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Professor Laura Cohen: A Leader in Juvenile Justice Reform

In April of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey gave Laura Cohen, Clinical Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, its Legal Leadership Award, acknowledging her as a leading voice advocating for juvenile justice in New Jersey. Four months earlier, Cohen received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Models for Change program’s Champion for Change award for successful activism on behalf of youth in the criminal justice system. And last October, Cohen and Rutgers–Camden clinical professor Sandra Simkins shared the National Juvenile Defender Center’s Robert E. Shepherd Award for Excellence in Juvenile Defense.

Laura Cohen at Juvenile Summit
Shown at the 2012 National Juvenile Defender Leadership Summit are Professor Laura Cohen and Rutgers–Camden law professor Sandra Simkins with (l-r) former clinic client Eric Campbell and MacArthur JIDAN Fellows Stella Lyubarsky ’10 and Lisa Geiss, Rutgers-Camden Law ’09.

Cohen has dedicated virtually all of her career to social justice lawyering and, in particular, to representing indigent juveniles, “filling a vital role,” said Dean John J. Farmer, Jr., “in making us a better society.” Some efforts, such as winning reversal of a wrongful conviction, she undertakes knowing that the case may have limited allies and will likely involve her and her students for years. Others, entailing a broad coalition of advocates with social science literature on their side, she signs onto with more optimism about an earlier impact.

Most recently, the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic headed by Cohen along with advocates from across New Jersey won support from editorial boards for their petition to the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) to stop the solitary confinement of juveniles in state and county detention facilities. The JJC also agreed to start discussions with the petitioning groups.

The petition noted the growing evidence of the deleterious effect solitary confinement has on young people. “Think about the inner turmoil inside every teenager,” stated Cohen in the release announcing the petition, “and then imagine a young person stuck inside a windowless cell, alone, for 23 hours a day. Children occupy a unique place in our society and are more likely to successfully rehabilitate through other, more humane forms of punishment.” 

Cohen’s career might have been something entirely different had her graduate fellowship kicked in a year earlier. As an undergraduate at Rutgers College, from which she graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English, Cohen vacillated between wanting to pursue a doctorate in literature and being attracted to the more activist life of a lawyer. 

She applied both to law school and for a Rotary International fellowship that would fund a year of graduate study abroad. She was admitted to law school and also won the fellowship, which would not begin until 18 months later. “This was the perfect solution,” she recalled. “I’d go to Columbia Law for a year and (to quote James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life) ‘see what they know,’ then try grad school for a year, and then make a decision.”  

Going through the 1L year “with an open escape hatch and one foot out the door was not the healthiest or most productive way to do it,” she said. “Even still, I soon realized that, as much as I loved reading and writing about literature and literary theory, I was better suited to the law. I had a wonderful year in Ireland but returned to Columbia, with greater resolve, the following year.”

Cohen has been at Rutgers–Newark Law School since 2001, teaching in the Urban Legal Legal (recently divided into the Civil Justice Clinic and the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic) and a seminar on Juvenile Justice. Her clinical work has been pivotal in cases like In the Interest of P.M.P. that helped to expand a juvenile’s right to counsel and In the Interest of V.A. which significantly raised the bar for transferring a youth to adult criminal court. 

Her publications include “Freedom’s Road: Youth, Parole, and the Promise of Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama,” forthcoming in the Cardozo Law Review, and for adolescents looking to understand a relevant Supreme Court case, The Gault Case and Young People’s Rights.

Cohen also co-directs the Northeast Regional Juvenile Defender Center, an affiliate of the National Juvenile Defender Center, and is a co-team leader of the MacArthur Foundation-funded New Jersey Juvenile Defense Action Network (JIDAN), which works with the Offices of the Public Defender to design strategies to improve juvenile defense policy and practice.

Cohen discusses her clinical teaching, passion for expanding protections for youthful offenders, and her downtime away from the law school in the following Q&A:

Juvenile rights and juvenile justice have been the focus of most of your legal career. How did you become interested in those issues? 

I took a law school clinic! I went to law school intending to work in non-profit arts management or book publishing and spent the first two years in pursuit of that goal. During my third year, a friend — arguing that we should spend our final months as students doing things we’d never do again — convinced me to take the Child Advocacy Clinic, which was taught by three very charismatic, inspiring professors. Within a month, I was completely hooked on both the subject area and the pedagogy. I decided I wanted to do two things: represent children and teach a clinic.  I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to meld these passions together, particularly at Rutgers, with its deeply-rooted commitments to both clinical education and social justice lawyering.

An incontrovertible body of research establishes that the adult prosecution of youth has no deterrent value, causes young people to recidivate more frequently and seriously than their peers who remain in the juvenile system, and leads to high rates of institutional abuse and suicide among incarcerated adolescents.

Your legal arguments have been key in several cases that have won new protections for young people in the criminal justice system. Are you hopeful of continuing progress in how adolescents accused of crimes are treated by the justice system?

“Cautiously optimistic” is perhaps the better way to frame it. Glimmers of light are beginning to pierce the darkness of the past two decades.  

An incontrovertible body of research establishes that the adult prosecution of youth has no deterrent value, causes young people to recidivate more frequently and seriously than their peers who remain in the juvenile system, and leads to high rates of institutional abuse and suicide among incarcerated adolescents. Nevertheless, every state legislature in the country, including New Jersey, passed draconian laws permitting or requiring transfer of certain children to the adult criminal system between 1990 and 2005. 

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision outlawing the juvenile death penalty, however, we began to see signs of a counter-revolution. In an unprecedented flurry of activity, the Court has issued four landmark juvenile justice rulings in the last eight years which have sharply curtailed the imposition of life without parole sentences on adolescents and held age to be a significant factor in determining the voluntariness of youths’ statements to police. Similarly, a number of states, including New York, have passed or are considering measures that would curtail adult prosecutions of children and adolescents and raise the age of criminal responsibility. 

Thanks in part, unfortunately, to the “kids for cash” scandal in Pennsylvania, greater attention than ever before has been turned to the critical importance of skilled, vigorous defense counsel for children enmeshed in the juvenile justice system, although many states, including New Jersey, continue to deny children access to counsel at key points in the process. And several states (but not, unfortunately, New Jersey) are closing their large, remote juvenile prisons in favor of smaller, more treatment-oriented facilities located in the communities in which the youth and their families reside.  

Like its federal counterpart, the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued several key rulings in the last seven years that extend greater protections to system-involved youth. (Clinic students wrote amicus curiae briefs in three of these matters). Along with the juvenile crime rate, the number of children held in the State’s juvenile detention centers and long-term facilities has plummeted in recent years. And, thanks to our MacArthur grant, we have been able to close the gap in access to counsel for a number of youth incarcerated in state-run facilities. For the first time, lawyers and clinic students are on the ground in the State’s three secure institutions, allowing us to witness first-hand our clients’ day-to-day lives and the conditions in which they are held.  

Although much work remains to be done — children continue to be subjected to multi-day periods of solitary confinement and its attendant harms, for example — our advocacy has begun to bear fruit for individual clients and in terms of systemic reform.  

Laura Cohen
Professor Laura Cohen and her son, Adam Sullivan, backpacking in Utah.

With the recent restructuring of the clinical program, you are now the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic. What would you like Rutgers law students to know about the clinic?

The restructuring primarily involves re-naming, in order to reflect more accurately the unparalleled range and depth of our clinical program and to give students a better idea of the type of work that we do. The CYJC will continue to provide holistic, skilled, and vigorous representation to clients caught up in the criminal or juvenile justice systems. Our docket includes the following types of cases: 

  1. Original criminal matters, in which students represent the client and handle all aspects of the case from the initial interview through the final disposition and, often, expungement. Many of our clients in these proceedings are 18-25 years old and often have unmet educational, social services, and treatment needs that are similar to youth charged with delinquency. We try to help them address those needs, as well as the more immediate defense issues, whenever possible.
  2. Representation of adolescents incarcerated in the New Jersey juvenile justice system, including advocacy around conditions of confinement, institutional disciplinary proceedings, resident grievances, education and treatment services, re-entry planning, early release, the parole process, and parole revocation.
  3. Parole advocacy on behalf of clients who were convicted of serious crimes when they were teenagers and have served long prison sentences. I believe that this is a unique focus for a law school clinic.
  4. Investigation and litigation of actual innocence claims on behalf of the same population of clients.
  5. Amicus curiae briefs to the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Division, usually on juvenile issues.
  6. Community education and outreach, including, among other efforts, an annual mock trial program in the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center. 

What do you most enjoy about your clinical teaching?

The close interaction with students, the symbiotic and interactive nature of the process, the ability to bring the classroom into the community and the community into the classroom, and the joy of seeing students come in as neophytes and leave as lawyers. 

What do you do for relaxation? 

First and foremost, spend as much time as possible with my family, which includes two very busy teenagers! Also, triathlons, distance running (an occasional marathon and frequent half-marathons), open water swimming, biking, backpacking, skiing, sailing. I’m an avid reader (favorite genres are 19th and early 20th-century British and American novels, literary biographies, and adventure memoirs, especially those about high altitude mountaineering, solo sailing, etc.) and enthusiastic traveler.