folded hands with hand cuffs

Juvenile Justice Clinic Takes on Sentencing Reform

Boyd Law School students represent young offenders and advocate for legislative changes to how juveniles are treated in the Silver State.

Marcus Dixon was just 14 when he shot and killed another teenager, landing him in Nevada state prison on a 40-year sentence. Now 31, Dixon was recently granted parole and has vowed to make the most of his second opportunity.

For the students in the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Juvenile Justice Clinic, Dixon’s story drove home the need for sentencing reform. While Dixon became eligible for mandatory parole after serving 15 years of his sentence, more than 20 Nevada prisoners would never be eligible for parole for crimes they committed when they, like Dixon, were adolescents because they were sentenced to life without parole, also known as death in prison.

Each year students in the Juvenile Justice Clinic work on real cases, advocating for young clients and gaining valuable hands-on experience. This year the clinic participants also had the rare opportunity to join a coalition that successfully lobbied for legislative changes to how juvenile offenders are treated in the Silver State.

Professor Mary Berkheiser, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic, previously has written on U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding punishment of juveniles. When the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth started an effort for reform in Nevada, led by James Dold (UNLV ’06 B.A. Criminal Justice and Psychology), Professor Berkheiser offered the support of the Juvenile Justice Clinic.

“Studies have shown for a long time that few individuals persist with criminal activity from adolescence to adulthood,” Professor Berkheiser said. “Yet, even where there wasn’t mandatory life without parole, some juveniles were getting really extreme sentences, like two 60-year sentences to run consecutively. It might as well be the death penalty for these kids.”

To build momentum for the legislative session, the Boyd School of Law hosted a movie screening and panel discussion about juvenile sentencing on Jan. 22. The film, “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” chronicles the life of Kenneth Young, convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison at age 14, until the Supreme Court overturned his sentence.

Dixon, freshly paroled, joined the panel discussion with his attorney Kristina Wildeveld. Now an adult, Dixon admitted he “messed up” horribly when he was 14, and wants to be an example for offering juvenile offenders a chance at redemption.

“Marcus was amazing,” said Erica Nannini ‘15, who worked in the clinic while attending Boyd. “It was powerful to hear him talk about the stupid decisions he made as a teenager, and how grateful he was for a second opportunity.”

During the 2015 session the Nevada Legislature unanimously passed a bill ending life without parole for juvenile offenders. Brian Vasek ’15, one of the clinic students, was posted in Carson City at the time – the boots on the ground providing updates to the rest of the team researching and preparing testimony from Las Vegas.

“Being up there to see it all unfold was fascinating,” Vasek said. “The clinic… going up to the Legislature was for me that quintessential defining moment that showed me what it meant to be a lawyer.”

The bill will be applied retroactively, and the more than 20 Nevada inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles will have their cases reviewed. Moving forward, juvenile offenders will be eligible for parole after a maximum 15 years in every case except for homicide, where they will be parole-eligible after 20 years.

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