Students Team Up with JustChildren, Law Firm to Help Juveniles Convicted of Adult Crimes
Of the more than 800 youth in juvenile correctional centers across Virginia, more than a quarter have been convicted of serious crimes, with a third of that number receiving blended sentences that require some time in adult prison, according to Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice statistics.
A team of University of Virginia law students, attorneys from the McGuireWoods law firm and the legal aid program JustChildren are working together to help many of these youths demonstrate to the courts that they deserve a second chance.
"We meet these people and learn more about their situations," said Katie Shen, a third-year law student who has participated in the McGuireWoods Pro Bono Child Advocacy Project for the past two years. With futures at stake, she said, "It's important to do well."
Virginia law provides for automatic sentence review hearings for incarcerated juvenile offenders, with the first held two years post-sentencing and then every year thereafter while in the custody of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.
Once an offender turns 21 or is transferred to an adult prison, however, the reviews end.
Dozens of juvenile offenders turn to JustChildren for help first. The program is headquartered at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, with offices in Richmond and Petersburg.
JustChildren's small group of staff attorneys divides their time among other types of youth advocacy cases as well, so the program relies heavily on the pro bono contributions of the McGuireWoods law firm to meet demand. The serious offender cases the firm accepts are mainly spread among attorneys in their Charlottesville, Tysons Corner and Richmond offices, according to Collin Hite, a partner at McGuireWoods.
The relationship between the program and the firm began in 2008, in part, thanks to a friendship between Andrew Block, founder of JustChildren and current faculty director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at the Law School, and Timothy Heaphy '91, a former McGuireWoods attorney and current U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. (Block's clinic also puts students to work on juvenile cases, but it is separate from the pro bono project.)
Today, Katie Ryan '92 serves as JustChildren's pro bono coordinator. She said first-year students field calls for assistance, relaying advice and referral information, while second- and third-year students work with McGuireWoods attorneys directly on the cases.
The attorneys simultaneously supervise and mentor the law students, and the students learn quickly that the stakes can be high.
A lot of these juvenile offenders have Department of Corrections sentences sitting on them, and they can go early. They don't have to age out at 21," Hite said. We're not only trying to get them out early, we're trying to get their Department of Corrections time suspended. Once they transfer to prison, there are no more reviews, no more opportunities to modify their sentence. Some kids have 10 years' prison time facing them for even a first offense."
Kate Duvall, lead attorney for serious offender cases at JustChildren and a 2006 Law School graduate, said families of the youths must meet an income threshold to qualify for the program. Of the estimated 30 requests made for legal assistance each year, she said, only in two or three instances will an offender not have been represented by a public defender or court appointed counsel originally.
Looking Beyond Labels
The average youth offender convicted of an adult crime in Virginia looks like this, according to JustChildren and state statistics:
- The offender is usually male, and although he can be tried as an adult when as young as age 14, he's usually 15 or 16 when he commits the crime.
- He most likely commits the offense as part of a group, and is often aided or encouraged by older individuals.
- He has likely been convicted of robbery. Both armed and strong-arm robbery can carry an adult sentence in Virginia — a fact many youths learn the hard way.
Research has shown that children's minds are different than those of adults, Duvall said. They view risk in a different way, and mature at a different rate than once thought," she said.
Duvall added that Supreme Court decisions in 2005 and 2010 outlawing the juvenile death penalty and life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicidal offenses, respectively, affirm the current research and support a more sympathetic standard of justice for youth offenders.
When you just look at the label of the crime, you can get bogged down in that," she said. You have to look at all the facts and circumstances, and what they have done to rehabilitate themselves.
Duvall said the program considers factors such as good behavior and leadership roles within the youth detention facility, as well as progress toward a degree or GED, when deciding whether to take a case. But whatever progress a youth has made based on the many rehabilitative services available to him in the juvenile facility, she said, is threatened by the relative lack of services in an adult facility. There, the greater possibility of abuse and criminal coaching by other inmates exists and may increase the chances of recidivism. Third-year student Shen said she has a younger brother who has never gotten into trouble with the law, but even so, she said it helped her relate when she took on her first official case last year.
According to attorneys associated with the program, local courts routinely compliment them on the thoroughness of the briefs presented. The program takes on as many reviews as it can, staying with the youths and tracking their progress even if earlier reviews prove unsuccessful.
Hite, of McGuireWoods, said an average case can be valued at around $10,000 in billable hours per year — and that's not including the students' time.
He said without JustChildren and the students' help, preparing materials for the juvenile offender reviews would most likely fall into the laps of overworked public defenders, who don't receive additional compensation for doing the work.
Responsibilities and Rewards of Pro Bono
On a recent visit to the Hanover Juvenile Correctional Center, students Janice Wang and Blaire Hawkins joined Hite to meet their new client, a 20-year-old, and collect vital information about his case.
After two preparatory phone conferences with Hite, the students were ready to help ask questions and gather information.
"We talked a little about what the client's goals were — coming up with a solid plan for what he will do after his release and making sure he has concrete steps he's thought through," Wang said. I think it's always really interesting to meet with a client in person so they can develop a trust in who is representing them and for us to get a sense of what's important to them."
Wang will be drafting the main brief in support of the client's release. Hawkins will be drafting supporting documents, such as witness affidavits testifying to the client's progress. Ideally, a person of influence such as the superintendent of the youth facility will make a strong recommendation that some or all of the remainder of the sentence be suspended.
A former school teacher and current third-year student, Wang has been volunteering with JustChildren since she was a first-year law student fielding incoming requests for assistance.
Last year, she was handed her first case, and in June, she and fellow student Jessica Smith shared in a successful client review, supervised and argued by Hite. The judge freed their client.
"It's great working with Collin because he obviously takes his pro bono responsibilities seriously, and he has had experience with serious offender representation in the past," Wang said.
For both the students and pro bono attorneys, the rewards extend beyond their resumes.
Paul Jenkins, an associate at McGuireWoods, has taken on two cases since starting with the firm in January. It's one of the first things they handed me when I walked in the door," he said. "The partners encourage the associates here to get involved when they can."
One of his pro bono clients shot someone during a botched robbery attempt.
So far during his incarceration, the client has earned his high school diploma, finished several college-level courses, become a math tutor to other residents at the facility to help them study for GED exams, and applied and gotten accepted to community college (which JustChildren anticipates he will start upon his release). He dreams of being a math teacher in the inner city, where he can help kids like himself, attorneys with JustChildren said.
The youth was 17 when he was convicted of aggravated assault and use of a weapon in the conviction of a felony. He's now 20. He'll get one more review in June before he turns 21.
Jenkins said he enjoys doing the work because he previously worked as a criminal defense attorney. Compared to his daily work for the firm in commercial litigation, he said, the pro bono work "has a lot more human complexity to it."
Duvall said even when the cases are not successful, just having an attorney speaking to [the juvenile offenders] makes them feel like they've been heard."
As one client wrote in a thank-you letter, You believed in me when other people didn't."
But Hite said he doesn't do the pro bono work for the gratitude.
The reward, hopefully, is the kid never comes back into the criminal justice system again," he said. What I want to do is make a difference to the overall system. Kids that have made a mistake should get a second chance. It benefits all of us."