SPEA Dean's Council Profile

Shocking the System

By Jim Hanchett

Ferguson. Charlottesville. Madison. New York. The list of cities with protests sparked by clashes between police and young black men seems to grow every week. From handcuffs to hard time, the juvenile justice system is frayed. For Marsha Levick, there is urgent work to do.

“We are shocking the system,” she says. “There is a growing movement to think differently about how we prosecute and sentence kids who commit crimes. We’re going to ride that wave of reform for as long and as far as we can.”

Credit for igniting that reform movement goes in no small measure to Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of Juvenile Law Center, in Philadelphia. Now, as a member of the Dean’s Council at SPEA, she is contributing to the education of the next wave of reformers, intent on sustaining the reforms of the last decade into 2020 and beyond. By then, the Juvenile Law Center she co-founded in 1975 will be approaching its 50th anniversary.

“I came of age and attended law school (Temple) in the 1970s,” she says. “There was a great sense of idealism then that we could change the world. We acted on it.”

Levick and three co-founders opened a walk-in legal clinic for any Philadelphia youth in trouble with the law. It is now the nation’s oldest nonprofit public-interest law firm for children, contributing to landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings benefiting court-involved youth. She coauthored the lead child advocates’ amicus briefs in Roper v. Simmons, where the U. S. Supreme Court struck the juvenile death penalty under the Eighth Amendment, as well as other groundbreaking Supreme Court cases upending traditional thinking about kids in the justice system. The Law Center is also increasingly active outside the courtroom, working in legislatures, government agencies, and law schools to advance the rights of children.

Marsha Levick

“It is a new era in how we think about juveniles and crime. The pendulum has swung back. Crime has been dropping for the last 20 years. Fewer kids are being locked up.”

— Marsha Levick