PCJP client Christian helped generate public support for PCJP’s efforts to reform California’s Youth Sentencing Laws
In the late 1990s, when Christian was 16 years old, he was out riding his bicycle with a 19-year-old companion who was carrying a gun. The two became involved in a robbery of a group of teenagers, and although violence had not been part of any plan, and although Chris turned and ran in the opposite direction when his companion opened fire, Chris was convicted of aiding and abetting a homicide. Like thousands before him, Chris was sentenced as a “juvenile” to life without parole, a sentence so common in the criminal legal system that it has its own acronym – “JLWOP.”
In 2008, PCJP had just begun to prioritize efforts to reform the juvenile justice system in California, using a combination of litigation and legislative advocacy to try to bring hope to thousands of incarcerated people serving time for crimes they had committed as children. Along with leaders of Human Rights Watch, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and other organizations dedicated to juvenile justice reform, PCJP Co-Director and Clinical Professor of Law Heidi Rummel wrote legislation to give these children a second chance.
The first bill was S.B. 9, the “Fair Sentencing for Youth Act,” which was introduced in 2011.The bill specified that children sentenced to life without parole would become eligible to be resentenced to 25 years to life, with the possibility of applying for parole after serving the minimum of 25 years. As the bill was under consideration in Sacramento, Chris’s story began to capture media and public attention, appearing in stories in the L.A. Times, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. The neuroscience of brain maturation had entered the mainstream, and it was indisputable that sentencing children to die behind bars for crimes committed while their brains were not fully formed was both cruel and grossly unfair. The bill passed the legislature, and on October 1, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 9 into law.
With a promising new tool finally at its disposal, PCJP agreed to represent Chris and 12 others facing JLWOP. Over the ensuing 10 years, several PCJP students, under the supervision of Professor Rummel and PCJP Co-Director and Clinical Professor of Law Michael Brennan, have continued to advocate for these “original 13,” filing petitions for resentencing and parole and advocating at hearings. On May 19, 2022, Chris finally was released.
PCJP student Adedolapo Adeniji, who advocated for Chris at his hearing, spoke to us about the experience:
Why did you decide to enroll in PCJP?
I was drawn to this work because of my previous experience in college with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). During that time, I was able to work with different types of people who had been impacted by the justice system by creating art workshops where we could express ourselves fully. Coming to law school, I knew I wanted to do this type of work with the skills I was building while learning about the law. I knew about PCJP before starting at USC and that it was a place where I wanted to learn and grow. The work we do here is essential and I deeply believe that all practitioners of the law must spend their time serving in some way.
How did you first meet Chris, and what was the meeting like?
I met Chris for the first time while he was in his prison. We were able to meet with masks on in a visiting room. Most of our conversations happened on Zoom or over the phone though.
What did you do in connection with representing Chris?
We met to go over parole hearing questions and prepare him for his Parole Board Hearing. I wrote a Parole Submission that was submitted to the board advocating for why he is not a danger to society – i.e., the legal standard that needs to be met to be released on parole.
What did it feel like when you learned Chris would be granted parole?
It felt like he had finally achieved everything that he deserved and was denied for so long. It was all him.
What was his release day like?
It was great to meet Chris’s family and hear them talk about the importance of that day for them. I was there to show PCJP’s support, but the day was really about Chris and his family. He met some of them for the first time and was seeing others after such a long time. I was just so happy that they could experience the joy of being in each other’s presence again.
How have you changed, personally, because of PCJP?
I have learned so much from everyone in PCJP, from the attorneys to students and most especially our clients. I have learned to realize that lawyering does not always mean having all the answers. We may have different tools, education, and access because of what our school has provided but that in no way makes me the smartest person in the room. I have learned so much more about the legal system and its intricacies of it that are not clear from the outside looking in.
Would you recommend experiential learning in law school to other students? Why?
I more than recommend it. Learning through experience is part of what makes us better lawyers. Everything we learn in law school is almost antithetical to what being a lawyer is. It’s not isolated competition but real lawyering requires you to build a community of people who will have answers to questions when you don’t. It’s about being in the community and working with people who we tout support for when we are reading cases. Experiential learning is a real-life experience and not just rote memorization followed by quantification of how well you know the answers.