November 2016 Features

Tell Me Your Story

“I’m excited to hear someone’s story, the story they’ve been wanting to tell for a long time,” says Tina Newstead, a recent graduate of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research (GSSWSR).

Newstead, M.S.S. ’16, loves the life stories of others. It’s at the heart of why social justice matters to her and why she pursued a degree in social work. And after the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision Montgomery v. Louisiana, it’s why she chose to volunteer as a mitigation specialist and review cases of juveniles with life sentences.

In an earlier decision, in 2012, the Court ruled that juveniles convicted of homicide could no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Montgomery v. Louisiana expanded this ruling, applying it to juvenile cases retroactively.

The implications? Approximately 2,500  pre-2012 sentences are now up for review. Although there are no guarantees that sentences will change, for juvenile justice advocates, it’s a big win.

The underlying issues connect deeply to the work of the GSSWSR.

“As social workers, we see how lack of access to resources like education and housing can increase the likelihood of kids entering the juvenile justice system,” says Janet Shapiro, director of the Center for Child and Family Wellbeing. “In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court took into account current research on adolescent brain development and behavior and recognized that adolescents are fundamentally different than adults, often less capable of impulse control and understanding consequences. The decision also reflects an understanding that, during adolescence, development isn’t written in stone. Resiliency and change are possible.”

For each case, defense teams need mitigation specialists to develop life histories of those eligible for resentencing, by collecting case documents and interviewing friends and relatives of the incarcerated. With 300 cases up for review in Philadelphia, GSSWSR students have a unique opportunity to be involved and, explains Shapiro, “to practice our core values—that social justice matters and that people should be thought about within the context of their environments.”

Embracing these values, Newstead and her classmate Sarah Latimore, M.S.S. ’16, trained as mitigation specialists last spring. The trainings were run by the organization Youth Sentencing Reentry Project and the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, both community partners of the GSSWSR.

As Latimore recalls, “It was exciting to be among social workers, attorneys, mental health workers, and other professionals. We came from different backgrounds but shared the view that we should consider the life story of each incarcerated person in a holistic way.”

“I appreciated that, in the trainings, we met people who had been incarcerated,” adds Newstead. “They talked about the anxieties they faced after prison, and knowing their stories is really valuable. Some of the people up for re-sentencing entered prison decades ago, and I want to understand the challenges that may be ahead of them.”

Both women have been assigned a case and begun to meet with defense teams. Newstead’s client was a juvenile when he was sentenced to life in prison—more than two decades ago. “His story is powerful,” says Newstead. “He knows he was a different person back then. And even though he’s believed that he would die in prison, he’s made it a priority to take classes and get involved in self-improvement programs. That’s the story we want to bring to his review hearing.”

For Latimore, the experience has underscored her feelings about the issue. “After learning about my client’s case, it’s even more inconceivable to me,” she says, “that we, as a society, would sentence a young person to life in prison without even the chance of parole.”

These cases are far from over, and the work continues at the GSSWSR, as well. Shapiro and her students will be following the progress of the mitigation work. “For our students,” says Shapiro, “observing how these juvenile cases are reviewed is a chance to see real-time reactions to legal decisions coming down from the highest court to the lives of individual people.”

And Newstead is excited to watch the story unfold. “For some,” she says, “this is truly a second chance at life.”