The nonprofit Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), a resource for lawyers representing youth in the adult criminal justice system, has been awarded a two-year $125,000 grant from The Barra Foundation’s Catalyst Fund. Intended to support innovative, early stage ideas, the Fund also supported projects from The Clay Studio and Mural Arts Program’s Open Source project.
Founded last September, YSRP is the brainchild of Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian, whose previous work with the Juvenile Law Center helped inform their decision to start a nonprofit.
YSRP also earned them each a 2014 Echoing Green Fellowship, which provides seed-stage funding and support to emerging leaders working toward social change.
The nascent organization seeks to achieve shorter and fairer sentences for youth facing adult criminal charges by providing support to court-appointed counsel. It also works with the families of young people — and the young people themselves — to provide guidance, connect them to resources, and establish plans for reentry.
“We’re really trying to develop a new model that can be replicated elsewhere,” said Visser Adjoian. “The idea is to use a novel approach that hasn’t been tried before.”
In Pennsylvania, children are automatically prosecuted in adult court if their charges fall within a certain category of offenses. Children as young as ten charged with homicide-related offenses can be tried as adults, she said.
According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, each year approximately 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, and incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. Outcomes for these youth are far grimmer than for their peers in the juvenile system, which is “designed to be more rehabilitative,” explained Visser Adjoian.
Children in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times more likely to commit suicide than children in the juvenile system, she said. They also face decreased economic prospects after their release.
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Many youth receive court-appointed lawyers whose resources are more limited than the public defender’s office. While public defenders are full-time attorneys employed by the government who exclusively represent indigent defendants, court-appointed lawyers are private attorneys appointed on an as-needed basis by the courts.
As a result, YSRP is focused on helping court-appointed counsel develop “social biographies” for clients, Visser Adjoian said, “talking to family members, teachers, coaches, and all the people who make up the young person’s network.”
The goal is to present a more complete representation of the youth to receive the fairest sentence possible, she added.
YSRP is actively working with four youth and will use funds from The Barra Foundation to scale up its efforts.
Image via YSRP-30-
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