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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.

Untrained Police Officers in Schools Focus on Girls of Color, Report Says

WASHINGTON — Black girls are nearly four times more likely to be arrested at school than their white counterparts and Latina girls are almost three times more likely to be arrested in elementary school than white girls, a new report says.

Researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute found that the explosion of police in the nation’s schools is forcing increasing numbers of black and brown girls into the school-to-prison pipeline.

There are police officers in nearly half the nation’s high schools — a list that grows with each new school shooting or move to zero tolerance disciplinary policies. Police find themselves being asked to intervene in routine disciplinary matters or end up haranguing young black and brown girls to be “more ladylike,” said the report, released Tuesday.

Officers are thrust into school systems with little training and even less structure: Fewer than half the states that allow police to patrol their schools require formal memoranda of understanding between police departments and school officials. Plus, many of the girls told researchers that the police in their schools were prejudiced against them and they couldn’t get a fair break.    

In some cases, the school-to-prison pipeline followed a direct line, the researchers found. Broadly or vaguely worded laws making it a criminal offense to “disrupt school” landed some 29,000 South Carolina students in the juvenile justice system in the first decades of the century, the report said.

It recommends better and more thorough training for school police and a shift away from heavy-handed law enforcement and toward counseling and early interventions. The report is intended as a toolkit for school systems and police departments. But it also makes clear that its authors hope this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

It’s a discussion that’s long overdue, juvenile justice reform advocates agreed.

“It brings a really important perspective to the work and I think that the focus on girls of color in the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t nearly engaged in enough,” said Sarah Bryer, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “It’s critical to the whole debate and will provide really concrete ideas and actions going forward.” This report complements her organization’s work on implicit bias, she said.

Marcy Mistrett, the chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the report’s findings — she and her allies have been warning about the school-to-prison pipeline for years — but was frustrated by the complexity of a problem that didn’t have to exist in the first place.

“To me, the thing that just continues to befuddle me is why there are such loose guidelines around this,” she said. “There’s no mandatory training for these guys on youth development, on cultural competence, on appropriate responses to regular, adolescent behavior. These arrests — it’s kids talking back, it’s kids being too loud, it’s kids being late to class — that’s all typical, adolescent behavior.”

What’s especially frustrating, Mistrett said, is that the solutions are so easy. “If they took the money they paid those officers and actually trained the teachers and principals in de-escalation and conflict resolution, they wouldn’t need the police in these schools,” she said.

Michelle C. Thomas is a veteran family court lawyer in Washington and former chair of the National Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. For her, the report’s lessons are pretty straightforward.

“It matters a lot that young black girls feel safe at schools — like they matter, and not like a target,” she said.

Matt Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law who has been a longtime advocate for child welfare reform, believes the report points to larger racial problems.

“More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, many of us live in segregated neighborhoods, which feed into segregated schools,” he said. “That’s the broader context in which these findings arise — a setting which makes it tragically unsurprising that girls of color experience disparate, harsh treatment in institutions that should be safe and welcoming.”

Looking Back and Casting Forward: An Emerging Shift for Juvenile Justice in America

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers - the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides - some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation.

Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system.

Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).

So in saying she would lasso the needed parties to lessen the numbers entering the corrections populations, and continuing the pitch to rid Cook of the juvenile system as currently set up, Preckwinkle made news. The numbers, so often repeated, were underscored in her talk: “The last time I checked,” she said, “68 percent of the people in our jail were African American - or double their proportion in the overall county population. Translated, she is attempting to answer a criminal justice and societal problem that has stymied policymakers, academics and law enforcement, among others, for decades.

And yet, like so much news at the turn of the year, it was swallowed by national news of tragedy, the fiscal crisis and President Barack Obama’s cabinet changes, and the play didn’t last long.

Also struggling to gain traction was a push by advocates, politicians and the courts to tip the balance of juvenile justice away from harsh punishment to rehabilitation. But to do so, Preckwinkle’s promise to fix local correction’s racial imbalance, weighted so heavily against blacks and Hispanics, would have to be addressed.

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute

In Shelby County, Tenn., the problem was so profound it recently invited a federal settlement to remedy it. Still, the problem of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) continues to plague minority populations.

DMC, the racial tilt of the criminal justice system, is a long-running issue for many civil rights and advocacy organizations who have put out conflicting studies over the years that compete over the reasons, including low educational achievement and high unemployment among minorities, and urban environments with more open-air criminal conduct where the crime is more easily spotted by police (unlike in suburban and rural areas).

“For so long we’ve invested in building up these institutions (jails, juvenile courts, detention centers) at the detriment of investing in communities and social services, especially in the neighborhoods where [detained] folks are coming from,” said Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute, a national non-profit aiming, with law enforcement and community leaders, to erase racial disparity. “And that’s not a productive way of engaging your citizenry. We as a society really need to invest in education, housing infrastructure, etc., because that investment matters, as we see on the justice side.”

The trick is to speed the process and, perhaps, start to eradicate a stain on the system – one that has drawn an increasing volume of suits, legislation, and community pushes to inject balance in a system that too often spins out black and Hispanic minors who are further traumatized by prison, highly unemployable, and lacking a decent education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Cycle of Poverty, Incarceration Systemically Tied

Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.

A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.

The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.

As it is, about 250 youth are locked up in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Roughly 80

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute.

percent of that population is black - and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.

"Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?"

Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.

"It's not necessarily true," she said, "that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you're more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race."

Balancing Justice

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized the disparity, and taken measures to address it, be it for drugs or other felonies that could land youngsters in adult court. But it’s been a tough, often losing fight.

For example, take drug arrests of minors – a push to tackle a problem that quickly drove incarceration rates up dramatically. But recent studies show states’ recent decriminalization of some use of marijuana – including in California – has already resulted in a downward spiral in youth crime rates.

Already, pot bars are starting to grow up in that state, while others consider following its lead, and still others, including Illinois, are working on laws to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. Also, cops in Chicago have started focusing on greater stashes to justify arrests – meaning fewer people are arrested, and therefore jailed.

Indeed, in California, 2011 saw a 61 percent drop since 2010 of youth arrests for marijuana possession, according to a recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The new state law reducing that offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction directly affects juvenile detention numbers, as drug arrests are the leading cause of youth confinement.

What remains to be seen is whether the racial and ethnic disparities of those arrests will also drop. Experts hesitate to be too optimistic considering the institutionalized disparities in America’s juvenile justice system. As with most crimes, minorities aren’t more prone to drug use or drug possession than whites. Nevertheless, minorities count for a disproportionate number of drug arrests.

In 2009, the rate for drug violation arrests for black juveniles was twice the white rate, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Black youth are also much more likely (48 times more likely in 2001, and the numbers haven’t budged much since) than white youth to be incarcerated in an adult prison after a first-time drug arrest.

Laws such as California's are attempting to hit this issue from the policy level. But many of the ground-level factors contributing to DMC are not adequately addressed, according to experts in the field.

New York City police statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, police made 2.5 million stops. Of those, 90 percent were people of color and 90 percent did not result in legal action.

“The police are a critical part of the juvenile justice decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles,” according to criminal justice professor Alex Piquero of the University of Maryland-College Park.

Piquero, in research dating to 2008, said police act as the “gatekeepers” to juvenile courts, and if their decisions are somehow race-based, minorities will continue to be overrepresented in the corrections system.

“The first step is to really address the use of data within jurisdictions … to look at [the numbers] regularly enough to help drive the way people make decisions,” Barrows said.

For example, jurisdictions look at how many kids in juvenile detention centers are from a particular geographic area. In Chicago, the concentration is on the heavily minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Other standards include the study of race, ethnicity, gender and offense. After assessing it, the idea is to monitor the data and reform the responses and thinking practices that have contributed to systematic disparity.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created by – and is directed by – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Providing a federal grant program, it requires participant states to address DMC through a data-driven approach. This calls for states and communities to assess their DMC levels and develop mitigation initiatives.

However, many in the system, including experts, the affected minors, teachers and law enforcement, say the nearly 40-year-old law has little teeth. As a result, communities nationwide are using increasingly innovative measures to tackle DMC.

Recent models use community interveners or mentors to talk to kids directly, attempting to de-escalate a situation through an adult rather than automatically resorting to detention.

In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Jamaica and South Bronx, the New York Department of Probation is collaborating with residents, businesses and organizations in what is called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.

This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.

However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.

"Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”

Bureau editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report.

Simple, Pre-written Language Reduces Confusion for Youth in Juvenile Court

On Nov. 7, the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) will hold a webinar focusing on the new Models For Change publication “Washington Judicial Colloquies Project: A Guide for Improving Communication and Understanding in Court.”

The guide, published by Washington State NJJN member TeamChild, offers advice on how professionals can better explain and describe the legal language used in court proceedings to young people.

Working with the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network, TeamChild created a guide that suggests “colloquies,” pre-written language for judges and attorneys to use during young people’s first court appearances and further disposition hearings. The language is written at a 6th grade-level and designed to be easily understood by juveniles. In fact, according to the the guide, effective use of colloquies sometimes increased young people’s understanding of release and probation conditions from one third to 90 percent after hearings.

Presenting at the webinar will be TeamChild research associate and former University of Michigan sociology professor Rosa Peralta, who will discuss several of the recommended colloquies and later field questions from Webinar attendees.

The free event is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. EST. To view the webinar, attendees are required to register here.

Juvenile Justice Advocates Fear Millions Cut by Sequestration

Unless the U.S. Congress agrees on a different budget by the end of this year, stopping a so-called “sequestration” budget, federal spending on juvenile justice programs will fall by around 8 percent.

A total $21 million would be sliced out of Juvenile Justice Programs under the federal Department of Justice alone, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s report on sequestration. Other spending that has some effect on juvenile welfare, such as state grants from the federal Administration for Children and Families, are also in line for cuts of around 8 percent.

“We are kind of bracing ourselves,” said Kimberly Williams, juvenile justice specialist at the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission.

“Last year we had only about $1.5 million in juvenile justice funding to allocate across the whole state. And we received about $10 million in requests,” she explained, adding that they are anticipating another 7 percent cut under sequestration.

In North Carolina, those funds cover things like programs for gang-involved youth, mentoring, after-school programs and monitoring and compliance. “We have to turn away a lot of good programs,” said Williams. If the cuts come, they will likely have to turn away more.

It will be the same in other states. All have some flexibility on how they spend federal juvenile justice dollars. But their priorities and grants may change from year to year, making it difficult to know what exactly post-sequestration state spending would look like.

The sequestration level of cuts may threaten the states’ ability to comply with the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, charged Benjamin Chambers at the National Juvenile Justice Network.

That Act generally requires that court-involved youth be detained separately from adults, that states address disproportionate minority contact and that juveniles who commit status offenses like curfew violations stay out of jail.

Chambers called the Act “fundamental” to good policy for youth in the justice system. The more a state’s policy mirrors federal requirements, the more juvenile justice grant money flows down to the state. Indeed, North Carolina is recovering from compliance issues that had already shrunk its federal funds.

But “even at current levels, there's been concern about states dropping compliance with the Act because they don't get enough funding to make it feasible; more cuts will probably tip that balance,” said Chambers. After years of cuts already, “we're already pretty close to that point,” of states abandoning JJDPA, he argued.

Study: Youth Offenses, Sentences, Predict Little about Recidivism

Data emerging from a seven years’ study of young offenders suggest that the nature of a serious juvenile crime or the length of time served for it, does not do a very good job predicting if a youth will re-offend.

“Burglars are not all the same, neither are car thieves or assaulters,” said Edward Mulvey, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.  “Just because they’ve done a certain type of offense doesn’t mean they’re on a particular path to continued high offending or more serious offending.”

Mulvey is principal investigator on the Pathways to Desistance study, which followed some 1,300 youths convicted of mostly felony offenses in Phoenix and Philadelphia for seven years after adjudication. Analyses are now being published.

“The way you code a presenting offense, you can do it violent or not violent, property or not property, you can do it a lot of ways; it never comes out as a real strong predictor of outcome,” Mulvey said, explaining some of his latest analysis.

The finding supports some prior academic literature, and adds to evidence that the finding is the same for the most serious offenses.

When it comes to writing law, state lawmakers have to think of their voters’ standards, Mulvey explained, but suggested lawmakers also consider that the kids convicted of any certain serious crime seem to be very different, heterogeneous people.

He gave the example of “transfer” laws: some states automatically send minors to adult court for certain offenses. Mulvey said he believes that a state law that leaves the transfer decision up to judges in every individual case “makes a lot more sense.”

But once a juvenile is in state custody, the length of stay appears to have nothing to do with the recidivism rate, said Thomas Loughran, of the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He worked on that issue with the Pathways data by comparing two similar groups of youth.

“The more [time] we gave them, it didn’t make any difference, there was no effect” on recidivism, he reported, though cautioning that the bulk of the kids in the study served between three and 13 months.

“There’s a lot of competing theories [about] why that is,” he said, and thinks no answer is definitive. It could have to do with youth psychological development, he ventured, or low-risk kids mixing with high recidivism-risk kids in the same detention center.

Further, Loughran said his numbers show “no significant difference” in the re-arrest rate for offenders who served probation versus detention.

The Pathways study also suggests that family involvement in drug treatment is more effective than the treatment alone, Mulvey said.

Mulvey recently discussed the progress of his work at a National Juvenile Justice Network meeting, which published a short summary.

The Pathways to Desistance baseline data was published in August. Mulvey plans to write several more bulletins about the study via the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a sponsor of the study, and later write a book.

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.

National Juvenile Justice Network Offers Fellowships for Youth Justice Leadership Institute

The National Juvenile Justice Network is now accepting applications for the second year of its Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that includes leadership development, training in juvenile justice system policies and practices, theories of change and advocacy skills development. The Institute's mission is to create the foundation for a more effective juvenile justice reform movement through the development of a strong base of advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies. Consequently, the Institute will focus on cultivating and supporting professionals of color. All fellows will gather twice during the year where they will be matched with a mentor.

Interested applicants may download an application packet online or contact the Institute's coordinator, Diana Onley-Campbell. Applications are due by April 23, 2012.

 

Poll Shows People Believe That Kids Can Be Rehabilitated

Georgia has some of the toughest juvenile crime laws in the nation that focus more on punishment than rehabilitation. A new report suggests that the public may have different attitudes.  Some highlights: Continue reading Poll Shows People Believe That Kids Can Be Rehabilitated

The Power of Partnerships

Advocates for troubled teens can greatly benefit from partnering with families, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network.   NJJN’s An Advocates Guide to Meaningful Family Partnerships: Tips from the Field outlines ways to build advocate and family coalitions that push for practices that are fair and appropriate for kids.

Louisiana’s Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth was infamous for “broken bones, black eyes, fractured jaws, and rapes” according to a report in Alter Net: Civil Liberties.  The facility was finally shut down once a major family group merged with a major advocacy group, the National Juvenile Justice Network points out.

For more information about advocates partnering with families:

An Advocates Guide to Meaningful Family Partnerships: Tips from the Field

National Juvenile Justice Network

Moms Want Justice: Meaningful Family Partnerships in Juvenile Justice Reform

Alter Net: Civil Liberties