Why the National Juvenile Justice Network Is Embracing Anti‑Racism in Its Youth Work

It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.

The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.

Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.

This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”

It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.

These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.

The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.

As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.

That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.

Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.

Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.

So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.

And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.

While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.

It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.

So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?

If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.

It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.

What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.

Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.

Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Children of Color Face Higher Barriers to Success, New Casey Report Says

WASHINGTON — The children of immigrants make up less than one-fourth of the nation’s youth population yet account for 30 percent of children living in poverty, a new report finds.

More than that, young black and brown Americans were worse off compared to white and Asian-American children, the Annie E. Casey Foundation said.

The foundation analyzed youth welfare along several axes, including education, health and economic indicators, to come up with an index of how well young people in various racial and ethnic groups were faring. Its findings are scheduled to be released today in a report called “Race for Results.”

“African-American children face some of the biggest barriers to success” in nearly every state, although the children of American Indians fared the worst in several states, the report said. American Indian youth in South Dakota had the worst welfare index score — 220 — of any ethnic group, the report found.

The welfare disparities stand in stark contrast to how minor the differences are between the family lives of immigrant children and native-born American youth:

  • Eighty percent of immigrant youth live in two-parent households, compared to 65 percent of their American-born peers.
  • About the same percentage (84) of foreign-born young adults were in school or working as native-born American young adults (85 percent).
  • The children of immigrant families were nearly as likely to enroll in early-childhood education programs (59 percent) as native-born Americans (60 percent).

The report suggests that at least part of the welfare gap may be attributable to yawning education gaps among the youth population:

  • Just 18 percent of American Indians, 22 percent of Latino and 27 percent of African-American young adults have completed an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 48 percent of young white adults and 68 percent of ethnic Asian-Americans.
  • Only 8 percent of fourth-graders in immigrant families scored at or above “proficient” in reading in 2015, compared to 38 percent of American-born peers.
  • By eighth grade, only 5 percent of youths in immigrant families were scoring at or above “proficient” in math, compared to 34 percent of American-born youths.
  • Only 70 percent of children in immigrant families lived in households with at least one adult who had completed high school or higher, compared to 91 percent of children in American-born families.
Nonet Sykes

“The data make it clear: for children of color, a person’s race is a leading barrier to success in the United States,” said Nonet Sykes, the foundation's director of racial and ethnic equity and inclusion. “With children of immigrants and immigrant children comprising such a significant portion of the youth population and our future workforce, it is critically urgent that we ensure they grow up with access to the support and resources needed to thrive.”

The report calls on policymakers to focus on “keeping families together,” a robust financial and emotional investment in community education and health to “help children meet key developmental milestones” and to “increase opportunity for parents,” including paid family leave for the working poor.

NY Summit Examines How to Help Formerly Incarcerated

NEW YORK — Leyla Martinez didn’t expect to be accepted to Columbia University. She applied to demonstrate a lesson — not to limit himself — to her then-16-year-old son. She was 40, a single mother and formerly incarcerated, not the typical Columbia applicant.

“So, I started the application process and when I got to page five, here was the question — it was devastating to me,” Martinez said. She was asked if she had a previous criminal record.

“How did that have anything to do with my ability to perform well in this school?” Martinez asked. “Why did I have to bring that up when I was so much more than just that — that does not define who I am.”

She answered honestly and then something she never expected happened — she got in.

Now she works to ban the question and to encourage other formerly incarcerated people — especially youth — to never give up.

Martinez was one of several panelists at Justice 4 All, a summit convened by young leaders in New York City to address issues of inequality within the justice system. Held Tuesday at the Columbia University School of Social Work, it brought together more than 100 youth, youth advocates, community members and funders. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the Center for Justice at Columbia University and the Fortune Society, the summit covered steps young community members can take to help build safer communities, improve police accountability and increase transparency within the justice system.

Stanley Richards, executive vice president at the Fortune Society, served as master of ceremonies at the #Justice4All Summit, held Aug. 1, 2017, at Columbia University in New York.

Martinez, now a junior majoring in human rights, has petitioned Columbia’s administration to stop asking about prior criminal records during the application process. She hopes her story will inspire young people to never give up.

“My whole thing is so the kids can know whatever mistake they made, it was not the end, it is not who they are,” she said.

Khalil Cumberbatch, 35, also a panelist, agrees. Incarcerated in his early 20s, he served 6½ years in the New York state prison system. He was released in 2010, found a job, started a family and was enrolled in college when he learned he was being targeted for deportation.

Like Martinez, Cumberbatch was persistent in his commitment to succeed. He also credits help from the Fortune Society and others with helping him survive both the criminal justice and the immigration system.

“I am not exceptional, the outcomes that I received are exceptional, but the reality is I am the outcome of exceptional opportunities,” he said.

“We should be giving those same opportunities ... to people who have similar stories to mine,” he added.

Cumberbatch now works with JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit dedicated to halving the U.S. correctional population by 2030.

“It should be easier for sure to give someone a job, but also it should be easier to give someone access to education than it should be to put them in a jail cell,” he said.

To illustrate systemic racism, young people from the Fortune Society, directed by performers from the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, performed “Profiled & Exiled.” In the performance, a young man with minor convictions on his record experiences discriminatory hiring practices, racial profiling by police and an overwhelmed and inefficient justice system.

A scene from “Profiled & Exiled” depicts discrimination in the workplace. The performance was part of the #Justice4All Summit, held Aug. 1, 2017, at Columbia University in New York.

Audience members were then invited re-enact scenes showing how young people can empower themselves by knowing their rights.

“In the end, what’s really needed is youth empowerment,” said Cumberbatch, adding that empowerment includes accepting that people make mistakes.

Stanley Richards, executive vice president for the Fortune Society, said it is that acceptance that gives those in attendance the power to change lives.

“Our job is to see the beauty in people before they see it in themselves,” said Richards, who served as the master of ceremonies for the summit.

Martinez said she wants others to see that beauty as well. Deciding to accept Columbia’s offer of admission was the best decision of her life, she said, in part because she can educate the academic community about the challenges facing those with prior involvement in the justice system.

“I have a lot of people who never even considered formerly incarcerated persons who are now rooting for me,” she said, adding that she hopes that translates into more opportunities for those who are formerly incarcerated.

“These are future leaders of corporations and the country,” she said, referring to Columbia students. “They now have a different view of what formerly incarcerated is and when they’re about to hire someone, they’ll think ‘Oh, wait — this is what Leyla was talking about.’”

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Kids Crossing Border Risk Losing Legal Protections, Rights Groups Say

Immigration activists protest youth deportation.
Activists protest against deportation that leads to separation of families, Monday, July 7, 2014, in front of the White House in Washington.

The surge of unaccompanied youth crossing from Mexico into the United States has become a political issue, with the White House facing pressure to expedite the return of kids to their home countries.

As President Obama visits Texas this week, he is urging Congress to add immigration judges and detention facilities to speed up the legal process required by law.

Read more at Youth Today.

Felony Charges Dropped Against Young Undocumented Student at Heart of Immigration Debate

A nearly three-year legal battle has come to an end for a young undocumented immigrant whose 2010 arrest sparked a national debate over U.S. immigration policy, particularly the right of undocumented immigrants to attend public universities.

Thursday, a Cobb County, Georgia, judge dismissed a false-swearing charge against the now 23-year-old Jessica Colotl stemming from her arrest on March 29, 2010. A Kennesaw State University (KSU) police officer stopped Colotl, a KSU student, for a traffic infraction on campus. She was arrested the following day after failing to produce for authorities a valid driver’s license.

Colotl’s case has been widely publicized nationally, drawing renewed attention to the use of 287(g) programs, which allow local police agencies to enforce immigration law and detain suspected undocumented immigrants.

She remained in an immigration detention center for 37 days before she was granted a deportation deferment to finish her college coursework.

Last year, JJIE, partnering with Cartoon Movement, published a piece of comics journalism detailing Colotl’s story and titled “Jessica Colotl: In the Eye of the Storm,”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Colotl, who graduated from KSU in 2011, is working as a legal assistant.

The Complex Picture of America’s New Immigrants

With President Barack Obama’s mid-June executive order that protected certain children of illegal immigrants from deportation, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, immigration has finally been yanked onto the front burner.

And with that spotlight has come some misleading shorthand: that immigrant means Latinos and illegal, and that legal immigrants, including immigrant youth, if mobilized to become citizens will vote Democratic. But immigration in the United States today is far more comprehensive than stereotypes and myths can convey, and we owe it to ourselves to understand the nuance of their politics and influence on our country, especially in an election year.

There are about 40 million immigrants in the United States today, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that is more than at any time in U.S. historyAlmost two-thirds of them have arrived during the past 20 years. Immigrants, defined as people born outside the United States and residing here legally or illegally, now comprise about one-eighth or 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.

According to Census figures, 11 million of today’s U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico, another 10 million originate from other Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Some 11 million are Asian, primarily from China, India, Philippines, Vietnam and Korea. Five million of today’s U.S. immigrant population originates from Europe, including the former Soviet Union.

More than half of U.S. immigrants today are between the ages of 18 and 44. They are seldom accounted for in political polling in the run-up to an election, though more than 40 percent of all immigrants are citizens and entitled to vote, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

In a series “Immigrants don’t fall in line for 2012 elections,” published by Immigrant Connect (an online network for immigrants, refugees, their families and communities in partnership with 12 ethnic media outlets in Chicago), we examined how different immigrant communities are approaching the 2012 election campaigns.

Among what we discovered are stories of traditionally Democratic strongholds veering away from supporting President Obama - in the Indian community that has become wealthier and a natural reservoir for political fundraising; among Poles who face a quandary between an opportunity for those here illegally and core religious values; for Russian Jewish immigrants who have an instinctive fear of big government and any specter of socialism; and in a surprisingly robust Bulgarian community that hasn’t yet developed an investment in American politics. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom only recently reached voting age, often express a visceral allegiance to former Republican President Ronald Reagan for his role in the fall of the Iron Curtain, that carries over as party loyalty for the GOP.

U.S. Immigrants are not a bloc, much less a voting bloc. For immigrants, politics is often a home-grown tradition. Dual citizenship is a convenience and a fact of life in the United States, and with every election, both here and back home, many immigrants have options.

For Lithuanians, for instance, it can get complicated. Younger Lithuanians – those who emigrated after 1990 and became U.S. citizens – can’t vote in Lithuania. Older Lithuanians can vote in both places. Mexican officials were paying attention to the 10 million voting-age Mexicans living in the United States. Though about three-quarters of Mexican immigrants in the United States lack U.S. citizenship and can’t vote here, Mexico honors dual citizenship and some 60,000 applied for absentee ballots to vote in the Mexican elections this year. They tend to vote in neither, in part because of a distrust in authorities and the election process, bred in Mexico and reinforced in their new home.

That was the case among Pakistani Americans, too. However, upcoming elections in Pakistan have created quite a buzz among Pakistani immigrants living in the United States, who earlier this year were given voting rights for the first time. The campaign of Imran Khan, a cricket star-turned-politician has galvanized young Pakistani-Americans well beyond anything American elections have been able to do.

“A nation of immigrants” is a term steeped in the rhetoric of American politics, often invoked to harken back to bygone times, and to remind us of our country’s humanity.

In the Arizona case, Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to illegal immigrants as “human concerns;” Justice Antonin Scalia called it “human realities,” referring to Arizona’s other citizens under siege by invading immigrants.

With 40 million immigrants, legal and illegal, being courted to vote and being kept from voting, this should be an election cycle worth engaging in.

Jack C. Doppelt is a Medill Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University and publisher of Immigrant Connect and RefugeeLives.

Comics Journalism: ‘Jessica Colotl: In the Eye of the Storm’

Jessica Colotl says her life is a series of hearings since the struggle began between her and federal and state authorities over whether she can stay in the country she's called home since she was ten years old.

Read the English version here and the Spanish version here.

Colotl is young; she's in limbo like many other immigrants, her story shifts from her college to a detention facility to a presidential announcement to a tenuous freedom. It's a story that's dramatic, tense, and now it's presented in a way more accessible to young people.

Furthermore, the story is reported through an innovative new form: illustrative or comics journalism.

The comic "Jessica Colotl: In the Eye of the Storm" tells her story in panels, color and expression that are probably more engaging — and just as informative — as other forms of journalism.

It's published through a partnership of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and Cartoon Movement, an online publisher of political cartoons and comics journalism.

Dreaming of a Better and Legal Future

My husband, Steve, and his first wife, Laurene, moved to Eastern Europe shortly after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The day before they boarded the plane to move to Bratislava, Slovakia, Steve and Laurene discovered that they were expecting, unexpectedly, twins!  Since Bratislava’s medical care was still behind those of Western Europe and the birth of twins is a higher risk pregnancy, they chose to go to Vienna, Austria for the pregnancy care and birth.

Early one morning Laurene’s water broke and they made a harried run across the Danube River for the Slovakia/Austria border. Before long David and Paul made their dramatic debut about a minute apart via C-Section.

Steve and Laurene planned on living  there long-term, but a breast cancer diagnosis short-circuited those dreams. At six months of age, the twins were brought to America for the first time. Since then, they’ve lived, gone to school, and looked for jobs in America, which is as much home to them as any child born in America.

What if the Immigration police showed up one day and looked at their Vienna, issued birth certificates and passports?  Would the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents send them back to Austria, a country where they’ve never actually lived and where there are no relatives and where they don’t speak German? David and Paul would be lost.

Now this can’t happen to David and Paul since they were born abroad to U.S. citizens.  If their parents had not been U.S. citizens,  the twins would find themselves in the same situation facing almost a million young people who were brought to America. When you’re a toddler you go where you parents take you. You live where your parents live. When you grow older, according to the law of your new land, you attend school and eventually graduate.

That’s the point where the one million Dreamers’ lives have stalled. They cannot attend college, apply for a scholarship or even obtain a job to support themselves. And, the shadow of fear of deportation stalks them. College student, Jessica Colotl discovered this in 2010. She was attending Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., when she was arrested on campus for driving without a proper driver’s license. She was exposed as an “illegal immigrant” even though the migration occurred when she was ten years old, well before the age of informed consent. This honor student quickly found herself in handcuffs and behind bars after being transported to an ICE facility in Alabama.

Her experience has been shared by many young people who were brought -- much like David and Paul -- to this country, were raised here and consider America their home. Last week, President Barack Obama spoke a message of hope to the Dreamers who are stuck in this Catch-22 immigration situation.

In Obama’s address to the nation from the Rose Garden he said, “Effective immediately the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”

The president said, “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.”

Even before he finished his speech, the wails of protest began from those who oppose giving grace to those young people who are stuck in this flawed immigration system.

There are restrictions on who can apply for a work permit or scholarship for college. The new policy states that a young person would be immune from deportation if they arrived in the United States when they were younger than 16, have been in the country at least five years and are under the age of 30. They have to have graduated from high school or earned a GED and have no criminal convictions in order to be eligible to apply for this exemption. Since this policy change was made by executive order it goes into effect immediately.

Almost  50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King echoed the cry of the Dreamer’s hearts when he said, this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring..."

...And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

I'm well aware that many argue this will encourage an increase in illegal immigration or that Dreamers would drain federal programs of funds but, I agree with the president on this one.  Tempering the joy that his executive order brought to the families affected, he said, “Let’s be clear, this is not amnesty, this is not immunity…this is not a permanent fix. This is the right thing to do.”

United States Will Stop Deporting Young Undocumented Immigrants Under New Policy

The Obama administration will no longer deport and begin granting work permits to young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, The New York Times reports. The policy change does not need Congressional approval.

President Obama will discuss the plan at a press conference in the Rose Garden Friday afternoon.

The policy change could affect some 800,000 immigrants who are younger than 30 and arrived in the United States before they turned 16, according to The Times. Additionally, they must have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have a high school diploma or GED earned in the United States, served in the military or have no criminal history. They would also be eligible to apply for a two-year work permit that can be renewed an unlimited number of times.

The change achieves some of the goals of the DREAM Act, a controversial bill that would have granted citizenship to undocumented immigrants who had earned a certain number of college credits or served in the military. However, the new policy does not include a path to citizenship for eligible immigrants but does grant them immunity from deportation, The Times reports.

Photo from the White House.