America has seen a 500 percent increase in the prison and jail population since 1980, the result of increasingly retributive, “tough on crime” attitudes—a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice that often calls for severe sentences of death or life without parole. Advancing Real Change seeks to eliminate excessive sentencing by highlighting the life history of offenders—their unique vulnerabilities, potential, and life circumstances—that have shaped them as individuals. Through extensive record collection, in-depth interviews, and other techniques, investigators are able to identify inter-generational patterns ranging from mental health issues to racial oppression that offer critical context for a client’s actions. Indeed, in death penalty cases, defense teams have honed this approach over thirty years of advocacy, successfully showing how a constellation of factors—including histories of trauma, mental illness, and intellectual disability—led to an alleged crime. Through casework, consultation, and training, Advancing Real Change seeks to bring the transformative power of state-of-the-art mitigation investigations to all corners of the criminal justice system. Particularly in cases involving juveniles sentenced to life without parole—where life history research is desperately needed—highlighting a person’s humanity can be a profoundly effective tool to reshape the way justice is served.
Five Questions for Elizabeth Vartkessian
1. What needs does Advancing Real Change address and how?
We seek to transform the U.S. criminal justice system by bringing comprehensive and accurate life history investigation to inform the fates of individuals facing the most severe penalties. In addition to casework, we provide training and consulting services to legal teams regarding the best practices of life history investigations.
2. Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.
After over a decade of working on capital cases, I realized that to truly address the problems within the justice system, I had to create a movement that focused on shifting people’s perceptions of those accused of crimes. There was no single moment, but rather a decade of working on the ground in cases and a feeling that something had to change.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face?
Our work is nuanced: we aim to understand the trajectory of the accused and fit that narrative into a legal framework. It is a challenge to shift the focus of defense teams to the life history of the defendant rather than thinking about a single legal issue from the moment they get a case. It is a challenge to educate judges about the import and value of life history evidence. It is challenging to change the root of why we punish so harshly by helping people see the defendant as a person.
4. What other leaders have informed your work?
I began doing this work in Texas at the Gulf Region Advocacy Center, founded by Danalynn Recer. There I had the opportunity to work with incredible attorneys who were focused not only on providing the best defense for our indigent clients, but also on placing the humanity of all involved at the center of what we were doing. I am also constantly inspired by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose message of hope and mercy is fundamental to how I work.
5. Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.
In January, a client who had been on Pennsylvania’s death row was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The case had gone on for over two decades, and the life history investigation that began in 2014 was a catalyst for resolving the case. My client waived his rights to future appeals, despite having several viable avenues remaining, in order to bring an end to the legal aspect of the tragedy that had taken place when he was just 22 years old.