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TPIC’s Joanna Visser Adjoian L ’10 launches nonprofit supporting youth entangled in adult criminal justice system

July 14, 2014

Joanna Visser Adjoian L’10, Associate Director for the Toll Public Interest Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has co-founded a new Philadelphia nonprofit, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), which aims to improve outcomes for minors entangled in the adult criminal justice system.

Working with her co-founder and co-Executive Director, fellow attorney Lauren Fine, Joanna founded YSRP to support children who are being tried as adults, through technical support for attorneys at sentencing and by supporting youth before and upon release from prison. Adjoian and Fine started their nonprofit as a result of being selected along with the leaders of 41 other organizations - out of nearly 3,000 applicants - to receive 18 months of seed funding and foundational leadership and business development support through the Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellowship, funded by Echoing Green, a philanthropy that has supported the founders of Teach For America, City Year, One Acre Fund, and SKS Microfinance.

“I am honored to have been selected to join the Echoing Green community as co-founder of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project,” said Adjoian. “I am deeply grateful to Penn Law for the many opportunities it has given me to develop my leadership and social justice lawyering skills as a student, alumna, and member of the staff. I am looking forward to putting these skills to use as we work to humanize the sentencing and reintegration process for youth in Philadelphia’s adult criminal justice system.”

Through the dissemination of best practices and hands-on support resources to criminal defense practitioners, YSRP serves to enhance the capacity of prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and other actors in the criminal justice system to approach sentencing and re-entry through a youth-specific lens. The goals of these programmatic efforts are to secure shorter or more rehabilitative sentences at the outset, resulting in lower recidivism rates due to successful reintegration into the community upon release.

Approximately 247,000 minors are tried as adults across the country annually. Under Pennsylvania law, there is no minimum age at which children can be tried as adults for certain crimes, such as murder. In 2012, 375 youths received adult prison sentences in the Commonwealth. The overwhelming majority are from greater Philadelphia, and are black males. If convicted, children in the adult system often face extreme and lengthy prison sentences, such as life without parole, as well as the collateral consequences of adult convictions, which create barriers to success in education, employment, and housing opportunities.

Adjoian, who graduated from Penn Law in 2010, joined the school’s Toll Public Interest Center as a Philadelphia Fellow after clerking for Judge Joel Schneider in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.  As a Fellow, she worked half-time at Penn and half-time at the Juvenile Law Center, where she focused on advocating for juveniles who had been sentenced to life without parole. Since 2012 she has worked full time to manage and oversee Penn Law’s 26 student-initiated pro bono projects. Through her work with the projects’ student leaders, she was able to hone her own entrepreneurial and nonprofit management skills, which has allowed her to launch this new nonprofit.

As part of its programming, YSRP staff and volunteers will work with a youth’s parents or caregivers, as well as the child’s teachers, social workers, coaches, doctors, and others who can help provide a fuller account of the young person’s life before a crime was committed, providing the youth’s attorney information at sentencing they otherwise may not have. This information can then be communicated to and considered by a judge to help lead to a more thoughtful and rehabilitative sentence. YSRP will then stay on as a resource for the young person’s family members, work with existing reentry resources to match the child up with those that best meet his or her needs, and use the information obtained through these investigative conversations to start planning for reentry into the community from the minute the child goes to prison.