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In September 2020, after more than 22 years of incarceration, Shariff walked out of the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, free at last. He embraced his mother, Ruby, and his sister, Dara, who had been fighting alongside him for his freedom since he was 15 years old.

Hugging his mother for the first time since he was a teenager, Shariff says the feeling of seeing her there was “indescribable.” Ruby and Dara both had been fierce advocates of Shariff, right alongside him, never wavering in their hope and determination that one day he would come home.

In fact, it’s this spark of hope that first brought Ruby and Dara to a meeting in a North Philly church, more than 10 years ago, for people with loved ones who, as children, were sentenced to die in prison. YSRP’s co-founders Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian, then young attorneys in Philadelphia, got to know Ruby and Dara at these meetings over time, as Steering Committee members of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Shariff bookends Ruby and Dara’s meeting Joanna and Lauren near two landmark US Supreme Court decisions: Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court abolished the death penalty for children (under 18), and Graham v. Florida, in which the Court abolished life without parole for children, if a life was not lost.

Shariff, middle, with Ruby, left, and Dara, before he was sentenced to life without parole.

Shariff, middle, with Ruby, left, and Dara, home at last after 22 years of incarceration.

In the earliest days, more than 50 family members and advocates would gather at these meetings. Over time, however, as meaningful opportunities for relief for their loved ones waned and so too did the number of attendees, Ruby and Dara continued to show up, driven by their unshakeable belief that a meaningful life outside prison walls for Shariff, and so many others, was possible. As the group got smaller over time, meetings shifted first to an office, and occasionally around kitchen tables, as family members and advocates strategized about how to bring their loved ones home.

Lauren and Joanna credit Ruby and Dara, in particular, as a big piece of the inspiration for starting YSRP more than 6 years ago. It was their dogged determination and dedication, and their willingness to share their experiences as a mother and sister, that gave Lauren and Joanna great insight into how the courts treated family members.

Ruby and Dara’s experience brought into stark relief what had been playing out in courtrooms across the city: as people who loved Shariff, then a child, and knew him best, the court process did not value hearing their perspective. Shariff was rendered disposable in a justice system that did not care about Black boys, or their futures. Ruby and Dara’s fight, however — even in the days when few pathways for release appeared viable — demanded that no other young person face what Shariff had faced in court, and that Shariff, and so many others, deserved the opportunity to come home and live a full life with dignity.

Lauren and Joanna saw in Ruby and Dara’s experience the need for young people’s voices, and their loved ones’ voices, to not only be present in their court proceedings, but central to them.

In 2014, they co-founded YSRP with the vision of transforming the way that children are treated, and charged, in the adult justice system.

As more and more favorable US Supreme Court decisions came down, first Miller v. Alabama (2012) and then Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), Shariff’s optimism at a chance for release from prison grew, albeit hesitantly. When Montgomery was decided, YSRP mobilized to coordinate pro bono legal representation for Juvenile Lifers who had been sentenced in Philadelphia. We trained nearly 100 law and social work graduate students and engaged with attorneys to provide mitigation and reentry support for 40 Juvenile Lifers. Shariff was one of those 40.

Shariff and Ruby, celebrating his homecoming.

Over the course of two years, beginning in 2018, YSRP partnered closely with Shariff to create a comprehensive mitigation report that described the difficult circumstances he faced before his arrest at age 15; his experience of incarceration as a teenager in adult prison; and the powerful steps he took to learn, grow and build his leadership and community in prison. In partnership with Shariff and his dedicated pro bono legal team of Bree Archambault and Alexis Cocco of Reed Smith, LLP, and YSRP worked to prepare an actionable plan for his long-anticipated release from prison after decades. It’s the moment that Ruby and Dara had dreamt of with Joanna and Lauren for years — a moment that once seemed a remote possibility.

Just two months ago, Shariff walked out of prison, at long last. Amid a global pandemic, and uprising for Black lives, Shariff is full of reflection, and deep resilience. Within a day of being home, Dara took him to get his learner’s permit and, just a couple of weeks later, he had his driver’s license and a Lincoln. Shariff also voted in the recent general election, having done all of his research on voter registration deadlines, especially for mail ballots. He’s now working a job in infrastructure, with benefits.

Shariff says the best part about being home is the freedom — the “freedom to get up and go. To just go and visit my family, or go out to eat. Just enjoying the freedom.” With his newfound freedom, he says, also comes peace of mind. Not living daily with “the constant violence, and the tension, and the racism and the misery of living in prison,” says Shariff, is a freedom in and of itself.

Shariff and Dara, celebrating at his homecoming party in September 2020.

Like his mom and sister, Shariff is a fighter. His freedom comes with a sense of responsibility to keep fighting for his brothers on the inside to get free — especially now, amid deplorable prison conditions in a devastating pandemic. Shariff joins a strong community of leaders on the outside now. Former Juvenile Lifers, like him, who are strengthening our communities, organizing to create justice, and build opportunity for others. Shariff is a true survivor, with boundless resilience and wisdom. We are truly proud to share in the joy of Shariff’s homecoming, and we know that Shariff’s strength, dedication to his family, and commitment to justice position him for greatness in this world.   Photos provided courtesy of Shariff.

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