momentum across Illinois and the country. She was determined to include the voices of families and people serving juvenile life without parole sentences in the state and knew that was the only way to effectively and authentically push for change. Together, the group strategized on how to couple policy advocacy with litigation to bring the 103 individuals home. And over time, these partners established their own advocacy organizations, like Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children and Restore Justice. This collaboration between lawyers and teachers, policy advocates, communities, faith leaders, formerly incarcerated individuals, and families gave them the ability to have honest conversations about when policy is the best avenue to push and when the courts are most likely to provide the greatest wins.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences in non-homicide cases in Graham v. Florida, which opened the door for increased litigation efforts. Shortly thereafter, the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama began a wave of litigation across the country to hold resentencing hearings for individuals serving mandatory life without parole sentences. In her role as faculty and with the support of attorneys across the state, Shobha assembled a committee to look at individual cases. Through appellate and amicus litigation, Illinois was at the forefront of legal victories—prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, holding that the protections established by the Court in Miller v. Alabama would be retroactively applied to individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences, they achieved a victory in Illinois holding Miller’s protections retroactive.

While some in the state believed that the Court’s ruling meant that the work was done, Shobha said that it was just the beginning. She worked with partners to get incarcerated individuals support in filing post-conviction relief. And once resentenced, some individuals who had been incarcerated since the 1980s and 1990s were now coming home. At that moment, “we had real spokespeople. We didn’t envision that would be possible when we started. We could only dare to dream it. . . . I never wanted to be the person speaking for them.”

Today, about half of the Illinois individuals who were previously sentenced to die in prison as children are home. Illinois continues to be at the forefront of legal change—the legal protections that were hard won across the state have now been extended to individuals who were sentenced to 40 years or more, the functional equivalent of a life sentence. Shobha hopes to continue this forward momentum by harnessing the power of the Illinois constitution and trying to dismantle the laws that put us into this position in the first place—laws that require the transfer of young people to adult criminal court and mandatory sentencing laws.

When asked what big challenges remain, Shobha said, “It’s hard when you see it’s a pendulum that swings back and forth. Nothing ever feels permanent, but I think we’ve planted seeds that have allowed for a different way to view sentencing of young people in Illinois.” Yet, what is permanent are the people who are now home who were once condemned to spend their lives in prison continuing to advocate for these changes. 

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