As a Penn Law Review Public Interest Fellow, Michael Joseph L’19 is working on the Economic Justice team at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law Schools’s Office of Communications spoke with Joseph about his work advocating on behalf of young people ensnared in the criminal justice system.
Office of Communications: What is Juvenile Law Center and why, in your opinion, is its work important?
Michael Joseph: Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity, and opportunity for all youth in the child welfare and justice systems. Founded in 1975, Juvenile Law Center is the first non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the country. Through litigation, appellate advocacy, submission of amicus (friend-of-the- court) briefs, policy reform, public education, training, consulting, and strategic communications, the center fights for children who come into contact with the child welfare and justice systems.
Juvenile Law Center works to create a society that takes into account the unique and developmentally distinct qualities of youth. Advocating against punitive policies that cause disproportionate harm to Black and Brown youth, Juvenile Law Center advocates for policies that empower youth, center their voices, and allow them meaningful opportunities for successful adulthoods.
Office of Communications: Tell us about your work as a Fellow.
Joseph: My fellowship is dedicated to challenging court fees and fines imposed on youth in the juvenile and criminal legal systems. Although fees and fines pervade the juvenile legal system, there is a general lack of transparency around the practice of imposing monetary sanctions on youth. There is little clarity among state legislatures and courts on how to define a young person’s “ability to pay,” little consideration for the circumstances of a young person’s life, and little concern for the impact that imposing fees and fines has on youth and their families. Research shows that imposing monetary sanctions not only keeps youth under the court’s supervision longer but also increases recidivism rates and heightens racial disparities in the juvenile legal system.
Through my fellowship, I have sought to collect data, build legal arguments, and generate the political will to end the imposition of fines and fees on youth in multiple jurisdictions.feie
Office of Communications: Do you have a favorite moment from your time as a Fellow?
Joseph: In January, I had the opportunity to prepare and present testimony to the Maryland House of Delegates in support of H.B. 36, a bill that sought to eliminate fees and fines from Maryland’s juvenile legal system. My testimony built off the research of two Penn Law students, and it demonstrated wide variations among Maryland counties regarding their imposition and enforcement of fines and fees on youth. The bill passed both houses of the Maryland legislature, and the governor recently signed the bill into law.
Office of Communications: How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work and the lives of your clients?
Joseph: As of July 17, nearly 1,200 youth in juvenile detention facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. Although carceral facilities are never an appropriate environment for children, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more critical to keep youth out of these facilities, where social distancing is impossible. Beyond the health risks posed by COVID-19, the pandemic has also created an economic crisis that has disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color. Youth who have court debt are increasingly unable to pay as millions of parents have lost their jobs in the midst of the pandemic.
Juvenile Law Center has sought to address this crisis by issuing a call for a nationwide moratorium on juvenile justice fees and fines signed by over 130 organizations. Juvenile Law Center is also advocating for implementation of the moratorium in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Office of Communications: Did you have any experiences at the Law School that inspired you to pursue the work you’re doing today?
Joseph: Adjunct Professor of Law Jessica Feierman L’00 and Adjunct Professor of Law Marsha Levick’s CW’71 Juvenile Justice seminar helped me learn more about the history of the juvenile legal system and laid the foundation for my work with Juvenile Law Center. In addition, Senior Fellow David Rudovsky’s classes and his work as a civil rights lawyer inspired me to pursue a career in social justice.
Penn Law offers several postgraduate fellowships, which aid graduates in the pursuit of careers as social justice advocates.