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Justice and redemption

USC Gould School of Law • October 22, 2018
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-By Gilien Silsby

PCJP clients share stories of life sentences

Cohen, Donaldson, Rummel and Ruben served on the  Parents Weekend panel "Justice and Redemption" 
As children, Ruben and Cohen made terrible, indefensible choices. They each were involved in robberies that ended in the unplanned taking of a life. Both were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, with no hope but to die in prison.
After spending more than two decades in adult prisons, Ruben and Cohen sought the legal services of student attorneys with the Post-Conviction Justice Project, which co-sponsored California’s 2014 Fair Sentencing for Youth Act and several subsequent juvenile justice bills.
Thanks to the PCJP, Ruben and Cohen were given a second chance – the courts resentenced them to life sentences with the possibility of parole and they were released through the parole process this past year. 
They recently shared their stories of justice and redemption to a packed crowd of 165 students and parents at USC’s
Ruben speaks with a USC law student 
 Trojan Family Weekend. They were joined by Laura Donaldson (JD 2015), who represented Cohen, and Heidi Rummel, co-director of the PCJP. 
“Ruben and Cohen spent more than half their lives behind bars and were expected to die in prison,” said Rummel. “We’re the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. We needed to change that.”
Rummel and USC Gould students were leaders in the effort to change juvenile punishments just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole had serious constitutional implications.
Once the law changed in California, the PCJP took on the representation of dozens of youth offenders at parole hearings. More than 30 clients who were youth offenders when they committed their crimes have been released from prison with the help of PCJP students. 
Cohen speaks at USC Gould 
Cohen said it took him more than a decade to realize the gravity of his crime. “I was raised in a house with all gang members, with the exception of one person,” said Cohen. “I was expected to carry that reputation on the streets, over and again. The gang was the only family life I had…. It took me a long time to take responsibility and realize what I did. How I ruined this man’s family’s life. There were a lot of amends that needed to be made.”
Although Ruben was raised in a loving home, he joined a gang at age 13. “I didn’t care about anybody else but myself,” he said. “I became very selfish, self-centered, and disregarded the welfare of others.”

Ruben spent 26 years in prison – including more than a decade in solitary confinement. He said those years in solitary confinement were what saved him. “This is when

A packed crowd attended the USC Parents Weekend event at USC Gould 
I started to take responsibility for what I did. I started reading a lot and studying law. I had only one hour of daylight each day, but I was doing the work I needed to do to make amends.”
Cohen wrote an apology letter to his victim’s family, which he read during the parole hearing. “It was frightening,” he said. “I really wanted to share how sorry I was.”
The family was moved to forgive him at the conclusion of the hearing. “They even gave me advice. It meant more to me than the grant of parole.”

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