PCJP student meets with incarcerated person to explain rights
Maggie Mendez (’19) meeting and advising juvenile life without parole client about the youth parole process

The Post-Conviction Justice Project has made juvenile justice system reform a priority, bringing hope to thousands of persons sentenced to LWOP

By Julie Riggott

The juvenile justice system was created to put youth offenders on the track to becoming responsible citizens. It was designed to be rehabilitative, based on the understanding – which brain science has since proven – that children are different from adults. All of that changed in the 1990s. 

“With the rise of gangs and violence, young people were increasingly committing very serious crimes, and society saw them as scary, irredeemable monsters,” says Heidi Rummel, co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) at the USC Gould School of Law. “Critics were quick to label them super predators and throw them away.”

Kids as young as 14 in California (and as young as 10 in some other states) were thrown into adult court and given an adult sentence, which was, in many cases, life without any real possibility of release on parole. 

For the past 15 years, PCJP has focused its energies on changing a system that has harshly treated so many young people — and disproportionately young people of color — with results that will impact tens of thousands. Through litigation and, most broadly, through legislation, PCJP has led the way toward hope for incarcerated youth. Since 2008, PCJP has written or co-sponsored nearly every juvenile justice bill in California.

Being able to say I briefed a precedent-setting appeal in the California Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, and argued it there, is incredible. I’m going into public defense, so it’s been a big leg up.

Nina Rosser (’21)