The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) uses direct service and policy advocacy to transform the experiences of children prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system, and to ensure fair and thoughtful resentencing and reentry for individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children (“juvenile lifers”). We partner with court-involved youth and juvenile lifers, their families, and lawyers to develop holistic, humanizing narratives that mitigate the facts of each case; get cases transferred to the juvenile system or resentenced; and make crucial connections to community resources providing education, healthcare, housing, and employment. We also provide trainings on mitigation, and recruit, train and supervise students and other volunteers to assist in this work. Our ultimate goals are to keep children out of adult jails and prisons and to enhance the quality of representation juvenile lifers receive at resentencing, and as they prepare to reenter the community.
In Pennsylvania, kids as young as 10 years old can be prosecuted as adults, meaning that they face time in adult jails and prisons. This has harmful consequences for their health, their emotional well being, and their futures. It often means being sent far from their families and supporters. Being charged as an adult makes a child 34% more likely to end up back in the system upon release.
Philadelphia has sentenced more children to life in prison without parole than any other in the country, and has the most juvenile lifers in the world.
YSRP believes that a child is far more than what a criminal docket or piece of paper says he or she is. There is so much more to the story – where they come from, their family life, their strengths and their hopes for the future. We tell that story in courts to get kids’ cases transferred to the juvenile justice system, which is better equipped to address their educational, emotional and physical healthcare, and social development needs; and to ensure fair and appropriate resentencing for juvenile lifers. We partner with community organizations to refer youth, juvenile lifers and families to resources that can address their needs.
We are inspired by the belief that no person is all good or all bad, and that no child should be defined by the worst thing he or she has ever done. The experiences of the young people, juvenile lifers and their families with whom partner highlight the significant need for the services and supports YSRP was created to provide. Marcus, a 16 year-old boy tried as an adult said, “in criminal court, I felt like I was the smallest person in the room, with the biggest problem.” YSRP is driven by the goal of preventing additional children and families from surviving that same fate. YSRP officially launched in June 2014.
YSRP developed and launched its holistic model of casework, advocacy and service provision using techniques often employed in death penalty cases. Our model introduces new standards of legal representation that challenge the way that young people are traditionally represented in the adult criminal legal system, to provide space for their full stories to be shared with the judges who decide whether they will end up in adult prison and carry lifelong adult convictions, and to help them stay connected to their communities through incarceration and reconnect to the community upon their release. Our goal is to reduce the imposition, duration, and impact of adult criminal sentences on low-income children and their families.
Marcus and Eugene describe their experience of being sent to adult jail at the ages of 16 and 15 years old, respectively, and how they came to know and work with YSRP. Eugene’s mother Wylicia, attorney Mingo Stroeber and Judge Benjamin Lerner describe the challenges in navigating the court process when young people are charged as adults. Film by Will Drinker.
A NOTE ABOUT LANGUAGE
The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project believes in the need to be thoughtful about language and the role that it can play in both humanizing and dehumanizing individual people. Inspired by leaders like the late Eddie Ellis who have been outspoken about the need to reclaim language that has been used to oppress, our work attempts to bring people back into the way we mete out justice. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, we believe that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Although the term “reentry” appears in our organization’s title and in many of our materials, we understand the ways in which this term is complicated, and appreciate that other words, such as “recovery,” “resettlement,” and “new entry” often more accurately reflect the experiences of many people coming home from incarceration. The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project seeks and encourages feedback from people currently or formerly incarcerated, from people on parole, people recently released from prison, people with criminal convictions and other community members who can help inform our programming and the way that we discuss it.
We admire the thought leadership by the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS) on the importance of language. The Language Letter Campaign is an important reminder of the need for thoughtfulness around how we talk about people with lived experiences.
Additionally, YSRP does not use the terms, “juvenile,” “delinquent,” “inmate,” “convict,” or “ex-con,” “offender” or “ex-offender,” opting instead to use person-centered language such as “young person,” “person who is incarcerated,” or “person who was previously incarcerated.”
YSRP uses the terms “client-partner” or “client partner” rather than “client,” to signify the importance of collaboration in the work that we do with each individual youth facing adult charges, or juvenile lifer. We view our work to be in partnership with those directly affected by the justice system; we do not consider ourselves service providers in the traditional sense.
Nowhere is it written in statute or discussed in a court of law that the lifelong, extrajudicial punishment for crime should be the forfeiture of one’s humanity. If [people] can’t gain employment, education, or enfranchisement, many times because of a mistake made in their youth, the damage is not singular; the collateral impact threatens an entire race and the ideals of America. – Professor Irvin Weathersby Jr.