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2016 Summer Institute: Session 5 – Mentoring Incarcerated Youth

Monday, 08 August 2016 Posted in Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Last week, the CFYJ interns wrapped up the 2016 Summer Institute series with one last discussion led by Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, an organization that trains law students to be mentor-advocates for youth who have been sentenced in the juvenile system both during and after incarceration. With an air of genuine passion for her work, Penelope shed light on the most important components of mentorship.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 3 – Solitary Confinement of Youth

Nils Franco Thursday, 21 July 2016 Posted in Voices

By CFYJ Law & Policy Fellow Nils Franco

No evidence exists to support the use of solitary confinement on youth, according to Jenny Lutz of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, and better alternatives would adapt to what evidence finds effective in correcting young people’s behavior. This realization, Lutz said, has offered a powerful rallying point for practitioners, advocates, and academics alike.

Lutz, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), spoke to interns and fellows working with juvenile justice–related organizations at CFYJ’s offices Tuesday.

The lunch-hour discussion detailed the effects of solitary confinement on youth health, as well as the promising solutions proposed to address the widespread problem of isolating youth. These solutions most obviously hold promise because of the sound psychological and social-science research backing up alternative tools for behavior corrections.

But also, in an environment of gridlock and partisanship, Stop Solitary for Kids’ solutions inspire hopefulness because we can expect to see the solutions implemented relative swiftly, having found support from associations of probation officers and corrections leaders. This is no easy accomplishment.

Reflecting so many other successful areas of criminal justice reform in the past year, Stop Solitary for Kids is a coalition of strange bedfellows pushing for the same goals. This coalition – the CCLP, Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators – respectfully works together to find wise solutions.

Switching to safer and demonstrably effective practices to correct the behavior of inmates, after all, improves safety in the correctional facility and would reduce challenges faced by correctional officers and other staff. The successes of states that reduced the general use of solitary confinement support this finding as well.

With these mutual interests, and with reform advocates acknowledging the struggles faced by on-the-ground staff who have spent their careers serving youthful detainees, the groups came together to build smarter policy and offer help to juvenile corrections leaders.

Of course, changing the behavior and tools of corrections staff requires a change of mindset among the staff – something no legislation could accomplish. So, without that respect and teamwork, policy change would not only be more difficult, according to Lutz: without working with practitioners, any policy change enacted would fail expectations.

Data collection must still improve to better understand how different states and facilities practice solitary confinement of youth. Systems improvement still requires courageous action by leaders in state legislatures nationwide.

But, in the meantime, the campaign has built a sturdy foundation of legislative goals and of credible publications rooted in sound technical advice and research since launching in April, winning experts’ support at a federal and state level through an inclusive and evidence-based approach.

2016 Summer Institute Session 2: Sexual Violence in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 08 July 2016 Posted in Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

On Wednesday, the CFYJ interns hosted the second session of the 2016 Summer Institute speaker series. We welcomed Tara Graham, senior program specialist at NCCD’s National PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Resource Center, to 1220 L to speak on PREA and sexual violence among youth in detention. In a lively and informative presentation, Tara explained about PREA’s conceptions and applications, and how sexual violence is still a pervasive occurrence, especially among youth, in correctional facilities. Her extensive knowledge of the subject allowed for a deeply constructive discussion.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 1 – Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 01 July 2016 Posted in Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Every year since 2008, the Campaign for Youth Justice has organized the Summer Institute, a series of brown bag luncheons where we invite summer fellows and interns working in juvenile justice to listen to leaders and experts from the field for a time of lecture and discussion. To kick off the 2016 edition of CFYJ Summer Institute, we welcomed Maheen Kaleem, Staff Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow at Right4Girls, a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence against vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.

Maheen gave us a powerful presentation on the specific needs of girls in the juvenile justice system, and shared with the packed room several of her personal experiences and encounters with young girls who got involved in the justice system after being abused their whole life. She emphasized that despite the displayed narratives of girls being increasingly violent (which is supposedly why the number of girls in prison is increasing), the 3 biggest reasons for girls to become involved with the justice system are truancy (skipping school), prostitution (which, as Maheen stressed it out, is not a thing according to federal law, and is actually child trafficking) and running away. Girls are NOT becoming increasingly violent, she repeated. The overall problem is that girls are victimized, and instead of receiving helped, they receive punishment as a response.

Maheen also mentioned dramatic data, such a 2009 study conducted in South Carolina showing that 81% of girls involved in the juvenile justice system reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once in their lives. Additionally, girls are twice as likely as boys to report 5 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES, i.e emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, household substance abuse etc), and four times more likely to be victims of childhood sexual abuse than boys.

Maheen ended her presentation by highlighting a need of implementing the JJDPA and for a “trauma-informed juvenile justice system,” that is, a system that does not send to prison girls who are running away from abusive homes or communities.

We are excited to announce that our second session is already scheduled to take place next week, and we will be talking about sexual violence in the justice system.

LGBT youths especially vulnerable in adult jails

Tuesday, 28 June 2016 Posted in Voices

By Rick Mula

The visitation room at the Alabama county jail was tiny. The beige cinderblock walls pressed in on the public defender and me as we waited for the guards to escort our 17-year-old client into the room.

J.W. had already spent four months confined to an adult jail cell. He hadn’t even been tried for a crime yet. But in Alabama, as well as other states, children as young as 16 can be automatically tried as an adult for certain crimes. They can also be held in adult jails as they await trial.

And that’s why J.W. was now sitting in this tiny room.

He’d been swept up in the adult criminal justice system, like so many other kids. An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the U.S. What’s more, LGBT youths are vastly overrepresented. Despite making up no more than 7 percent of the overall youth population, they make up about 20 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system. Most of these young people, like J.W., are children of color.

J.W. tells me that he used to identify as bisexual. He says that after he disclosed his sexual orientation, a corrections officer assumed he was promiscuous and called him a “ho.” The message was loud and clear: Bisexual individuals would be singled out. J.W. says he now identifies as straight. As someone who works to educate LGBT youths about their legal rights, I can’t help but wonder if he is avoiding identifying as bisexual to protect himself from more mistreatment.

What is certain, and worth remembering during Pride month, is that there are many LGBT youths in adult jails across this country. High rates of family rejection, hostile teachers and classmates at school as well as inappropriate foster care placements take their toll on LGBT youths. They may run away from home, skip school or abuse substances to cope – all activities that increase their chances of a brush with the law. LGBT youths are also more likely to be prosecuted for age-appropriate consensual sexual activity than their peers.

Once in adult jails, there’s little opportunity for rehabilitation or education that can get a young person’s life back on track, whether they are LGBT or not. I learned, for example, that J.W. attended a GED class sporadically for a couple months, but the class ended without warning or explanation.

Of course, one of the greatest concerns about placing a child in an adult jail is the threat of physical and sexual abuse. The problem is particularly acute for LGBT youths. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that 6.3 percent of LGBT youths reported sexual victimization compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youths.

Authorities may point out that federal law requires facilities to maintain “sight and sound separation” between young people and adults, but solitary confinement is often the only way to accomplish this goal. Confining a child or teen to a small four-walled cell for hours on end raises a host of other dangers – depression, anxiety and psychosis, for example – particularly for kids because of their developmental vulnerability.

It’s clear that jail is no place for young people, such as J.W.

The statistics and stories may be grim, but the situation is not hopeless. There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system and help youths in adult facilities. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Promote family acceptance interventions, which can help a youth avoid rejection that can put him or her on a path into the criminal justice system.
  • Urge your senators and representatives to support reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
  • Promote the development of LGBT-inclusive policies and procedures throughout your community to prevent LGBT youths from feeling isolated.
  • Learn more about campaigns to raise the age a juvenile can be tried as an adult – an important step toward preventing children from ending up in adult facilities.

As I think back to my visit with J.W., I remember how he beamed. He was so happy to have a visitor. Despite his situation, he eagerly chatted about Ariana Grande’s greatest hits and talked about his favorite movies and TV shows. J.W. may be behind bars, but he’s not that different from other kids his age. He’s just doing his best to survive an environment that was never meant for any child.

We need to do our best to keep kids like J.W. out of adult jails.

Rick Mula is an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.

Want to maximize your impact? Partner with the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016 Posted in Voices

By Kara Aanenson

For the past five years the Just Kids Campaign partnered with Campaign for Youth Justice to end the automatic prosecution of youth as adult in the state of Maryland.  During those 5 years we:

  • Stopped the construction of a youth jail in Baltimore,
  • Passed five pieces of legislation,
  • Built our statewide membership to over 5,000 members, and
  • Created a statewide coalition.

None of this would have been possible without technical assistance from the Campaign. They were with us every step of the way from organizing to legislative sessions. We adopted their theory of change, including working with youth who were charged as adults and their families. Working together with youth and their families multiplied our output and provided credibility to our work.

The Campaign helped us organize by hosting strategy sessions where we hashed out our action plans. They provided insight on what worked in other states and helped us brainstorm how to implement those strategies in Maryland. They created Youth Justice Awareness Month, uniting all states working on adultification of youth, and increased our fundraising efforts. The Campaign provided spokesperson training to enhance our messaging.

During Maryland’s 90 day legislative sessions we checked in weekly and they provided a sounding board for legislative strategy.  If amendments were added to a bill they would help us review them to determine our next steps. If we needed help finding a national expert to be a member of our taskforce or testify at a bill hearing, they would reach out to all their contacts to help make sure we got someone there.

The Campaign can maximize state impacts because they practice what they preach. They have run their own campaigns in D.C. and have assisted so many other states. They understand when you are frustrated because your coalition is fracturing, they know what it’s like to have a bill fail in committee, and they know what it feels like to get a victory. This work is rewarding, but it is also exhausting. Some days you feel like you are on top of the world and others days it feels like you are pushing a huge boulder up a hill in the rain, and on those days the Campaign is there standing beside you and helping you push. That is what makes them the best partner.    

Kara Aanenson is the Director of Family Engagement at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services since April 2016. Before that, she was the Director of the Just Kid Campaign for 5 years. 

This post is part of the CFYJ #IMPACT Blog Series, a project celebrating CFYJ's 10 years of commitment to juvenile justice reform.

The Story of Kalief Browder

Friday, 10 June 2016 Posted in Voices

In memory of Kalief Browder, whose life was uprooted at Rikers Island, and whose death we remember this month.

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Based on excerpts from interviews of Kalief Browder conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

In 2010, sixteen year-old Kalief Browder of the Bronx was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was charged with robbery and assault, but he said he didn’t commit the crime. Still, he was imprisoned at Rikers Island to await his trial…for three years. Kalief sat and waited while his life went by. Most of this time was spent in solitary confinement. He used a vent in the cell to communicate with other inmates through the walls, which offered some solace, expect for the frequent times he heard head banging, wall kicking, or distressed screaming from his neighbors at any hour of the day or night.

The only education offered to teens like Kalief in solitary is Cell Study, which is when an officer slips a worksheet under the cell door for completion, and then picks it up a few days later. Despite playing around in the hallways with friends, flirting with girls by their lockers, and doing what other young teens do, Kalief had always taken school seriously. But whatever scholastic promise he held before Rikers was disregarded within the prison’s confines, and Kalief missed out on his junior and senior years of high school.

Kalief endured violence from guards and other inmates, but he felt that the psychological and emotional trauma caused by his circumstances was worse. He was hungry all the time. The guards would sometimes skip over his cell when delivering meals, let alone ever give him the few pieces of leftover bread they always had. He was constantly stressed out. If he ever needed to communicate with the guards, the only way to get their attention was to quickly stick his arm through the slot in the door when it opened briefly for passing in meal trays. If he didn’t “hold his slot,” as they call it, he was subjected to various forms of mistreatment and disrespect such as no showers or no food. He was entirely helpless.

Still just a boy, Kalief was naturally accustomed to and dependent on asking his mother for help when he found himself in tough situations. But all his mother could do in this situation was cry on the phone. He attempted suicide after about two years at Rikers. Every so often, Kalief would get called to stand before a judge to hear whether he would get his trial. During one such meeting, Kalief was offered release only if he pleaded guilty. Despite wanting more than anything to go home, he turned down the deal, guided by his moral grit that prevented him from admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. And he was well aware that if he ever got the trial he was hoping for, he could face up to 15 years in state prison if he lost.

In the spring of 2013, the judge dropped all the charges against Kalief and he finally went home. He enrolled in a GED class, and passed his GED exam about a year later. He then enrolled at Bronx Community College, where he did well, but his mental health problems resulting from his time at Rikers formed insurmountable obstacles. After more suicide attempts and visits to hospital psychiatric wards, Kalief ended his life in June of 2015 at the age of 22.

As we remember the life and struggle of Kalief Browder this month, the reality of incarceration-induced mental illness continues to affect youth everywhere. In a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a longitudinal study reveals that nearly 50 percent of male juveniles and nearly 30 percent of female juveniles had at least one psychiatric disorder five years after their initial, baseline interviews for the study, which were conducted while they were awaiting adjudication of their cases. Substance abuse and disruptive behavior disorders were found to be the most common, and with additional long-term gender and race-related effects that put some groups at significant mental and social disadvantages, the need for more age-appropriate criminal justice is apparent.

At no point during or after Kalief Browder’s trial did anyone in power apologize to him or even acknowledge that he lost three years of his life, the rest of his youth, and ultimately his will to live, in solitary confinement at Rikers Island.

JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM: WHAT'S NEXT? - A Power Lunch with Marcy Mistrett

Monday, 16 May 2016 Posted in Voices


Join us for a conversation with Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. She will share the progress her organization has seen over the past 10 years in removing youth from the adult criminal justice system in 30 states and the next steps for advancing juvenile justice reform, including the critical need to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act.

Marcy Mistrett has been the CEO at the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) since 2014. CFYJ was launched just ten years ago to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating young people in the adult criminal justice system.

Since CFYJ's inception, 30 states have changed 48 laws to make it more difficult to treat children like adults. Yet challenges persist, including the extreme racial and ethnic disparities of those youth sentenced to adult time in adult facilities.  CFYJ is committed to keeping impacted youth and families at the heart of each campaign and of shifting the public dialogue from one of extreme punishment to one focused on child wellness.

Thursday, May 19th 2016
12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.

The Raben Group Offices
1341 G St NW, 5th Floor
Washington D.C. 20005


How Systems Have Failed My Son this Mother’s Day

Jennifer Hoff Thursday, 05 May 2016 Posted in Voices

IMG 0065 3By Jennifer Hoff

The most difficult part of having our young, mentally-ill, adult son locked up in solitary confident in California State Prison for months at a time is not  the emotional and mental pain his father, little brothers and I experience as a result of him losing, “in person” contact privileges again or other punishments he might be subjected to that are analogous with such a placement. It is not the overwhelming sadness that arises when you realize you can’t remember your child’s smell because you have not been allowed to hug him for almost a year,  nor the missing of his sweet voice during a phone call.  It is not the daily emotional turmoil of having horrific mental images flash by the minds eye as an incessant reminder of his dire situation.  It is not even that he was allowed to suffer mentally for over three years, denied the very psychiatric medications that he was prescribed from age 12 to quell his frenetic thinking and allow him to process his interactions with the world in a safe and more humane manner. 

As a mother, what is most difficult is that his situation is the predictable outcome of our abysmal system of criminalizing those who “act out” despite lacking the cognitive capacity to do otherwise. We saw this coming for over 15 years and there was absolutely nothing we could do to prevent our son from being punished for his disability and being sucked into the revolving door of the criminal justice system once he turned 18. 

We sought out help for Matthew very early (age 5) as his mental health symptoms began interferring with him attending public schools.  We had access to private doctors and therapists, had the resources to pay for treatment and the wherewithal to request special education services from our school district.  We had the stamina to navigate, for years, a broken mental health system. A system in which no one who is “in charge” seems to be held accountable to help these sick children; nor informs you (the parents) that every provider at the case-planning meetings are hiding their ball under the table to effectively and covertly play the game of “pass the buck” shuffle. Ultimately, those “in charge” denied services for my son as long as possible to avoid costs and save the bottom line.…. For years, Matthew’s father and I paid out of pocket to send him to a clinical day program run by a team of doctors at a highly respected university.  The clinical-day program was eventually exchanged for a dozen failed special educational public school placements, which again failed our son.  Ultimately, we were faced with  all roads leading to the need for a intensive (and expensive) locked facility; an incredibly difficult decision had to be made.

As Matthew’s needs increased, the willingness of our county agencies to provide for them diminished.  Eventually, only legal action proved effective in forcing our school district and county behavioral health departments to meet their legal obligations of providing appropriate educational and psychiatric services for our disabled boy.

The worst part of this journey has been the nausea that comes with knowing my son’s experience is the norm; that this outcome is one of many predictable tragic end points for individuals like Matthew who “don’t respond” to the current protocol of medications and talk therapy.   He has found his peer group in prison.  The overwhelming majority of his neighbors are young men who also suffer from debilitating psychosis, paranoia and delusions, and who have lived in their awful set of circumstances from before they were even able to legally drive a car. 

Most of the prisoners Matthew has met have previously been in the foster and/or juvenile “justice” cog from the young age of 10. They have been labeled as “troubled” and “delinquent”, yet denied medications or treatment or even basic therapeutic services before the preventable tragedy occurs that drove them into the criminal justice system.  These young  venerable  young people do not stand a chance once they are “in trouble with the law” because necessary mental health interventions will be withheld and they will inevitably be funneled into youth or adult prisons… many before they even hit puberty. 

If you had asked me when Matthew was younger and still at home, cycling his way through ineffective treatments,  how I was doing, I would have most likely burst into tears; for navigating the pediatric side of this nightmare was an incomprehensible, demoralizing experience that  each year left its marks on my psyche and spirit.  The pain of watching your child be discarded like trash by the very agencies tasked with his care is not easily explained to even the closest friends.  Today when folks ask me the same question my response is less emotional but rarely is it a complete answer….. for even folks who actually might know our story, or who work in the “field of mental health” find it hard to grasp the reality that our system isn’t filled with “cracks” for these young people to fall into.  Rather, to everyone’s surprise and dismay, instead of cracks, there is a looming  cliff that we systematically push young people off of when they age into adulthood. 

Nowadays my response to the “how are you doing” question, yields a filtered mantra of “pretty good considering…” or “well I am still here…” .  I make it a point to share our story with anyone and everyone who will listen; not to be a source of pain for people, but rather to leverage the pain I feel into becoming the motivation they need to jump into action and become part of the solutions. 

This is our modern day human rights crisis…throwing away children into a churning system for the past 15-20 years  has not only been a costly, failed, social experiment of being “tough on crime,” but more egregiously, it has stolen the futures of thousands of young folks, by answering their cries of help with a lock and key. Most “troubled youth” are not born that way…they are generally created out of years of neglect, abuse, misdiagnosis, and failed treatment;  and then severely penalized when they act out with the very behaviors that textbooks outline-- the step by step progression from victim to offender.  We know these facts, yet somehow the past few decades have been marked with an all out war against the treatment of childhood offenders and a refusal to allow for the degree of cognitive functioning the individual possessed to be used as a method of defense aimed at rehabilitation over incarceration. 

We have criminalized behaviors psychiatrists say are “normal” for an immature, traumatized or sick brains…we know that some brains are different and lack capacity to fully function, yet our leaders have allowed generations of children to be swallowed into the pit of the criminal justice system to be forgotten.

I have hope though, and I know we are not alone. I know some families experience this same journey but with an even more tragic outcome.  I am grateful for the work advocates and non-profits are doing both in the mental health reform and juvenile justice fields.  These broken systems will not self-correct and it is up to impacted individuals and families to demand they change for the better.

I have perspective, our story’s tragic ending didn’t create catastrophic collateral damage to our child or to our community. For this, we know were are the lucky ones.

Last Mother’s Day when I went to see my son, he was able to visit me in person for a change.  We really enjoyed each other, holding hands and hugging…being face to face, looking in the same beautiful auburn eyes that peered up at me when he was a baby swaddled in my arms. Now, despite the new homemade tattoos he had someone ink on his beautiful face, (because it seemed like a good idea “at the time”…he says, “sorry mom”) he is still my boy deserving of help. 

Jennifer Hoff is a concrned mom and juvenile justice advocate.

White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett Addresses the Power of Choice with DYRS Youth

Tuesday, 03 May 2016 Posted in Voices

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason and US Attorney’s Office Join National Reentry Week Efforts

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, US Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, and members of the US Attorney’s Office (USAO) spoke to young women at the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) about the power of choice and relationships yesterday as part of the Justice Department’s National Reentry Week efforts.

This visit started with a sexual assault awareness presentation to educate girls at DYRS’s Youth Services Center (YSC) on prevention methods and their rights in the District of Columbia.

The girls then participated in a group session with Jarrett and Mason, who addressed their 37-year friendship and the importance of building healthy relationships. “We weren’t much older than you guys when we met,” said Mason. “The relationships you have when you’re young are really important…the choices you make determine the future leaders that you are going to be.”

The young women enthusiastically engaged in a dynamic conversation where they learned about the roles Jarrett and Mason play in US Government and asked how they might be able to follow similar, important paths.

“Well, a lot of the challenges in this country happened over the course of years, and we’re trying to fix them in a relatively short period of time,” said Jarrett. “If we can help you all just a little bit, and give you the confidence to live up to your dreams, we’ll have done something.”

Both Jarrett and Mason agreed that “we need to do better by our young people because young people make mistakes,” a sentiment agreed upon by DYRS Director Clinton Lacey, who had welcomed the youth saying, “You are greater than your worst mistake and that’s why we brought you here today. It’s a time for women of color rising up to leadership, and we want you to have every opportunity possible to be a part of this.”

The visit coincided with the agency’s new strategy and heightened focus on girls programming and services, which recognizes that girls enter the juvenile justice system with personal stories of trauma, poverty, and physical, sexual and emotional violence. DYRS is developing and launching a trauma-informed, gender responsive program that is focused on healthy development, healing, restorative justice, and keeping girls closer to their home communities and families.

The event stemmed from biweekly girls groups that the USAO holds at YSC on topics such as sexual assault, self-awareness and domestic violence. These groups started three years ago to address the specific challenges of young women in the juvenile justice system.

National Reentry Week is an effort by the Department of Justice to encourage and highlight the importance of “supporting successful reentry…because by helping individuals return to productive, law-abiding lives, we can reduce crime across the country and make our neighborhoods better places to live.” (www.doj.gov)

This blog is courtesy of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services


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