‘Nothing is black and white: there’s a lot of gray’

How old were you when you became an adult? Were you 16? 15? How about 10?

That’s the question the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project poses at the start of one of videos. I’d say 25, I thought to myself, only half-joking.

The idea went on to haunt me. The number 25, along with the faces of kids and teenagers in my life, kept flashing before me as I read on about this Philadelphia nonprofit that provides mitigation and reentry services for young people being treated as adults in our courts and prisons – particularly children sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That’s right. Children sentenced to life in prison without parole. The United States is the only country in the world that does this; we even have an acronym for it (JLWOP). And of more than 2,000 JLWOP cases that must be resentenced, thanks to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision, Pennsylvania has 500, and Philadelphia more than whopping 300.

Lawyers Lauren Fine, 33, and Joanna Visser Adjoian, 34, got to know each other during and after law school when they were working with families of incarcerated youth. They created the YSRP in 2014 to address the misinformation and lack of support that often results in young people’s cases entering the adult system – cases like that of Eugene, who, at 16, was sent to adult jail as a result of a botched group robbery attempt using a BB gun he didn’t handle, in which no one was hurt, and in which no money was taken.

Fine and Visser Adjoian helped Eugene’s case get transferred to the juvenile justice system and, once he made bail, connected him with education and counseling services he needed.

I spoke to the lawyers about how our country reached this pass and what they are bracing for in the new presidential administration. Excerpts follow.

So – a lot of this project is about me realizing how much I don’t know.

JV: That’s like every day for us [laughs].

There was so much on your site I didn’t know before. What struck me the most was on your list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Why should kids receive special treatment?” Is this really a question you frequently hear? How is this a question for our country?

JV: We first drafted those when we were getting started, feeling like we needed to justify our existence, and trying to anticipate pushback we could get from any member of any audience. It went back to really what goes back to the basis of having these law on the books in the first place: the terrible superpredator era of, “You do an adult crime, you serve adult time.” Our desire was to cut this off at the pass and address this head-on – to say that our work is informed by the belief that no kid deserves to be in adult jail.

The United States is the only country in the world that’s treating kids in this way – how did this happen

LF: Race is at the center, and otherization in general, and the idea of certain children being different from other children: using terms like juvenile delinquent, juvenile offender. In our view even the word “juvenile” has an impact, and we try not to use it as a noun. Certainly the idea that there are some children who are inherently bad and corrupted, and should be treated in a way that those who propagate those kinds of laws, across the board, would not want their children to be treated.

Bad facts make bad law, and there were a number of cases in the 90s in particular when the superpredator myth was rising from academia that made it easier that made it easier to justify decisions in legislatures accordingly, to “protect” people from what they feared.

JV: We subscribe to the racial justice or racial injustice view of how our criminal justice has evolved over time, that Michelle Alexander writes about in “The New Jim Crow,” and that Ava Duvernay has so brilliantly pulled together in “13th.” The undercurrent of modern-day slavery as reflected in our system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts young men of color. That’s what we see day in and day out in our cases:  both in terms of the young people prosecuted directly in adult court, and now the hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania who have spent the majority of their life behind bars, since they were kids.

As we’re heading into the impacts and ramifications of our new administration, this is something we’re paying close attention to: how these dynamics are going to be exacerbated.

A promotional image for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th.”

In terms of the Trump administration, are there any issues or changes you’re engaged with already, or are you waiting to see what transpires?

JV: It’s all of the above. We’re in a bit of a wait-and-see posture right now, but not really. We can anticipate what’s coming down the pike… Lifting up a Blue Lives Matter narrative over a Black Lives Matter narrative is directly impactful on our work and something that we would be pushing back on from the start. As a colleague wisely advised a week or two ago, we are storing up our energy for when more explicit things come down that we need to respond to.

We also take an intersectional approach, feeling like we’re all implicated here… [on issues like] the Muslim ban and immigration.

There’s a section of “13th” that discusses the idea that a merging of the immigration system and criminal justice system is taking place. In President Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress, he talked about getting gang members and drug dealers out of the country, and I saw it differently than I would have even a couple of months ago. It’s all knitted together.

JV: Yup. That was an incredible line. This idea of the bad ones, getting the bad ones out, all goes back to the idea of the bad guys being the superpredator kids. It’s rooted in the same racism.

What can people to do to take action on this? We can donate to your organization, of course! For people in other regions, what organizations can they engage with?

LF: There’s a DC-based organization called the Campaign for Youth Justice and there’s another one specifically on the issue of juvenile sentencing without parole, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They have an important, sweeping perspective: getting involved on the litigation front, but also doing family organizing with loved ones of people serving life sentences, as well as loved ones of people who were lost to individuals who were then convicted of life without parole. Their goal as an organization is to get rid of sentences of life without parole for children.

The Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network – ICAN – is made up of individuals who, as children, were sentenced as life without parole but have been released through various legal mechanisms, and are doing really amazing things in countries around the country.

Many people now are getting more involved in the political process. On this issue, I guess a first step people can take is to find out about their own state’s policies, right?

LF: It can be really encouraging the focus on the local level with these issues. There’s a lot of change that can happen on the municipal level or the state level.

JV: It’s become really clear for us that there’s huge power in local elections – in particular in states like ours where judges and district attorneys are elected. That’s something people can do even if there isn’t an organization on the ground. They can pay more attention to these kinds of elections and hold the folks who are running accountable.

There’s been a lot of attention on the legal profession in general in the past few weeks and the power that lawyers can have. Have you experienced fellow lawyers showing new interest in addressing some of these issues?

LF: Philadelphia is a sanctuary city; there have been a lot of efforts directed and defending members of our immigrant community who are under attack right now. Our local Bar Association has been really fantastic in convening a lot of our partners, colleagues, and local attorneys to get them trained in deportation defense and figuring out what the front line should look like. It’s encouraging knowing how the community has mobilized so far, and that when issues [related to criminal justice] present themselves, similar mobilization efforts will likely occur.

You’ll each have a million answers for this question – but what have you learned from the young people you are working with, that you wish more people knew?

LF: At the risk of being really cliché, I think an overarching theme that I have learned is that nothing is black and white. Our system is designed to put things in those terms, but people are really complex; there’s a lot of gray. Even in the advocacy world, we want things to be black and white, and there’s complexity and grayness there, too.

It’s about recognizing the full humanity of everyone we come in contact with, and understanding that this doesn’t fit into an easy narrative, but trying to really understand people as individuals.

And that’s what our country is struggling with on every level.

JV: I keep thinking about what one of the young people we work with said to me last week – in our first meeting, actually. We were just getting to know each other. He looked at me and said, “You know, I have so much untapped potential, and I have never had an opportunity to reach my full potential, and I need help doing that.”

That degree of self-awareness was so – I can’t even find the right word. Poignant, I think. It reminded me that the systemic oppression and inequality that our young people and families are experiencing are not lost on them. They are aware of the barriers that we have erected on people’s paths. It was a helpful reminder, at the very least, and something we need to remind ourselves of in terms of how we do the work.

LF: This is easy, Hallmark-y, but to put a more positive perspective in the mix, too: just how resilient people are. Even in the face of all these things, there’s still that hopefulness in wanting to reach one’s potential. That’s so important in all of this.

Donate to the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project here; meet other women leaders from the Shadow Cabinet series here.

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