The Founders of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project on the Evolution of their Organization and Partnering with Community Members with Lived Experiences in the Justice System

Founded in 2014, by Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) functions as a comprehensive resource for lawyers representing youth in the adult justice system. By combining the skill sets of legal professionals with those of team members with the lived experience of going through the justice system, YSRP helps attorneys working with young clients facing charges, as well as incarcerated youth and families as they prepare to reenter society.


Now in its sixth year and with more clients coming home from incarceration, YSRP continues to support individuals with a focus on working in partnership with them, and bringing “the community into the court process and highlighting the humanity of the individual charged.” 


Recently Ava DuVernay’s hard-hitting miniseries When They See Usbrought to life vivid depictions of how the American justice system can fail young people, which helps to further showcase the importance of organizations like YSRP. Joanna and Lauren discussed the work their organization does in the community and why following the leadership of people with lived experience is necessary.


How has your model of reentry work evolved over time?

Joanna: I think most importantly and fundamentally for us over the past couple of years has been building the leadership of our team with individuals who have lived experience. We have two leaders on our team, Cameron Holmes and John Pace, who collectively spent over 50 years in prison and they are leading our reentry work in all of the ways. Working with both young people who have faced charges in the adult system and former juvenile lifers who were sentenced as kids and are coming home after decades in prison. That has been our biggest development and something that was part of our vision in the beginning that we are proud to have achieved at this point.

Lauren: Because the nature of our work is to remain in partnership with the young person or juvenile lifer for as long as they’re open to it, [and] because we’re now in our sixth year, we have a lot more folks who are in the reentry stage who work with us. We’re really glad to see people coming home and being able to continue the partnership on that side of things as opposed to just on the court-side.


What are some of the key components of the reentry support YSRP provides the people it works with? 

Joanna: The core components are individualized. We’re responsive and work in partnership with either a young person or former juvenile lifer to help co-create plans and achieve goals that they have set for themselves. Although it’s individualized, our reentry support does tend to break down into categories which include: employment, education, housing, behavioral and physical healthcare. Oftentimes people have other social and emotional support that they are looking for, like volunteer opportunities, connecting with a faith community, or other types of affinity groups that they want to be a part of based on their personal interests. It really depends.

Lauren: We don’t provide any of those services directly in-house, but what we can do is make the connections to other community organizations and individuals who we have deep relationships and partnerships with to make sure people have access to opportunities.


How has the Krasner administration been of assistance in keeping young people out of adult jails and prisons?

Lauren: It’s definitely a paradigm shift in terms of the approach of the office and the perspective in public-facing conversations. We’re grateful for how the District Attorney’s Office is talking about these issues, and is pushing in public spaces for these issues to be paid attention to in a very different way. We’re also grateful to have collaborative working relationships with a lot of folks at that office, which is a very different position to be in, from prior to this administration. 


We have definitely seen a reduction in terms of the number of young people’s cases who stay in the adult system. Unfortunately, the law governing youth being charged as adults is a Pennsylvania state law that requires that if conduct can be categorized under certain types of offenses, and it’s a young person generally between the ages of 15 and 17, the case still has to originate in adult court, so the reality is that there are still young people being charged as adults, and in many cases they are still spending significant amounts of time in adult jails pre-trial — we think any amount of time is significant for a child to spend in adult jail — and still being exposed to things like solitary confinement as a punishment, as well as the reduced educational opportunities that come with being in a jail setting that is not designed for children. 


What are some of the ways in which your organization has been misperceived?

Lauren: Because of our name and how specific the words in it are, sometimes people focus on one word or another, so they think we’re just a reentry organization or just a legal organization. But we run the full span as much as possible, so that’s another piece that we try to make sure people know. We’re not just one aspect of that continuum from the courtroom to the community.


What are some practices YSRP employs in working with people that have previously been in the legal system to help them stay out of it?

Lauren: Our model is all about access to opportunities and choices that people themselves are setting out to make and the goals and vision that they have for their own life experience post-incarceration. The system itself puts barriers in the way of opportunities, so as much as possible we’re here to remove those barriers and make those opportunities available. We consider success when people have the ability to connect with opportunities in housing, education, employment and healthcare, and generally that means staying out of the system; those things are not unrelated.


How much more has public awareness has heightened as a result of projects like “When They See Us” around the work that organizations like YSRP does?

Joanna: It definitely has heightened awareness in a powerful way. “When They See Us” is an example of so many things that we see in our cases, from children being tried as adults, young people being wrongfully convicted, people struggling with reentry after long periods inside, and the horrific reality of being a young person in an adult prison, which the final episode of the series highlighted so poignantly. 


Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine, founders of YSRP. Photo by Heather McBride.


How have you each transitioned from the legal sector to the nonprofit sector?

Lauren: We started this organization not because either of us set out to be nonprofit founders or leaders, or to be in this particular type of role, but because we felt like this is work that needs to happen in Philadelphia. There were unjust things we saw as lawyers (who have the privilege of what that degree confers and the access that it creates) that we simply could not turn away from. That privilege provided us with the ability to see certain things that we just couldn’t abide by and felt should be different. We were lucky enough to get initial funding to be able to follow an idea and try to create something out of it, but it was more about the work and the organizational part was sort of a means to an end.


We’ve now spent a lot of time being really intentional about building the organizational pieces and that’s a big part of what we do as leaders of YSRP, but for us it was about how we can imagine a justice system that looks different and treats people differently and we felt we were in a position to at least try to make that a reality. 


How has working with people with lived experience in the justice system informed the work that you have been doing?

Joanna: We believe that at the core — people are fundamentally the experts of their lived experience so — people who are formerly incarcerated ought to be leading and defining what an actually supportive reentry system might look like. [They understand] what someone might need when they’re stepping out of a prison for the first time in 15 or 20 years, or leaving a juvenile placement for the first time in nine or ten months. We are not the experts of that experience, so being grounded in that core belief and understanding allows our work, and the way we commit to each young person or former juvenile lifer that we work with, to be guided by those principles and the experiences that other people have had that have come before them.


Lived experience is also the lived experience of institutional racism, and the legacy of white supremacy rooted in the history of slavery in this country that the criminal justice system is premised on or an outgrowth of. Our understanding of the system being fundamentally racist is “baked in” to the way that we think about our work as a racial justice organization. So it’s all the way from the individual lived experience to the macro level understanding of systemic forces that operate in the lives of our client partners and their families every day.


This article was written in partnership with The HIVE at Spring Point. The Hive is a collection of organizations, individual practitioners, and youth who focus on strengths-based youth development that empowers young people to make positive change in their lives and their world.