January 23, 2017

“Today, I am releasing you from custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission and ordering that you enter and complete a residential treatment program that will better address your mental health needs.” As a Family Court judge uttered these words, tears streamed down the cheeks of T.L., the eighteen-year-old girl sitting at counsel table. T.L.’s three year ordeal in New Jersey’s juvenile incarceration system—during which she was held in isolation for over one year, brutally attacked by corrections officers, and denied essential mental health treatment—was over, thanks in large part to the work of the Newark-based Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic (CYJC).
Over the past year, the CYJC has scored significant legal victories on behalf of young clients who, like T.L., are incarcerated in New Jersey’s juvenile correctional facilities. Clinic faculty, fellows, and students advocated for and secured the early release of several clients. They successfully opposed parole revocation on behalf of a nineteen-year-old, college-bound father. They fought to ensure that youth with mental illness receive individual therapy and other necessary treatment services. They compelled the State to provide adaptive recreational equipment and a braille computer for a blind client. They secured housing and developed re-entry plans for clients who otherwise would have been homeless upon their release from custody. And, after a five-month hearing and emergency appeal, they won a stay of the transfer of a 19-year-old client from a juvenile facility to an adult prison. As that client, X.L., wrote shortly after the hearing, “If it wasn’t for you guys, there’s no telling what might have happened to me.”
Rutgers has provided legal representation to incarcerated youth since 2009, when Distinguished Clinical Professors Sandra Simkins (Camden) and Laura Cohen (Newark) launched the inter-clinic Juvenile Post-Disposition Advocacy Project. The project’s focus on the legal needs of young people in long-term correctional facilities is perhaps unique among the country’s law school clinics. Since its inception, Law School faculty, clinical fellows, and students have represented over 400 adolescents in custody, all of whom were adjudicated delinquent in Family Court and sentenced to terms of up to 20 years. According to Cohen, director of the CYJC, “Incarcerated young people suffer almost unimaginable harm during their years in custody. They are cut off from their families and communities, subjected to long periods of solitary confinement (during which they are not permitted to attend school or participate in treatment programs), and victimized by staff and other youth. Although the putative purpose of juvenile incarceration is rehabilitative, the educational, mental health, and other services afforded our clients is woefully inadequate. It is little wonder that youth discharged from these facilities re-offend at rates exceeding 80%, despite an annual price tag of $200,000 per young person.”
The Rutgers project, which is the only source of post-dispositional legal representation for New Jersey’s incarcerated young people, currently has 80 adolescent clients and employs one clinical fellow, Eliza Nagel (Newark Law ’11). Students enrolled in the CYJC each are assigned to work with at least one youth in custody. The challenges confronting these young people are varied and complex, ranging from conditions of confinement (including isolation and institutional abuse, among others) to education, medical and mental health treatment and neglect, child custody, immigration, parole and parole revocation, and re-entry. As a result, students not only gain the experience of interviewing and counseling their young clients but also must grapple with a wide range of legal issues. Simpkins noted, "By engaging in live client advocacy and assisting youth during their confinement and upon their release, students get a unique view of the juvenile justice system and become involved in the national conditions of confiement reform movement."
The clinics’ work on behalf of individual clients has had a far-reaching systemic impact, as well. Because juvenile facilities operate under a cloak of confidentiality, they have long been shielded from public scrutiny. Clinical staff and students are the first outsiders to regularly visit juvenile facilities and speak with the young people held there. According to Cohen, “Had it not been for the presence of attorneys and law students on the ground, none of these issues would have come to light.” As a result of this window being opened, Simkins, Cohen, and Distinguished Practice Professor Douglas Eakeley formed a statewide juvenile justice reform coalition, which is committed to ending the mass incarceration of New Jersey’s Black and Latino youth and ensuring that those young people who remain in custody are treated compassionately, kept safe, and afforded the rehabilitative assistance that they need and to which they are entitled. Last year, the coalition’s advocacy led to passage of sweeping legislation that banned punitive solitary confinement in juvenile facilities and extended due process protections to youth facing transfer to adult prisons, among other reforms.
During the 2015 fall semester, CYJC students Jenny Zhang ‘16 and Pooja Patel ’16 worked tirelessly to prepare their 19-year-old client, M.C., for his appearance before the Parole Board. After he was granted release, M.C. wrote: “I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for me and my family. You have never given up on me or let me give up on myself. I am convinced that if you never took my case, I would still have many years left to serve.” Today, M.C. is home with his parents, working, and attending college, a testament to the power of clinical advocacy.

Rutgers Law Media Contacts:
Mike Sepanic (Camden); Elizabeth Moore (Newark)

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