NJJN Puts Spotlight on Advocates with Annual Awards

New York Peace Activist Wins Award for Her "Gutsy" Work on Behalf of Youth in Trouble with the Law
New York Peace Activist Wins Award for Her "Gutsy" Work on Behalf of Youth in Trouble with the Law

The National Juvenile Justice Network is shining a light on the often unsung work of youth justice advocates.

The group on Thursday announced its annual awards for six advocates who are pressing for juvenile justice reforms at the state and national levels.

For the first time, NJJN will give an “Emerging Leader” award. The inaugural recipient is Jeree Thomas, an attorney with the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia Attorney Wins Inaugural Award for Her Work in Youth Justice Reform
Virginia Attorney Wins Inaugural Award for Her Work in Youth Justice Reform

Thomas is the campaign manager of the RISE (Re-invest in Supportive Environments) for Youth Campaign, which focuses on community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.

“When Jeree identifies an injustice impacting JustChildren’s young clients, she moves swiftly and steadily towards resolving it and you can count on her to succeed in doing so,” said Angela Ciolfi, Legal Director at JustChildren in a news release.

A second national award, the Beth Arnovits "Gutsy Advocate for Youth" Award, will go to Carmen Perez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice. Perez incorporates direct services, policy advocacy and public awareness through rallies, vigils and protests into her work on behalf of youth.

State Representative Raumesh Akbari
State Representative Raumesh Akbari

“By serving as a bridge between grassroots organizations and policy institutions, she’s fought to replace harmful practices and policies in the juvenile justice system and with policies and laws that support youth and families,” said Erika Stallworth, a founding member of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, in a news release.

NJJN also recognized four juvenile justice leaders in Tennessee with three awards:

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari will receive the “Reformer Award” for championing criminal justice reform;

Mahal Burr & Evan John Ross Morrison
Mahal Burr & Evan John Ross Morrison

Mahal Burr and Evan John Ross Morrison from the non-profit BRIDGES, a youth development organization, will receive the “Advocate Award in recognition of a leadership program they created for incarcerated youth; and

Lauren Wilson Young of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation will receive the “Servant Award” for her work with youth, including through the Juvenile Intervention and Faith-Based Follow-up Program.

Lauren Wilson Young
Lauren Wilson Young

“We wanted to honor these leaders because they understand that Tennessee’s youth justice system is like a maze, with too many entrances and lots of dead ends,” said Sarah Bryer, who directs NJJN, in a news release. “They’ve each done crucial work to redesign the maze with fewer entrances and clearer pathways out, so that our justice system makes sense and kids can be rehabilitated and contribute to their communities.”

NJJN will present the awards in July at its annual conference, which will take place this year in Memphis.

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.

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

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.

Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice

A recent report from the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), titled, "Bringing Youth Home: A National Movement to Increase Public Safety, Rehabilitate Youth and Save Money," documented the extraordinary number of states and jurisdictions (at least 24) that are closing or downsizing their youth correctional facilities, due to budget cuts, legislation, lawsuits, and pressure from reformers. (Download the report for tips on ways to downsize wisely.)

This is a good thing, because it means taxpayers can save money or avoid the high cost of incarceration, and reallocate those monies to community-based programs that are more effective at helping young people turn their lives around.

Right on the heels of the NJJN report comes a new report from Jeffrey A. Butts and Douglas N. Evans from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Research and Evaluation Center in New York, titled, Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment: Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice. In it, they ask:

  • Do these reforms represent a permanent shift in policy and practice, or are they merely a temporary reaction to tight budgets and low rates of violent crime?
  • Will policymakers maintain the reforms if and when crime rises and budgets rebound?

To answer those questions, they reviewed -- I'm quoting from the press release -- "the most prominent juvenile correctional reform models from the past 40 years, and they conclude that some models of reform are likely to be more sustainable than others."

Here's the three reform models they identified (I'm quoting again):

    1. Resolution Models: Reforms are accomplished and maintained with managerial action and state leadership. Examples: The “Missouri Model” and statewide reforms in Massachusetts and Utah during the 1970s and 1980s.
    2. Reinvestment Models: Reforms are accomplished and maintained  using financial incentives to reduce the demand of local jurisdictions for state-operated confinement institutions. Examples: RECLAIM Ohio, Redeploy Illinois, and recent reforms in Texas.
    3. Realignment Models: Reforms are achieved and sustained by reorganizing juvenile justice systems, reducing or eliminating state-level confinement and replacing it with local services and placement. Examples: Wayne County, Michigan and the California realignment policy enacted with Senate Bill 81 in 2007.

Their conclusions?

  • The "'realignment' approach now being implemented in California and the realignment reforms established in Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan since 2000" is most likely to be sustainable over time.
  • Moreover, reforms based on financial incentives (costs avoided by closing down costly facilities) are probably the most easily reversed.

Download Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment: Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice.


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.