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YSRP featured on PBS series on the lives of returning citizens

In a recent episode of “Returning Citizens: Life Beyond Incarceration” featuring YSRP, host Paul Butler focuses on the historical implications of trying and sentencing youth as adults. The episode, entitled “Testimony,” explores what happens when we challenge the system to think big about the futures of all young people, regardless of the decisions they have made, rather than funneling children into a system of unfair punishment.

According to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence, brain development extends longer than we ever thought, and if young people are still maturing, they should not be charged and incarcerated as if they are adults. What’s more, Steinberg reports that 90% of youth under 18 who are caught up in the juvenile system do not continue to engage in further criminal behavior as adults. By rethinking how we react to adolescent behavior, he says, we can still prioritize safety while giving young people the opportunity to grow.

The episode illustrates a legal system that has been traditionally ill-equipped to serve children. In an anecdote from YSRP founder Lauren Fine, we learn of a 10-year-old charged as an adult in Pennsylvania who was given crayons after being put in an adult jail cell. The stark contrast between trying the boy as an adult yet treating him as a child, is a reminder of, as Fine puts it, “a system pretending that he is something that he’s not.”  

Butler also attends a session of YSRP’s Intergenerational Healing Circle (IGHC), a bi-weekly conversation designed for young people who’ve been charged as adults and former Juvenile Lifers. Launched in 2020, the IGHC centers understanding and healing from trauma; creating connectedness rooted in shared experience of incarceration and reentry; developing agency and liberation-oriented leadership; and building collective power.

“Testimony” also explores the impact of the now-unconstitutional sentence of life in prison without parole for teens – as well as the implications of Miller vs. Alabama, the Supreme Court case that overturned the sentence and sent Juvenile Lifers home after decades of incarceration.

Through harrowing accounts of people prosecuted as adults, we hear the trauma of being handed a life sentence at the ages of 14 to 17 – or, as the men and women featured call it, “death by incarceration.” The former juvenile lifers felt relief when they got word that they had been released, but more importantly, they felt motivated to be the best person they could be. And for one healing circle member, Ghani, that means transforming accountability into redemption.

“In my view, accountability is not placing someone in a prison cell. That’s not being accountable,” he says in the episode. “Right now, I can’t bring life back, but what I can do is help save life or help steer other people away from hurting other people like I did when I was 15 years old. And that’s what the Intergenerational Healing Circle is really about. It’s about service. It’s about redemption. It’s about salvation. It’s about making our communities healthy and safe.”

Returning Citizens: Life Beyond Incarceration is presented by PBS and airs on WHYY locally. To view the episode featuring YSRP, visit  

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