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National Juvenile Justice Network Holds Roundtable on Reform Policies

The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) recently published Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, a compendium of noteworthy reform measures enacted across 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Tuesday, a quartet of NJJN representatives joined George Williams of Humane Exposures for a roundtable discussion of the new report, which was broadcast via a live Google Hangout feed.

According to Williams, everybody lives in a state with juvenile justice problems. A resident of Louisiana, he said that his state has a higher incarceration rate than Iraq.

“If we want public safety, we have to look at these issues in a different way,” said NJJN Director Sarah Bryer. She said that when state-based advocacy groups work together for reform policies, their combined efforts can serve as an “elevator for collective gain.”

Bryer said the information contained in the new compendium encompasses a “massive amount of data,” which allows organizations to analyze trends and policies enacted by agencies in other states. She considers the drift towards interstate collaboration between reform advocates to signal a “tremendous movement forward” for national juvenile justice changes.

“It’s about the power of people coming together,” she said.

Jim Moeser, NJJN co-chair and a representative of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said that while many of the changes listed in the new publication are difficult to capture as bullet points or sound bites, he believes that the report offers an “opportunity to meet people within networks,” stating successful outcomes in other states may “energize” advocates elsewhere.

“Education is so unique and local that different things are going to have to be tried,” said NJJN Co-Chair and Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance representative Abby Anderson. She said the findings within the publication indicate how ineffective juvenile incarceration has been in curbing crime and reforming young people, referring to the report as “one chisel at the sculpture” of nationwide juvenile justice reform.

Benjamin Chambers, NJJN communications specialist, said that juvenile justice reform is currently “balkanized” in the United States, as he considers policy and political situations to fluctuate greatly from state-to-state. As a result, he said that many advocates end up getting “sucked into what’s happening locally,” and are generally unaware of policy reforms that take place in other parts of the country.

“It’s an incredible resource for people that want to make change,” Chambers said.

Anderson said she was surprised to learn that until recently, the shackling of pregnant detainees remained a common practice across the nation’s juvenile detention facilities.

She said that the publication “opened the window” for child advocates to work across state lines, giving potential stakeholders a means to review legislation and policy reform measures all across the United States.

Chambers considered the publication be an “incredibly important tool” for policy crafting, stating that he had specific worries about young detainees potentially losing Medicaid benefits while incarcerated. He recalled being a mentor for a 12-year-old, who was so frightened by incarceration that the term “food court” made him anxious. He said that young people of the like “epitomize an incredible need for attention and guidance.”

Bryer said that she’s encouraged by the increase in foundation participation with advocates and researchers over the last few years, and predicts a greater emphasis will be placed on community-based settings. As a reform advocate, she said that witnessing 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children behind bars remains her greatest motivator.

“How can this be the way our society thinks it’s the right way to hold young people accountable?” she asked.

Photo from Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011.

The Mystery Ingredient in Juvenile Justice Reform: Advocates

Anyone involved in reforming the juvenile justice system understands the respective roles that philanthropy, policymakers, and system stakeholders play in the process. But advocates are often misunderstood — and their contributions, I believe, are greatly underrated.

That will change, I hope, with the publication of a new report from the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, a 63-page report that provides capsule summaries of reforms made between 2009 and 2011 by 47 states and the District of Columbia in 24 different categories, including closing and downsizing facilities, blocking the school-to-prison pipeline, and removing youth from the adult system and returning them to juvenile court. (Anyone interested in learning more about a reform — by studying the legislation, the policy language, or related resources — can visit the NJJN website at www.njjn.org.)

I believe Advances will be an invaluable resource for advocates, policymakers, legislators, educators, and journalists working on juvenile justice issues. But I also hope that it will be obvious to even casual readers just how many of the changes highlighted in Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform occurred in large part due to the dogged advocacy of advocates.

When Louisiana and Washington D.C. closed down notoriously abusive and violent juvenile correctional facilities in 2009, advocates were behind it. When Connecticut and Illinois passed legislation that removed teens from adult courts and kept them in juvenile court where they could receive the services and help they needed, advocates were responsible. When Little Rock, AR passed a one-cent sales tax to provide more community-based services to prevent juvenile crime, advocates were the champions who helped enact it.

Why is advocacy such a powerful tool for reform? Advocates are ideal change agents because they’re mission-driven. They focus on good outcomes for youth and their communities regardless of shifting political winds, staffing changes, and funding fluctuations. They do this in several ways. Advocates:

  • Build awareness. Savvy advocates know how to frame the debate and for whom, when to push stakeholders and when to partner with them, and when to go public versus fly under the radar.
  • Are experts who get things done. Advocates develop sophisticated skill sets that include detailed knowledge about both the promise and flaws in their state’s juvenile justice system; the ability to assess the best strategy for reform, be it legislative, administrative or through litigation; and the know-how to build critical partnerships with like-minded stakeholders—and would-be opponents.
  • Amplify the voices of those most affected. Youth and families, who are too often sidelined by the systems that seek to serve them, frequently provide the most urgent, salient and informed voices for reform. Advocacy groups that are led by, partner with, or are inclusive of youth and families can be extremely effective change agents.
  • Monitor outcomes. Finally, after the legislation has been signed or the final memo written, advocates stay on duty, helping systems implement change through training, collaboration and knowledge sharing. This helps ensure that reforms yield the intended outcomes for youth, their families, and the community at large.

Of course, advocates don’t work in isolation. Their victories are a team effort. They work every day with policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders. And their impact is dramatically magnified by their many philanthropic partners. Still, when it comes time to take stock of how far we’ve come and how we got here, advocates are too often overlooked.

So here’s a toast to advocates across the country. Your job is usually thankless — but on behalf of the many thousands of people across the country who know we can do a better job of helping youth in trouble with the law while keeping our communities safe — consider Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform a token of our appreciation.