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Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Joanna Visser L’10, Toll Public Interest Center Philadelphia Fellow

Joanna Visser L’10, joined the Toll Public Interest Center and Juvenile Law Center as the 2011 Toll Public Interest Center Philadelphia Fellow, where she supports efforts to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, and counsels Penn Law students on local pro bono and public interest opportunities. Before beginning her Fellowship, she served as law clerk to the Honorable Joel Schneider, Magistrate Judge, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Visser spoke with the Law School’s Office of Communications about her road to law school, her fellowship work at Juvenile Law Center, and the impact Penn Law had on her experiences and future.
Penn Law (PL): Did you always have a strong ethic of service or was this instilled in you while you were a law student?
Joanna Visser (JV): I chose Penn Law because of its commitment to public service and strong ties to the public interest community in Philadelphia. Prior to law school, I spent two years as a family law paralegal at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, where I also coordinated the organization’s Violence Against Women Act grant from the Department of Justice. I then spent a year teaching English in Quito, Ecuador. I received my B.A. in Urban Studies and Hispanic Studies (Spanish) from Penn, where I wrote my honors thesis on youth violence prevention in Philadelphia and received the Urban Studies Department Award for Commitment to Social Justice in the City.
PL: Were you actively involved in public interest while attending Penn Law?
JV: During law school, I served as the Community Service Chair for the Black Law Students Association, Symposium Editor for the Journal of International Law, Co-Founder and Director of the Urban Law Forum, Speaker Series Chair for the Prisoners Legal Education and Advocacy Project, and volunteered at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. I spent my summers at the Southern Center for Human Rights, Debevoise & Plimpton, LLC, and as a Penn Law International Human Rights Summer Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, where I worked on a Central American Youth Gang Initiative. I also interned at the Federal Defender for the District of New Jersey (Camden) and participated in the Criminal Defense Clinic at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Upon graduation, I was awarded the Summer Jackson-Healy Public Service Award in support and recognition of my public interest commitment.
PL: What is Juvenile Law Center and what are the project’s impacts?
At Juvenile Law Center, the oldest non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the United States, my fellowship project focuses exclusively on efforts to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole (JLWOP). Juvenile Law Center has been part of a national coalition working to transform Eighth Amendment jurisprudence when it comes to youth sentenced as adults. Pennsylvania leads the world in sentences of JLWOP, with approximately 480 juvenile lifers in the state and some cases dating to the early 1950’s. As the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to die in prison, ending JLWOP would bring the U.S. into conformity with international norms. Notably, ending JLWOP would not guarantee that an inmate would be released. Instead, it would give current lifers a chance to convince the parole board that they have changed significantly, and that their release would be consistent with public safety and the requisites of punishment.
On March 20th the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases challenging the constitutionality of sentencing 14 year olds to LWOP for homicide offenses (see At Juvenile Law Center, I participated in the co-authoring of an amicus brief that was submitted to the Court in these cases (the brief is also available at the link provided above). Following the arguments, I have continued to be involved in Juvenile Law Center’s advocacy around the issues presented by the cases.
PL: Are you involved in any other public interest work?
JV: In addition to assisting in Juvenile Law Center’s litigation efforts, I also serve as Coordinator of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which is an interdisciplinary group of laypersons and professionals dedicated to ending JLWOP in Pennsylvania. Recently, the Coalition’s work has focused on organizing the families and supporters of Pennsylvania juvenile lifers, with the goal of building a stronger community of advocates in the state. To that end, a family gathering was held in mid-April in Philadelphia, with approximately 170 family members and supporters in attendance.
PL: What is the value of Penn Law’s program?
JV: I would not have had the opportunity to engage in this important work without the support of one of Penn Law’s post-graduate fellowships, and for that I am extremely grateful. Because of the nature of the Philadelphia Fellowship, half of my time was spent as a staff attorney and advisor in the Toll Public Interest Center. As a result, I was able to involve our talented students in some of my work at Juvenile Law Center. Specifically, by forming the JLWOP Working Group, I have been very fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of two outstanding Penn Law 3Ls – Jamie Gullen and Rekha Nair, who have been conducting outreach to families and supporters, gathering data on juvenile lifers, and doing important legislative research for the Coalition. My goal is for this work to continue beyond my fellowship term, with continued Penn Law student involvement.
PL: How has this experience made you a better lawyer or advocate?
JV: Throughout my fellowship, I have had the chance to participate in litigation, policy advocacy, and community organizing under the supervision of expert attorneys at Juvenile Law Center, who are nationally recognized leaders in the field. This has undoubtedly served to make me a better lawyer and a better advocate, and will serve me well as I continue my career.