Improving Representation for Wrongfully Convicted and Sentenced Youth

The Challenge

Philadelphia sentences more individuals to life without parole than any other county in the United States. According to the Abolitionist Law Center, more than half of the 2,600 Philadelphians currently serving life sentences were under the age of twenty-five at the time of sentencing, and 84% are Black.  Put even more starkly, 1 out of every 294 Black Philadelphians is serving a life sentence, and more than half were sentenced in youth.  Young people face a greater risk of wrongful conviction at every stage of the criminal legal system.

The Project

Through this Stoneleigh Fellowship, Jennifer Merrigan is collaborating with a team at Phillips Black, which includes a Legal Apprentice who was wrongfully convicted as a youth, and the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) to improve the representation of wrongfully convicted and sentenced young people.

This Stoneleigh Fellowship will enable Jennifer to:

  • Increase pro bono representation of Philadelphians over-sentenced or wrongfully convicted as youth, including recruiting, training, and supporting additional Philadelphia-based law firms to offer pro bono representation for clients identified by the DAO’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
  • Expand participatory defense practice in the area of post-conviction relief. Jennifer will work with the existing participatory defense network to explore ways that the trial model can be adapted to offer support and advocacy in the post-conviction context.
  • Develop a replicable model for sustainable partnerships with conviction integrity units nationwide, including codifying protocols from her model, developing a training curriculum in collaboration with Philadelphia stakeholders —including those impacted directly by the system—and scaling the training nationally.

Jennifer Merrigan

Stoneleigh Fellow

2022 – 2025

Phillips Black


Project Updates