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Lauren Fine ’11

Alumna returns to Duke as supervising attorney of Criminal Defense Clinic

Lauren Fine ’11, a nationally recognized advocate for youth justice reform, joined the faculty in July as assistant clinical professor of law and supervising attorney of the Criminal Defense Clinic.

Fine was previously the Stoneleigh Visiting Fellow at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. She stepped down in January 2022 as co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), a Philadelphia-based organization she co-founded to keep children out of adult jails and prisons and support people incarcerated as youths as they return to their communities. 

“Lauren has tremendous skill and experience in the mitigation, re-entry, and systemic advocacy spaces that will expand what we’re already doing at the individual client level,” said Clinical Professor Elana Fogel, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic, which completed its inaugural semester in the spring.

“Her accomplishment in envisioning, designing, and successfully launching a nonprofit, the creativity and vision and dedication that it takes to do something like that, and the nationally recognized level of success her work has had will enable her to connect to our students and inspire their own creative and groundbreaking advocacy.”

Fine grew up near Philadelphia and earned a bachelor’s degree in history and international studies at Yale University before entering Duke Law School. Always drawn to working with young people, she deepened her interest in the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems through her involvement in the Children’s Law Clinic and the Innocence Project, pro bono work at the Durham County Youth Home, and internships supported by the Public Interest Law Foundation. 

The United States is the only nation in the world that allows youths to be sentenced to die in prison, or to life without parole. Fine was dismayed to learn that 25% of those “juvenile life without parole” (JLWOP) sentences were imposed in Pennsylvania – and a disproportionate number of them in Philadelphia – due to harsh state juvenile sentencing laws that include automatic processing in the adult system for certain crimes.

“In many other states your case at least begins in the juvenile system, and there’s an opportunity for either the prosecutor or the judge to move you to adult court,” Fine said. “In Pennsylvania, the burden is on far too many young people to fight their way out of the adult system – with all the direct and collateral consequences that accompany adult incarceration and felony convictions.”

Following graduation, Fine returned to Philadelphia to clerk for Judge David R. Strawbridge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. She then spent two years as a Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law at the Juvenile Law Center, where she identified an unmet need for mitigating evidence and re-entry planning in cases where youths were being charged as if they were adults, and for similar resources in juvenile life-without-parole cases in which defendants might be provided the opportunity to be resentenced. The next year she and Joanna Visser Adjoian co-founded YSRP to partner with attorneys, youth clients, juvenile lifers, and their families to develop mitigation evidence and re-entry plans and advocate for change in how youths are treated by the criminal legal and carceral system.

“The gap we wanted to fill was making sure there was a more nuanced picture and understanding of the child who was facing these extreme penalties in adult court and trying to bring the community into the courtroom process,” Fine said. 

“We developed a model of holistic representation that enabled folks to show up as their full selves, and invite other perspectives as part of the process, including those of their loved ones, however they defined loved ones. And our model also focused on each person’s re-entry from the very beginning – supporting them in preparing for coming home, and making connections to people, organizations, and resources to make sure that they had choices that enabled them to move forward, accomplish their goals, and not end up in the system again.”

Fine included law students in YSRP’s work through an interdisciplinary pro bono student intern program co-developed with Penn Carey Law and Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice. She also partnered with law students on one of YSRP’s biggest policy wins, a multi-semester project with students from the Justice Lab at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law that led directly to the cessation of a decades-long policy of charging parents in Philadelphia for the cost of their children’s incarceration. The pivotal report the students produced with Fine’s support is Double Punishment: Philadelphia’s Practice of Charging Parents for their Child’s Incarceration Costs.

Under Fine’s leadership, YSRP also trained and supervised students from seven Philadelphia-area law and graduate social work schools to provide mitigation and re-entry support for juvenile lifers who were resentenced in Philadelphia pursuant to Supreme Court rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana

Fine has received numerous honors for her work at YSRP, including the Law Alumni Association Young Alumni Award in 2020 and the Beyond Duke Service and Leadership Award in 2017. With Visser Adjoian, she received the American Constitution Society’s 2018 David Carliner Public Interest Award as well as leadership awards and grants from Echoing Green, the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, and the Claneil Foundation, among others. 

Fine says her biggest rewards are the relationships she developed with YSRP’s “client-partners” and successful outcomes of individual cases.

“We really aspired to become full partners with the folks that were inviting us into this really vulnerable time in their lives,” Fine said. “I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of – those relationships and the ways they have evolved over time to unlock opportunities in individuals’ lives because of the way that we valued them and they valued us. There was mutual respect, and that’s not something that I think our system really values or emphasizes enough.”

By 2022 YSRP had grown to nearly 15 staff members and an annual operating budget of nearly $2 million. Fine and Visser Adjoian stepped down to prioritize leadership that reflected lived or more personal experience with incarceration and the justice system. 

“My co-founder and I made a values-based decision to create space for new leadership that was more closely reflective of the community that we were partnering with,” Fine said. “YSRP was in a strong enough place that we felt like we could leave and step back, that it would really benefit the organization to have fresh leadership that was values-aligned in that way.” 

Fine said she clicked with Fogel on their first meeting to discuss returning to Duke Law. Fogel joined the Duke Law faculty in July from Federal Defenders of San Diego, where she was a trial attorney representing indigent persons accused of criminal offenses in federal court. 

“It was very quickly clear to me that we have similar viewpoints on the system, and on our role as advocates and as teachers,” Fine said.

“We share a similar perspective on kids being treated as adults, for example, in the criminal legal system. We also share the viewpoint that policy work should be informed by direct representation work, and that a policy agenda shouldn’t be imposed externally but should be based on what the community says are the issues that need to be addressed. 

“She is accomplished and brilliant and just so personable and kind and funny. I felt lucky to even get to meet her, let alone have the chance to work with her.”

Fogel noted the high regard for Fine during her interviews on campus.

“Walking around Duke Law with Lauren and seeing so many folks who remember her so fondly, she leaves a positive and lasting impression because of her genuineness and how easily she connects with people, which is a key aspect of our work,” Fogel said. 

“She speaks with great conviction and genuine care for her clients, both in the work she’s done and with the vision towards bringing her experience and creativity to Durham. That, I think, is rooted both in her commitment to this work and to justice-impacted communities, but also in her experience as a law student here and her desire to give back to this community through this institution.”

The Criminal Defense Clinic provides students with hands-on experience as trial level advocates representing indigent clients facing misdemeanor criminal charges in Durham District Court. In addition to developing professional skills, students study issues around mass incarceration, including the role of race and poverty in the criminal legal system, and develop ideas for systemic policy reform. 

The addition of Fine as supervising attorney will enable the clinic to enroll more students next semester, and her expertise in complementary areas, such as reentry, will help expand the clinic’s advocacy into other areas that are critical to serving clients and their communities, Fogel said.

“Our core work is really insisting on the completeness of our clients as human beings in a system that generally reduces them to a criminal charge instead of an individual who is a member of a community,” Fogel said.

“Her work speaks to that vision, that reality, and those goals in how we teach our students to advocate and bring that high level of practice for our clients in those spaces. We’re going to do some great things together.”

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Cover Fall 2023 - Lady Justice with AI Symbols

Fall 2023
Volume 42 No. 2