Program will give legal aid to juveniles

The Post-Conviction Justice Project at the Gould School of Law announced Wednesday it would expand its outreach to include juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The project, which started in 1981, aims to provide legal representation to deserving individuals while giving law students an opportunity to become skilled and ethical advocates, according to the Post-Conviction Justice Projects’ website.

The project initially represented women serving life sentences in prison, particularly those who have a history of intimate partner battering. On Wednesday, the program has decided to stretch its scope to include juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison.

The PCJP agreed to represent 12 juveniles. Law professors Heidi Rummel and Michael Brennan, who co-direct the project, will supervise the 16 Gould students working on the cases, according to a statement.

According to law student Michael Hart, the project provides an opportunity to experience advocacy’s impact on the law.

“Our clients are so hopeful and doing the best they can to make their lives worthwhile,” Hart said in a statement. “Being a part of the Post-Conviction Justice Project has allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Rummel said the high potential for juveniles to change their behavior provided a good reason for taking on the new cases.

“We have taken on this issue because children are different than adults, and deserve to be treated differently in our criminal justice system,” Rummel said in a statement. “They are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure and often victims of their life circumstances. But most importantly, they have a much greater capacity to grow and change.”

The program’s new focus on juveniles comes on the heels of Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval of the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allows juveniles sentenced to life without parole to petition to be re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

The bill applies to 300 juvenile offenders currently serving life terms without parole, but they will have to meet stringent criteria to be eligible for re-sentencing. Following re-sentencing, they are required to convince the parole board that they are suitable for parole.

The juveniles represented by the Gould students expressed hope about the new law.

“I was overwhelmed with joy when I heard that Gov. Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act,” Elizabeth Lozano, an incarcerated 16-year-old said in the statement. “It gives me hope — for me and for future generations of children in California who will no longer be thrown away.”

Rummel echoed similar sentiments about the law’s potential to change the lives of these juveniles.

“It’s very difficult for juveniles to face a sentence to die in prison,” Rummel said. “The Fair Sentencing law gives them hope that they are not beyond redemption — if they work hard and rehabilitate, they might have a chance to go home.”

Though Gould is adding to its program’s scope, Brennan said the program plans to remain focused on its original goal of supporting women.

“We will continue to represent women who have a history of abuse and women serving life terms,” Brennan said. “But the opportunity to represent juveniles sentenced to life without parole is a relevant opportunity to expand our client base and practice in a developing area of the law.”