LSJ's Juvenile Parole Project Encourages Students to Create Change 

Submitted by Lindsay Kathryn Lucenko on

Law, Societies, and Justice prides itself on the unique and experiential opportunities that the department can offer its 258 majors. One of these unique opportunities is a three-quarter-long course taught by Professor Katherine Beckett, The Juvenile Parole Project (or JPP). In this course, groups of 2-3 LSJ students are paired with volunteer attorneys to represent individuals preparing for hearings before the Clemency and Pardons Board or the Juvenile Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB, the equivalent of a parole board).

This course began in 2019, under the leadership of Professor Steve Herbert. At its start, the main focus of the Juvenile Parole Program was to respond to new legislation that allowed individuals who were sentenced as juveniles to 20 or more years of confinement to appear before the juvenile parole board for a chance to be considered for release. 

The course was extremely successful, people were brought home through the hard work of students, attorneys, and their petitioners. However, due to the stringent requirements of how long an individual must have served their sentence before appearing before the board, JPP assisted the majority of the individuals in Washington who were eligible for release after two years. As a result of recent policy changes, though, more individuals were able to seek release. JPP also expanded to work with individuals seeking clemency or sentence review through other recent legislative changes. 

I spoke to the instructor of this course, Professor Katherine Beckett, about the course structure and how she prepares students for such heavy and impactful work. When enrolling in JPP, students commit to working on their petitioner’s case for the year. Regarding the structure of the course, Professor Beckett shared, “The first quarter was quite similar to a regular class, although we had a very large number of guest speakers coming in, including people with relevant lived experience and professional experience. The practicum unfolds over the next two quarters the practicum part, where the focus is getting the work done with the culmination being a draft of a petition that is ready to submit in June.” 

“The hope is that students will take these high-level and big-picture issues that we talk about in class and bring them to the level of the personal and the human. The work acquires a whole new significance and meaning, and a sense of importance and urgency. It also means dealing with complexity and sometimes contradiction.” 

JPP students feel the deep impact of this work. I spoke to Nicole McMillan, a senior in JPP, who emphasizes the impact of the class: “When you’re an undergrad and you are conceptually learning about all of these things going on in the prison system, it can feel hard. And so when you talk to people who are having these experiences, it grounds you and reminds you why the work you are doing is important.” Students get to apply what they have learned and utilize their passion to advocate for the release of an individual who went to prison at a young age and has been incarcerated for an unjustifiable amount of time. 

Another student in JPP, senior Leah Weiser, told me that one of the most impactful aspects of this experience has been “really grappling with the fact that there are victims involved in this process and the fact that their needs are often not met either. It’s not an easy issue to tackle, and I think that this reality has affected my view of these complex issues.” 

Students help prepare their petitioner by working closely with volunteer attorneys, garnering letters of support from the petitioner’s family, friends, and community support, creating re-entry plans, and assisting with anything else that the individual needs to be prepared for their hearing and release. This also means working directly with their petitioners, including meeting with them in person during legal visits, preparing them for their hearing, and assisting them in creating a post-release plan to present before the Clemency Board. Many students I spoke to told me that the most impactful part of JPP was interacting with their petitioner. As senior Hailie Monkarsh, “Through the numerous conversations with my petitioner, I have been inspired by his positivity and motivation to continue growing into the amazing person that he is. Getting to know him has impacted me so much because he has shown me firsthand how people can change and how someone can turn a horrible situation into something positive.” JPP allows students to gain real-world experience in responding to the societal issues they continuously study in class.