Dana Shoenberg

Hometown: Bethesda, MD
Current Job: Deputy Director at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy
Education: Cornell University (AB 1989); Georgetown University Law Center (MLA, Legal Advocacy 1996)
YLS year: 1993
Clerkship: Chief Judge Edward Cahn, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania
Activities at YLS: The Initiative for Public Interest Law at Yale, Director; Landlord/Tenant Clinic; Disabilities Clinic; Temporary Restraining Order Project; Yale Law and Policy Review


What is your day-to-day work like at CCLP?

Being the Deputy Director of CCLP means that I work on the substantive projects of the organization and also have some management responsibilities. Our office focuses on three main aspects of juvenile justice system reform: improving conditions in confinement facilities; reducing racial and ethnic disparities; and reducing unnecessary incarceration of youth. We have projects in about twenty states, which means I travel a fair amount. I’ve been lucky these past few months, though—most of my work has been centered along the East Coast from Virginia north to New Hampshire, so the trips can be short, which my family appreciates.

Tell me more about alternatives to incarceration—what other programs are available for juveniles?

We work with jurisdictions to develop alternatives to putting youth in detention when they aren’t threats to public safety. We help officials understand how they’re using detention and establish objective tools to make decisions about who needs to be detained.  We also help courts speed case processing so the kids who are in detention don’t have to be there as long. The alternatives include evening reporting centers, which are after-school programs where kids can spend the evening getting help with homework, exercising, or doing community service; electronic monitoring; shelters; foster care; and third party monitoring, where people check up on the kids throughout the day.

What type of work do you do to improve the racial and ethnic disparities in the system?

Our most successful efforts are locally-based and data-driven. We help jurisdictions understand disparities in who is arrested, detained, being put on probation, getting sent to out-of-home placements, and transferred to the adult system. Because each jurisdiction’s disparities and challenges are different, we help them choose from a range of strategies and implement them to fit their communities.  We promote the importance of involving youth, their families and the community in developing and implementing reforms.

What was your path to CCLP?

I clerked after law school for then-Chief Judge Edward Cahn of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Afterward, I had two teaching fellowships – one in the criminal justice clinic at Georgetown University Law Center and another in the family law clinic at the University of Baltimore. I then spent seven years in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department before coming to CCLP. At DOJ, I had been working almost entirely on prison, jail and juvenile facility conditions, with an occasional case involving police departments. CCLP allows me to strike a balance between the conditions issues, such as solitary confinement, restraint, mental health care, and the use of pepper spray, with reforming the broader juvenile justice system, such as making sure use of incarceration is limited to when it’s necessary for public safety. I also teach as an adjunct professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

What do you teach, and how do you juggle the demands of the CCLP with teaching?

This is my third year teaching a seminar on juvenile justice. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to learn about juvenile justice for law students who are thinking about this type of career. I team-teach the course with two colleagues, so there is always at least one of us who can be in town for class—often, two of us, and occasionally all three of us, are able to be there. I find it really rewarding. This year we have several international students in the class and they add such a depth to the conversation.


How is your law degree helpful in the work you’re doing with CCLP?

My law degree is helpful in a number of ways. Because we’re working on improving the justice system, we’re often dealing with judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. Having worked as a lawyer and as a clerk, I’m able to help them solve problems from the perspective of someone who has practiced law. For instance, if we are working on establishing timely detention hearings with meaningful advocacy, I can draw on my previous experience as a defense lawyer as I work with the various court stakeholders to change practice. When I work with people on improving conditions in facilities, we are thinking about the interplay between case law, regulations and best practices as they all evolve. Additionally, we sometimes advise people on litigation, even though we’re not the ones litigating. We have also been brought in as experts to help resolve litigation. An understanding of the law helps inform our work to promote safe and humane practices.

What was most valuable about your experience at YLS?

I had some great learning opportunities, such as a year-long seminar on sentencing with Professor Dan Freed. We had opportunities to interact with judges to learn about sentencing philosophy, sentencing policy, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines. This was where I began to think about the choices being made in the criminal justice system, and the course planted some seeds for the things I think about and work on now. I also spent part of a semester at the Yale Child Study Center. This was an opportunity to work alongside incredibly knowledgeable physicians and mental health professionals, and to gain insight into the treatment of kids with special mental health needs.

What skills do you rely on now that law school did not emphasize enough?

Systems reform involves a lot of collaboration and engagement of people who aren’t always used to working together. I spend a significant amount of time helping groups move in incremental steps toward long-term change. This means promoting collaboration among educators, mental health providers, families, and other stakeholders in the court system. You have to be skilled in getting your point across in a way that encourages people to agree that there is a problem to solve, collaborate to identify a solution, work together to implement it, and talk honestly about successes and challenges.  That isn’t something we spent much time on during law school.


Of which of your accomplishments are you particularly proud?

During my seven years at the Justice Department, I worked on changing conditions in jails, prisons, juvenile facilities and police departments. It takes a long time to fix those institutions in a lasting way so that they don’t just bounce back as soon as you stop paying attention. It was meaningful work and I look at those seven years as time well spent.

Since coming to CCLP, I have had the opportunity to help several jurisdictions make changes to their systems.  In one of the jurisdictions where I worked on reducing racial and ethnic disparities and unnecessary incarceration, the detention center had an average of 48 kids in it every day when I started working there, sometimes well above 50.  After 5 years and many meetings, data analyses, new programs, new tools and new collaborations, the detention population got down to under 20 kids a day, and the system dropped the number of kids sent away from home for treatment as well.  That’s at least 28 kids every day who aren’t locked up waiting for a court hearing, and hundreds every year getting care and rehabilitation in their homes rather than somewhere across the state.  Other counties in the state learned from those reforms and are implementing them in their own communities now.

What salient decision points have you faced in your career?

When I finished clerking, I took two different clinical teaching fellowships. I liked clinical teaching—it’s an academic atmosphere that also allows you to live in the world of practice. I liked having a handful of students who I could help in their professional growth; it’s a style of teaching that’s very personal. I thought that I might stay with clinical teaching, but I found that I needed to go do it myself for a while before I could imagine the rest of my career in teaching. So, I went to DOJ to do it myself and chose not to have my entire career be clinical teaching. Fifteen years later, I found my way back to the law school environment, and even at CCLP, a lot of what I do is teaching—developing and leading training programs, coaching people in systems reform, and speaking for webinars and conferences.


How has being a woman affected you in your career?

There were definitely some times at Justice when I was the only woman in a meeting among jail and prison professionals. I noticed it but chose not to let it affect me or make me quiet. You have to take care to make sure you’re presenting yourself in a way that allows people to hear you. I didn’t let it slow me down, but I did try to be sensitive to it.

What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

Some of the best advice I got was actually as I was leaving undergrad and making my first decision about a full-time job. I chose to take a position as a social worker in a child welfare agency, in part because of the advice that the director of the agency offered to me:  In the jobs early in your career, you should look for places where you will be mentored well. Choose jobs where people will care about and invest in your professional development. That means asking good questions about what people will do for your development and looking for good mentors along the way.  Small environments may provide these opportunities more naturally, but some big companies, firms and agencies make a point of structuring mentoring for newer employees. Fellowships are great for this, but I have been lucky to have mentors throughout my professional life.