I was appointed to a Direct File Juvenile case by Judge Lerner. YSRP reached out to me…The experience was a terrific collaboration for us. They covered a lot of the “social service” aspects required in these cases which this sole practitioner, heretofore, had to manage herself–from client and family contacts, to obtaining documents, processing referrals, interfacing with placement agencies, writing reports, and accompanying client to court. All of our interactions were professional and their assistance in the case was invaluable. Any attorney who has a DFJ case (private or court appointed) would be ineffective if he or she did not retain YSRP to assist in the preparation and presentation of the case. Our case outcome was positive for the client.

Mingo Stroeber, criminal defense attorney

What is the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, or YSRP?

The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) is a resource center for lawyers representing kids in the adult criminal justice system, with the ultimate goal of supporting kids in building a more positive or successful future.  There are two primary components to YSRP’s work: aiding attorneys with juvenile clients facing adult charges at the decertification and sentencing stages of criminal trials and supporting incarcerated youth and their families as they plan for reentry into society from prison. We aim to bring the community back into the court process and restore the humanity of the individual charged.

Who started YSRP, and why are they qualified to do this work?

Co-Executive Directors and Co-Founders Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian are Philadelphia-area attorneys with experience in juvenile and criminal justice advocacy. Fine is a former Zubrow fellow at Juvenile Law Center and federal law clerk, and is a graduate of Yale University and Duke School of Law. Visser Adjoian formerly served as associate director and staff attorney for the Toll Public Interest Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as a Penn Law postgraduate fellow at the Juvenile Law Center, and as a federal law clerk. She received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Both Fine and Visser Adjoian serve on the steering committee of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Visser Adjoian serves on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Student Union.

What jurisdictions does YSRP cover?

YSRP began operating in the Philadelphia area in the fall of 2014. We work primarily in Philadelphia County but our goal is to expand to the surrounding counties and eventually across the country as we continue building our capacity to provide necessary services for youth in the adult system. 

How is YSRP funded?

YSRP is funded philanthropically, with grants from local and national foundations and donations from individuals, law firms and other businesses. We are actively seeking additional sources of funding to provide the essential services we have described here. Please consider supporting our work by visiting the “Support Us” page on our website, or by contacting us directly at info@ysrp.org.

Why are kids charged in the adult criminal justice system?

In Pennsylvania, children can be automatically charged and prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system if they are accused of conduct falling within a category of specified offenses (e.g. aggravated assault, robbery). Young people charged with homicide-related offenses, no matter their age, are automatically charged in the adult system. Pennsylvania has sentenced more children to life in prison without parole than any other state in the country.

Why should kids receive special treatment?

The criminal justice system has long-treated kids differently from adults, in recognition of children’s greater capacity for change and reduced levels of culpability. As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, children “‘are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘contro[l] over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”  Miller v. Alabama (quoting Roper v. Simmons). In addition to anecdotal understandings about why kids are different, neuroscience research shows that “the brain systems that govern many aspects of social and emotional maturity, such as impulse control, weighing risks and rewards, planning ahead, and simultaneously considering multiple sources of information, as well as the coordination of emotion and cognition, continue to mature throughout adolescence.”

Who is eligible for YSRP’s services?

The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project seeks to support appointed and, occasionally, retained counsel in Philadelphia County who are representing children charged in the adult system. Because the Defender Association of Philadelphia has robust sentencing mitigation and reentry services available for juvenile clients, our support targets non-Defender counsel.  We soon hope to expand to assist many different types of lawyers outside of Philadelphia.

What steps will you take to perform this work?

With each accused child with whom we work, our process takes three stages. During stage one, we conduct a mitigation investigation, which entails talking to parents, teachers, social workers, coaches, doctors, and anyone else who can help paint a full picture of the child’s life. This information is provided to the young person’s defense attorney so that the sentencing judge can consider more than the moment in which the child committed a punishable offense, leading to a more thoughtful and rehabilitative sentence. During stage two, while the child is incarcerated, we work with the young person to develop a reintegration plan. As we help the young person take the initial steps necessary to carry out the plan while incarcerated, we continue to act as an informed and accessible resource for family members. Finally, stage three entails working with the young person upon release and serving as a consistent source of support as youth navigate the reintegration process.

Focusing on reentry does not cure the epidemic of mass incarceration our country is currently facing. How is your program different from all of the others?

YSRP is different because our goal is to provide wrap-around services and reintegration planning from the moment the young person gets sentenced and is sent to prison. By conducting a mitigation investigation and developing a thorough understanding of the child’s background and the challenges he has faced, YSRP staff develop a reintegration plan that is child-specific and responsive to the individual’s needs at the time they entered the system. YSRP aims to work closely with existing reentry service providers to support clients in navigating the options and opportunities available to them upon release. By focusing on kids, who have a greater opportunity to change, we can help avert further crime, reduce recidivism, and decrease prison populations over time.

How does YSRP measure success?

We will measure success both objectively and by assessing the subjective experience of the young people and families we serve.  Our objective measurements include the length of sentence received in individual cases where support was provided against sentencing data available for comparable cases as well as rates of re-incarceration and successes upon release in areas such as education and job placement.

Because increasing individuals’ and families’ sense of dignity and understanding of the system is critical to our mission, we will also develop measures of subjective experience, such as surveys and focus groups for young people and their families.

Over time, drawing on what we have learned from representing individual clients, we will also advocate for systemic reform to the criminal justice system, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of children. We will develop metrics for analyzing the outcomes of those efforts as well.