The Justice League
Alumni of the Beasley School of Law have been leading the fight for juvenile justice for 35 years.
Story by Maria Raha
Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg
Alternately branded as media-savvy, self-absorbed, socially stilted and worldly, the current generation of youth under age 18 might be savvier than earlier generations, but its members still need guidance—especially those who must navigate the justice and child welfare systems each year. At the end of 2009, more than 16,000 children were living in foster care in Pennsylvania, the list of the commonwealth’s child abuse victims was 3,777 names long, and there were 19,274 juvenile arrests for every 100,000 commonwealth residents in 2008.
These and other at-risk youth populations across the nation have been, in some way, protected by the work of the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm founded by Beasley School of Law graduates Judith Chomsky, CLA ’63, LAW ’75, Marsha Levick, LAW ’76, Philip Margolis, LAW ’75, and Robert Schwartz, LAW ’75, that has been central to juvenile justice and legislation since its founding.
Now headed by Levick, deputy director and chief counsel, and Schwartz, executive director, the Juvenile Law Center is a lodestar for policy, advocacy, information and education about children’s rights and juvenile law. It gained national media attention—and served as a plotline for more than one television crime drama—in 2009 for uncovering the “cash for kids” scandal, in which two judges in Luzerne County, Pa., received kickbacks from for-profit juvenile detention centers; in return, a substantial number of the nearly 4,000 children who appeared in the county’s juvenile court were either detained or placed at the facilities. “Many of them were adjudicated delinquent for conduct which typically might warrant only a slap on the wrist,” Levick says.
For her role in shedding light on the scandal, Levick was named The Philadelphia Inquirer’s 2009 “Citizen of the Year” with Juvenile Law CenterAssociate Director Lourdes Rosado. And the juvenile cases in questionwere cleared by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Setting up Shop
Aside from wanting to practice law together, the four Law School graduates had good reason to focus their practice on children. “We had an interest in advocating for individuals who didn’t have access to the courts, who didn’t have a recognized status, and certainly kids rose to the top as a group that needed representation,” Levick recalls.
Then called the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, it opened in 1975, when legislation protecting juveniles in the justice system was nearly brand new. The Supreme Court decision affording the constitutional right to counsel to accused juveniles had been issued only eight years earlier, in 1967. And, Schwartz explains, the 1970s was a watershed decade for children’s rights legislation.
“There was this building going up and we were on the ground floor,” Schwartz says. Among other legislation, the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, which requires those working with children to report abuse, was passed in 1975. The Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, which guarantees minors legal representation in dependency cases—those that decide guardianship, particularly following abuse—had been passed into law in 1972.
The young lawyers were able to set up shop in the waiting room used by Chomsky’s husband, a cardiologist. Schwartz says they took the cases that came to them, from referrals to walk-ins, and dealt with everything from runaways to special education.
“We were generalists for kids, and really the first office in the country to be anything like that,” he says. “To figure out how to operate and to struggle with all of the legal, ethical and substantive issues those kids faced was eye-opening.” Here were four new lawyers, he notes, who not only had to learn how to be lawyers, but also had to learn how to represent clients for which there were no established precedents. For example, what is the procedure for representing 1-year-olds?
Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Marsha Levick, LAW '76, and Executive Director Robert Schwartz, LAW '75, have transformed the juvenile justice system through the Juvenile Law Center, which they helped to found in 1975.
Though they were driven by enthusiasm, free office space and a hunger for social change, Schwartz says that the affordability of the Law School also played a part: They left school with limited financial burdens and could survive on meager resources. They also received their first grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and assembled a board of directors that included Temple Professor of Law and later, Dean, Robert Reinstein (who serves as a member of the board today).
By 1979, four years after the center was established, it had handled 25 major cases involving juvenile rights. Throughout the following decades, the influence of the Juvenile Law Center expanded from Philadelphia to Pennsylvania, and then across the nation. As their scope widened, their focus also shifted, from individual representation to legislation and policy.
Many legal victories of the Juvenile Law Center have occurred in all areas of children’s well-being, from education, healthcare and treatment in detention facilities, to fair punishment, probation procedures, adoption law and child abuse legislation.
“The issues of fairness, preventing harm and creating opportunity cut across our justice system work and our foster care work,” Schwartz says.
Framing the Debate
Today, the center’s recommendations often are at the heart of national dialogues about juvenile justice. The Juvenile Law Center filed a brief for the landmark 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision, which declared death sentences in juvenile cases unconstitutional. In 2009, it served as lead counsel for a brief filed for the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of juvenile life-without-parole sentences. With dozens of other organizations, the Juvenile Law Center urged the court to take psychological development into account when ruling. Now, juvenile life-without-parole sentencing is limited to cases of homicide.
Another member of the Temple community offered input in the same hearings. Laurence Steinberg, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple and a national expert on the adolescent mind, served as scientific consultant for the American Psychological Association brief for juvenile life-without-parole sentencing. The Supreme Court’s decision relied significantly on the argument that adolescents are fundamentally different from adults, shown in scientific studies of brain and behavioral development.
The Juvenile Law Center also influenced Steinberg’s MacArthur Foundation research network, Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. “Bob Schwartz was an active member of the research network I directed, and the collaboration between the researchers in the group and advocates like Bob and Marsha were key factors in its success,” Steinberg says. “The Juvenile Law Center is the nation’s leading organization engaged in translating the findings from developmental research into policy and practice.”
Professors Steinberg and Reinstein are not the center’s only Temple connections: Levick serves as an adjunct professor of law.
“The Temple graduates who founded the Juvenile Law Center represent what drives most people to attend law school,” Beasley School of Law Dean JoAnne Epps says. “I believe that deep in our hearts we all have the passion to experience what they did in the ‘cash for kids’ scandal, which is to identify something that doesn’t seem right and set about to fix it.”
Regardless of the number of landmark victories Schwartz and Levick have celebrated throughout the center’s history, the zeal that propelled the center’s early days is still alive. And no matter how issues of justice evolve, their core motivation remains the same. As Schwartz puts it, “We’ve found different ways to change the world.”
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