Youth Voices in Juvenile Justice Reform

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When Shay Bilchik thinks about the potential of involving adjudicated youth in juvenile justice reform, he recalls the impact of foster children who helped persuade Congress to pass the Chafee Independent Living Act of 1999.

The bill “wasn’t going anywhere fast, until youth became involved in testifying and promoting it,” says Bilchik, former head of the Child Welfare League of America. “Lo and behold, a multimillion-dollar bill passed.”

At a time when states are rethinking their “get tough” juvenile justice policies and Congress is set to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, advocates are increasing their efforts to involve adjudicated youth in justice reform. Those efforts, however, face an array of challenges.

“The youth voice is being taken much more seriously than 15 years ago,” says Bilchik, who led the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention during the Clinton administration and is now director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Systems Integration at Georgetown University in Washington. “It’s not easy for the youth themselves to mobilize. There are special considerations.”

Making their voices heard: Young people with the Youth Justice Coalition hold rallies and speak to the news media to get their point across.

Photo: Photo courtesy of YJC

“It’s a critical thing … to involve young people who are directly affected by the system you’re trying to change,” says Sarah Bryer, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. That’s because “the things you’re demanding are informed by the people they’re directly affecting, and because young people can sometimes make the most compelling cases for why things should be changed.”

But system-involved youth often feel too beaten down or disaffected to step up, says Bryer, whose organization, along with the National Collaboration for Youth, published a policy brief on the subject in May ( “It’s challenging to convince them to have a voice,” she says. “A lot of young people will see their individual plight as individual.” The key is to show them that “what’s happened to them is part of a larger problem.”

Foster children tend to have less compunction than adjudicated youth about speaking up because they sense less stigma about their label, says Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “It’s not as though kids want to announce that they’ve been in the [justice] system, or identify themselves that way,” he says.

“You’re not going to the straight-A kids in the best high schools,” Bryer says. “You’re reaching out to kids in juvenile detention centers, on the streets – kids who might not feel as authorized to do advocacy work.”

With some effort, Schwartz says, youth workers can find adjudicated youth “who are quite special [and] who are willing to speak about their past mistakes.”

Then come practical considerations, like providing transportation to meetings and rallies, scheduling gatherings at convenient times and offering small stipends.

For youth workers to effectively reach out, they need an educational process of their own, says Renee Carl, director of policy and government relations for the National Collaboration for Youth.

“Giving young people the opportunity to grow and become leaders is essential,” she says. “It’s also essential to provide professionals with the training and ongoing professional development … to engage those young people, and do it in a positive way.”

Among the strategies being pursued is online advocacy, says Thaddeus Ferber, program director of the Forum for Youth Investment and chairman of the Youth Policy Action Center (YPAC), a Web-based advocacy effort.

“There’s been an increased attention to the use of social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, in engaging young people in advocacy,” Ferber says. He cites a campaign led by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which used a “critical” online component organized by YPAC to help pass a state bill that moves 16- and 17-year-old offenders from adult courts to the juvenile justice system. The bill was signed into law in June.

Bryer calls that campaign “a tremendous victory. They had young people testify. At one of their educate-the-Legislature days, they had all of these young people and their peers who are going to benefit from this come to the table.”

Bilchik envisions a combination of nonprofit action networks that mobilize youth around specific bills or issues, and ongoing youth representation on government bodies that have input into juvenile justice policies. “It’s important to bring youth to the legislative hearing table to have them tell their stories – not just to pull at the heartstrings, but to identify what should have been done differently,” he says.

Following are profiles of efforts to involve youth in juvenile justice reform.