Children's Rights Litigation

Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine

Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine met when they were just starting out as lawyers in Philadelphia, working with a family organizing group made up of individuals whose loved ones were sentenced as children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On long road trips to meet with juvenile lifers in prisons across Pennsylvania, which sentences more youth to die in prison than anywhere else in the world, Joanna and Lauren hatched the idea for what would become the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP). Now seven years later, YSRP has a staff of 10—including professionals with lived experience—who zealously work with their client-partners to keep children out of adult jails and prisons, and to bring home juvenile lifers.

The two applied for and received Echoing Green fellowships—that covered their health insurance and provided a small salary, which they split—to start YSRP. The Echoing Green grant helped Joanna and Lauren get inside the door with funders, but many were skeptical and urged the young attorneys to instead find a law school clinic or pro bono project where they could do the work. However, Joanna and Lauren wanted to build an innovative advocacy model, one in which they worked side-by-side with these youth and the family who knew them best, to prevent youth from being sent to die in adult prisons and facilitate reentry for those coming home.

To build YSRP’s reputation, the two spent a lot of time in church basements and prison auditoriums, providing information on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional. They talked about what that decision meant for juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania. Their work paid off because by the time the Court ruled in 2016 that Miller applied retroactively, national philanthropy organizations came knocking on YSRP’s door to support the release of 500 incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania.

When they had enough money, their first hire was a mitigation specialist. “We’ve taken the way mitigation has been used in the capital world and apply it here,” says Joanna. Mitigation is YSRP’s “secret sauce” to getting gatekeepers such as judges and parole boards to see their clients as children. “We show pictures of them as children to show that they are kids, not mugshots, and we get letters from teachers, neighbors, and other community members.” During the court process in individual cases, YSRP presents prosecutors and judges with humanizing narratives of a person’s experience. For juvenile lifers eligible for resentencing and parole board hearings, YSRP provide workshops inside of prisons on mitigation, reentry, and self-advocacy.

YSRP also brought on reentry coordinators, including John Pace. He joined their team after serving 31 years as a juvenile lifer in prison, where he first met Joanna and Lauren and brainstormed with them about starting YSRP. Professionals such as Pace “take a community-oriented, collaborative approach, and get different people to see themselves as reentry providers,” says Lauren. YSRP creates individualized reentry plans that connect youth and juvenile lifers with critical supports and services in housing, employment, education, and health and mental health care. “We work to provide pathways to the experiences folks are seeking for themselves through individualized, non-prescriptive plans.”

Joanna and Lauren are sharing what they have learned, by providing tools and trainings for defense lawyers representing youth charged in adult courts and juvenile lifers facing resentencing and parole board hearings. YSRP also trains and supervises graduate law and social work students and other volunteers to work in teams that create impact within and across systems.

Most recently, YSRP started a program of intergenerational healing circles where they bring together the two groups—youth in adult court and juvenile lifers who are now adults. “We did a pilot last year, and a client shared that the spaces YSRP puts together feel like freedom and are rooted in liberation. Hearing that for me felt like, yes, we made it happen,” says Joanna. Lauren says she knew that their vision of a new model could become a reality when she visited the home of one youth client-partner with a former juvenile lifer who had served nearly 40 years in prison , so they could provide support as a team and learn from each other.

“At its core, what would address so many problems and injustices is if all system actors, especially decision makers, saw ALL young people as a member of their own family, someone they care about, and treated them accordingly” comments Lauren. “If the system respected the value and dignity of young people, it wouldn’t be a system that incarcerates children.” Joanna agrees: “We as a nation are addicted to caging primarily Brown and Black children and we need to address that addiction.” Both advise young lawyers to understand that “a law degree gives great access and opportunity, but you will not become an all-knowing being.” “Nor does it confer the right to save anyone or talk down to anyone,” says Lauren. Joanna adds, “Yes, reject saviorism, and find the balance between being bold and courageous and being humble.”

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