(Co-Founders, Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine)
Yami was just 17 when she was arrested and sent to the adult jail on State Road in Philly. With federal law requiring that minors be separated from adults in adult facilities, Yami was held in solitary confinement—for her “protection.”
Over the course of the nine months she awaited a hearing, she had no interaction with peers. Her only interactions at all were generally through the bars of her cell, or during the very limited and insufficient time she had out of her cell for education, or to shower or make an evening phone call. Pregnant when she entered the facility, upon giving birth she was separated from her own child, per the protocol of adult prisons.
“She was functionally isolated from anyone else in her age group, and really from anyone else, period,” explains Lauren Fine. Fine is the co-founder, with fellow attorney Joanna Visser Adjoian, of Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, or YSRP. The women launched the nonprofit in 2014 with their unwavering belief that children like Yami simply do not belong in adult jails. Philadelphia has sentenced more children to life in prison—to die in prison—than any other city in the world.
Among other things, YSRP provides children sentenced to life in prison, and their families, with free legal support; in addition to providing this kind of direct service, they use policy advocacy to transform the experiences of children prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system, and to ensure fair and thoughtful resentencing and reentry for individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children.
In Yami’s case, that looked like convincing a series of judges involved in the case, over the objection of the prosecution, that instead of staying at the jail, Yami should get the support she needed. At the time of her arrest, the teen—who had been in foster care—was squatting in an abandoned home; the father of her child was a 32-year-old co-defendant; she was also heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol and had no recollection of the incident.
YSRP successfully got Yami into a mother-baby drug and alcohol treatment program, where she was reunited with her child to learn parenting skills and get treatment for her substance abuse issues. They helped her connect back to school; she ultimately graduated from Youth Build Charter High School with a 99 percent attendance rate and excellent relationships with the teachers and administrators. She subsequently moved to Florida, where she now lives and is employed and pursuing post-graduate education while raising her family.
“Yami is living a life that would not have been possible had she been sentenced to adult prison. Instead, judges were willing to be open minded to a different way of moving forward that actually addressed her situation, her needs, and the community’s needs as well,” Fine says. “Instead of throwing her away, the system was willing to consider a more unique approach, a healthier approach. Her trajectory is a testament to the power of young people to accomplish their own goals when given the right structures and support, and a better form of justice.”
For their dedication to young people like Yami and countless others, Fine and Visser Adjoian—who this month are beginning the process of passing the torch to new YSRP leaders—have been named to Generation Change Philly, The Citizen’s partnership with Keepers of the Commons to highlight and support Philadelphians who are making a meaningful difference in our communities, and in the future of our city.
To read the full article, click here.