Jessica Zou ’16, Youth Represent

Jessica-ZouI came into Princeton knowing I wanted to study law, specifically criminal law, and that I wanted to work with juveniles. Logically then, this Princeternship with Youth Represent, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in Manhattan, seemed like it would be the perfect match. Youth Represent is dedicated to making sure youths who go through the criminal justice system get a second chance. They provide legal representation for criminal court as well as for housing, employment, or education issues stemming from criminal convictions. I had pretty high expectations for what I wanted to learn about working with juveniles, the New York criminal justice system, and RAP (Record of Arrest and Prosecution) sheets, but Youth Represent still far exceeded my expectations.

I met Hanna Katz’ 11 the morning of Monday, March 18, in the Youth Represent offices.  I first had to sign some confidentiality forms agreeing not to disclose the personal information of any clients that I came into contact with, but then it was off to the New York City Criminal Court to sit in on some hearings and cases. Sitting in arraignments, I realized how different the New York criminal justice system was from California’s when I heard all of these completely new acronyms. Hanna explained that “ATI” stood for “Alternatives to Incarceration” and “ACD” stood for “Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal,” but even after three days, I had difficulty keeping everything straight in my head. The difference between violations, misdemeanors, and felonies, the difference between juvenile delinquents, juvenile offenders, and youthful offenders – I had to learn an entirely new set of vocabulary.

Later that afternoon, I sat in on a meeting between Hanna and one of the Youth Represent attorneys, Mike Pope, and I was really struck by how much behind-the-scenes work there was to be done in a law office. Having interned for both a criminal defense attorney and a civil litigation attorney before, I was fully aware of the paperwork that constantly needed to be done, but shadowing Hanna at Youth Represent, I realized how much time needed to be spent on simply building relations with community partner programs. Put simply, I was surprised by how much work in a law office wasn’t legal work at all.

The next day I was able to actually visit one of these community partners with Hanna and Mike. We went to a community-based organization on the Lower East Side and I watched them give a basic presentation to about 10 kids, probably between 18 and 24 years old, on their rights, many of the legal terms that I was struggling with, and what Youth Represent could do for them. I sat in on two of these presentations and, both times, I was really shocked by how familiar these kids were with the system. They knew the difference between a juvenile delinquent and a youthful offender. They knew what made violations different from misdemeanors and felonies. They knew that it typically took them 24 hours to get a summons, see a judge, and receive a sentence. I grew up in Irvine, CA, which used to be rated the number one safest city in the United States. Coming to Princeton, I only traded the Orange County Bubble for the Orange Bubble. These kids came from such a different world that I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to grow up in their shoes. The scariest thing, though, was thinking that if they had only grown up in different circumstances surrounded by different environments, they might be where I am today.

My last day at Youth Represent was spent on mostly individual work. I got to watch Hanna process new clients who were currently in probation and help her draw up summaries for the RAP sheets that she had received from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). I was really impressed by how quickly she could draw out the important information (arrest/conviction date, crime charged with, sentencing result, etc.) from pages and pages of records, while identifying any mistakes clerks had made while inputting the data. Apparently, about 20% of RAP sheets from the Bronx, and 10-15% from the other boroughs in New York City, have errors on them. These errors are what make the difference between someone’s criminal record containing an open felony court case and a resolved violation, which is not public information. For most of these kids, these errors are what make the difference between getting a job and being turned away from one because their employer thinks they’re in the middle of a felony case.

I had an incredible time shadowing HannaZhou 1 at Youth Represent. I learned so much about the complexities of the New York criminal justice system and I am more interested than ever now in helping those who barely seem to have a voice in society. These kids are the future of America and instead of just locking them up and then throwing them back out on the street every time they make a mistake, we need to help them get on their feet so that they don’t make the same mistakes anymore. I would like to specially thank Hanna for taking the time to answer all my questions and truly showing me what it would be like to work for a legal nonprofit in the heart of New York City. I would also like to thank all of the staff at Youth Represent for maintaining such a comfortable environment the whole time I was there – I can’t imagine spending my spring break anywhere more amazing.