Indian American law professor Shobha Mahadev has been named Fearless Children’s Lawyer of the Month for October 2023 by the American Bar Association (ABA) for relentlessly pushing to make change.
To her, being fearless means playing the long game, being patient, and pushing to make a change, says the winner of the award celebrating work from advocacy that results in a system-wide change to advocacy that improved the life of one child client.
Though she is now assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, a clinical professor of Law, and project director for the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Mahadev didn’t originally set out to be a lawyer.
She originally planned on a career as a scientist and spent her time as an environmental science major at Berkeley researching native grasses, according to a story about her on ABA website.
But then a friend at Berkeley took the LSAT and the idea of law school intrigued her. She took the test, moved to Chicago sight unseen, and enrolled in Northwestern’s J.D. program. And from that new beginning, she knew she wanted to focus on public interest law.
In 2007, on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, Mahadev began talking to Bernardine Dohrn, then director of the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) at Northwestern (and co-founder of the CRLC!).
Following Roper, the death sentences of thousands of individuals were commuted to juvenile life without parole, and there were 103 individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences in Illinois. Bernardine and a small coalition of individuals and organizations were working to establish a project to track that population and publish a report on it.
Mahadev also worked with the CFJC on authoring a handbook for attorneys representing children in juvenile court and ultimately was invited to apply for a position with the legal clinic to lead the coalition.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences in non-homicide cases in Graham v. Florida, which opened the door for increased litigation efforts.
Shortly thereafter, the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama began a wave of litigation across the country to hold resentencing hearings for individuals serving mandatory life without parole sentences.
In her role as faculty and with the support of attorneys across the state, Mahadev assembled a committee to look at individual cases.
Through appellate and amicus litigation, Illinois was at the forefront of legal victories — prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, holding that the protections established by the Court in Miller v. Alabama would be retroactively applied to individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences, they achieved a victory in Illinois holding Miller’s protections retroactive.
While some in the state believed that the Court’s ruling meant that the work was done, Mahadev said that it was just the beginning. She worked with partners to get incarcerated individuals to support in filing post-conviction relief. And once resentenced, some individuals who had been incarcerated since the 1980s and 1990s were now coming home.
At that moment, “we had real spokespeople. We didn’t envision that would be possible when we started. We could only dare to dream it. . . . I never wanted to be the person speaking for them.”
Today, about half of the Illinois individuals who were previously sentenced to die in prison as children are home. Illinois continues to be at the forefront of legal change—the legal protections that were hard won across the state have now been extended to individuals who were sentenced to 40 years or more, the functional equivalent of a life sentence.
Mahadev hopes to continue this forward momentum by harnessing the power of the Illinois constitution and trying to dismantle the laws that put us into this position in the first place—laws that require the transfer of young people to adult criminal court and mandatory sentencing laws.
When asked what big challenges remain, Mahadev told ABA, “It’s hard when you see it’s a pendulum that swings back and forth. Nothing ever feels permanent, but I think we’ve planted seeds that have allowed for a different way to view sentencing of young people in Illinois.”
Yet, what is permanent are the people who are now home who were once condemned to spend their lives in prison continuing to advocate for these changes, she says.