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#YJAM: The little conversation about luck

Shawn Kelly, Intern with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a project of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Thursday, 15 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

Shawn Kelly Intern4

So what can I write about from my perspective? I mean I am not a lawyer. I’m not a judge or politician. I am just an intern in the New Orleans juvenile public defender’s office. But I am young black male. I am 20 now but only three years ago, I could have been in the same place a lot of the kids in the system are in. See I came from a lower income area, I went to public school, and I also did my fair share of juvenile misbehaving. The only difference between my story and so many of the kids we see on these streets…I got lucky.

Now that’s not to take away from my own hard work but it’s the truth. I got lucky to have good parents who are still married and raised me the best they could even with financial struggles. I was lucky enough to go to a really good public high school (The real purple and gold, Warren Easton). I was lucky enough that I never got caught when I misbehave and when I did misbehave I had people behind me to check me whenever I stepped out of line. But for a lot of kids in this city, they don’t have that luck.

See, their reality is going to schools that don’t teach them. Their reality is growing up in single parent homes where their mother has to struggle to provide. Their reality is much different than mines but it’s close enough where I can feel it and understand that could have been me. But for many of the people in this juvenile system, they don’t know that reality. They just see black bodies committing crime. That’s all they see and they stand on their high horse. We have judges that chastise young men for sagging their pants. But do they ask if that young man even had enough money to buy a belt? People chastise young women for selling their bodies in these streets. But do they ask if that young woman has been sexually abused like so many others?

So when I think of my story of how lucky and blessed I am, I get upset a little bit. I think of my accomplishments like graduating high school and going to college and I think why can’t others achieve this? I don’t think it’s because they didn’t pull themselves up by the boot straps and work hard. I don’t think it’s because they have terrible parents and terrible schools. No, it’s none of that. It’s so much bigger and terrible than that. It’s so many combinations of things that these young people will never understand. We can’t teach them all about inequalities that are so deep in this country. I still don’t understand it and I am a sociology and African American studies student. We can’t tell them to stop selling drugs when getting a job at McDonald’s is only paying $7.25 an hour and you need a high school diploma to work there in some places.

As a wise man once said, “the streets are always hiring”. We can ask for many things from youth but I think we need to start asking the question that I ask myself.  I ask myself, what can I do? What can I do so more people make it in this world? People need to ask that question. Especially those in our juvenile system that didn’t need the luck and were privileged and now send those unprivileged to jail. What can you do to help more make it and less fail? Once you ask that question and have a honest discussion in your mind, then maybe just maybe, we all can have a discussion about this system and see how we can help people.

Join LCCR, the Joan Mitchell Center, and community co-sponsors as they bring the Juvenile-in-Justice exhibition to New Orleans as part of National Youth Justice Awareness Month.

Created by acclaimed photographer and advocate for juvenile justice reform Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justicedocuments the experiences of children in prisons around the nation through powerful photographs and personal narratives. The traveling exhibit brings viewers into spaces normally hidden from view to tell the stories of the most vulnerable members of our society. Exhibit Runs Oct. 23- Nov. 20.

Written by Shawn Kelly, Intern with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a project of theLouisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Shawn is 20 years old and currently attends Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the President of the Black Student Association. He is one of our paid interns, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), through its Young Men’s Voices have Power in New Orleans (YMVP-NOLA) program.


juvenile in justice

#YJAM: Racial and Ethnic Disparities, Reflections from Defenders

Wednesday, 14 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

Untitled design

Police reports, witnesses, special needs, poverty, illegal searches, inadmissible evidence—these are just some of the case components defenders must juggle when defending youth. A defender is trained to understand and maneuver around such obstacles yet, what becomes more difficult to understand and articulate to a client is a barrier so high in our juvenile justice and criminal justice systems, that despite recognizing it, there is no way over, under, or through it. Racial injustice. In 2010, African American youth made up 17% of the juvenile population but 33% of the delinquency caseload. How does a defender explain that while the “perception of innocence is a central protection afforded to children” such a consideration “may not be given to the children of dehumanized groups, such as Black Americans”? Today we hear from a few defenders across the country and their perspectives on race.

California Bay Area Juvenile Defender: "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." This the mantra that I make my clients repeat back to me at the end of every meeting, especially the ones in juvenile hall. Because what those clients hope for, more than anything, is to just go home. I promise to stop smoking pot, they tell me. I promise to go to school. I'm not a bad kid. I just made a mistake.... Why, they ask me, why won't the judge let me out?

This question when posed by my African American clients - the why - is particularly heartbreaking. If I tell them the truth - that black youth are overrepresented in the system, that implicit and explicit historical and present racial biases have led to them getting kicked out of school, overcharged, detained, incarcerated longer - that the color of their skin has largely defined this whole juvenile justice experience - how could they possibly have hope?

Instead, I tell them not to worry. Concentrate on yourself, keep doing well. It's my job to fight for you. Little do they suspect that when I say fight, I don't just mean the battle that is their case, but the larger war against racial injustice.

Robert Mason, Jacksonville, Florida Juvenile Defender: I’ve worked as an Assistant Public Defender in Jacksonville, Florida for more than twenty-five years.  I’ve worked in Juvenile, County (Misdemeanors), Circuit (Felonies), Repeat Offender Court, and the Special Defense Unit. Doesn’t really matter which division I’ve practiced in...I always see a higher proportion of people of color than the composition of the local community. And it all begins in Juvenile. 

Children of color get swept into the system, often stemming from school arrests.  Frequently the thought process is that these arrests are to help a child and provide services.  Well, arrests certainly don’t help these children in the future, and as for services, we’re in a state that keeps the purse strings pretty tight.  Sorry kid.

The school arrests occur disproportionately in certain zip codes.  Somehow the elite schools manage to avoid these arrests.  Go figure.

The irony is never lost on me when I’m heading to court and I jaywalk or walk against the light in the presence of law enforcement.  I have an important hearing on probable cause or I’m challenging a case because of an illegal stop.  Anyway, I’m exempt from being stopped; I’m an old white guy in a suit.

Eric Zogry, North Carolina State Juvenile Defender: ¨As an in court defender, my enlightenment regarding “the system” arrived when I simply looked around me.  Not at my clients, or the other black and Latino juveniles that made up the vast majority of our caseloads – that was obvious.  What I recognized was that, even though we had a black prosecutor, black juvenile justice workers, and even a black judge, my client was still getting buried under the system.  While individual discrimination and implicit bias remains, it was then I knew that the juvenile justice system, itself, was a root cause of racial bias.

As a state-wide director, it was no surprise that most juvenile defenders could recognize the problems of overrepresentation, racial disparity and institutionalized racism.  But the true hard work as defenders is recognizing and accepting that we are part of the problem.  What decisions do we make when we first see our clients of color?  Do we afford them the same benefits we do our white clients?  Or do we cut corners, relax efforts, and fail to attack the system itself for fear of inevitable defeat? Our practice, our profession needs to reach inward first to honestly address our contribution to this state of discrimination.

This week, join the conversation on racial and ethnic disparities by using the hashtag #YJAM.  Below is sample language you can share on social media:

During arrests, hearings, sentencing, and even treatment while incarcerated, youth of color are treated worse than whites. #YJAM

Racial disparities in the justice system are tied to many issues including income inequality, racism, and lack of opportunity. #YJAM

Many youth of color who are charged with felonies can't vote, can't find employment, and can't find housing. #YJAM

African-American youth are 9 times more likely that white youth to receive an adult prison sentence #YJAM

Latino children are also 40% more likely than white youth to be admitted into adult prison #YJAM

President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring October 'National Youth Justice Awareness Month' and calls on Americans to "observe this month by getting involved in community efforts to support our youth, and by participating in appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs." http://sparkaction.org/content/president-proclamation-yjam #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

Youth of color prosecuted and incarcerated as adults are disproportionately over-represented in the justice system. The issue of youth incarcerated as adults has demanded the attention of the nation, especially since President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring October 'National Youth Justice Awareness Month' http://sparkaction.org/content/president-proclamation-yjam #YJAM

#YJAM: The Story of Juan Peterson - Juvenile Justice Advocate

Friday, 09 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

The Power of Sharing Stories


This theme for this year's Youth Justice Awareness Month is, "The Power of Sharing Stories". All month long CFYJ will share stories of youth and family members that have been impacted by the adult criminal justice system. This week we share the story of juvenile justice advocate, Juan Peterson who is also a Poet Ambassador for Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop.

Juan grew up in Washington, D.C., in a section of town that is plagued by violence. His father was in and out of jail, so he grew up primarily with his mom and younger brother. He was never a “problem” child, and didn’t get into trouble until his mid-teens. At 16, police went into his home at night to arrest him for an armed robbery carjacking. He awoke to the barrel of a rifle pointed at him. As he was being taken into custody, he remembers that he was afraid of the “unknown”. He was left in the dark with no lawyer, not knowing what was going on, and no communication with his family. When he went to court, he admitted to knowing about a possible carjacking that one of his friends or acquaintances committed, but he was never there. This was enough to try him as an adult with a conspiracy conviction, which sentenced him to eight years in adult prison. He was transferred far from his family in D.C. first to Montana, then to Washington State, Utah, California and finally Virginia.

“Getting out was the easy part, staying out is hard,” he recalls. There is no exit procedure from prison, no psychological evaluation, no assessment of education or career skills, or assessment of whether he had a home to return. Juan received a promise that he needed to find a job or he would be put back in prison.   However, getting a job was difficult due to his record. He could not get a job as a warehouse worker, which he was more than qualified for. He had fifty seven job interviews before he was given an opportunity somewhere. Now he works at a hospital and volunteers with a group called Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. Free Minds is an organization that offers resources to youth incarcerated as adults. The resources they provide range from job readiness training, outlets for creative expression, violence prevention outreach and more. The unique aspect of Free Minds, is that some volunteers, like Juan, have formerly been incarcerated and can youth who are incarcerated a positive example to follow. They show that there is potential in everyone and that there is still room to have a positive impact on the community.

#YJAM: The Story of Marcus Bullock- Juvenile Justice Advocate

Tuesday, 06 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

The Power of Sharing Stories


This theme for this year's Youth Justice Awareness Month is, "The Power of Sharing Stories". All month long CFYJ will share stories of youth and family members that have been impacted by the adult criminal justice system. This week we share the story of juvenile entrepreneur and justice advocate Marcus Bullock. 

Marcus grew up in the DC metropolitan area. At the age of 15, he participated in a car jacking and got away with it, initially. Not surprisingly, given his age and what we know about teenaged brains—that their evolving development leads teens to be impulsive, seemingly invincible, and strongly influenced by their peers—it makes sense that Marcus failed to understand the ramifications of his actions. The next day, Marcus got arrested while committing another crime. He was charged as an adult and sentenced to eight years in prison--until he was 23 years old. According to Marcus, “I wasn’t ready for that experience; no child is. To be thrown into a facility with adults, when you are still a child who is still developing is detrimental. The “psychological warfare” was present every day in an adult prison.  Trying to grow up healthy in that space that is meant to contain you will handicap any young person’s development."

His positive attitude, he says, is what helped Marcus be successful after prison. Marcus, a natural entrepreneur, had to work his way from the bottom to the top. He started out painting kitchens for people, to opening a paint store, to then expanding it into a full-fledged remodeling company. Not forgetting the isolated feeling of prison, he took his business experience to launch a web and phone app called Flikshop, which is used to connect families to loved ones who are incarcerated. His advice to the other young people who are incarcerated is to, “keep your outside world connections strong; it will put you in a better position to be successful when you re-enter society.”  Marcus continues to run both businesses, while also teaching entrepreneurship skills to youth in detention in D.C.

Happy Father's Day from the Campaign for Youth Justice

Samantha Goodman Friday, 19 June 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

Untitled designBy Samantha Goodman

This Sunday marks Father’s Day, a national celebration and recognition of fathers and the special place they serve in our lives. While some exchange gifts, watch baseball, or enjoy a special dinner with their fathers, others are not as fortunate to spend the special day with loved ones. The Campaign for Youth Justice recognizes all of those fathers who, due to incarceration, are separated from their children this Father’s Day.

We would also like to acknowledge Charlie Curtis of Free Minds Bookclub and Writing Workshop, as well as DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who are being honored this Sunday by the DC Fatherhood Coalition as Fathers of the Year. Incarcerated at the age of 16, Curtis served five years in federal prisons before being released in 2012. He now serves as Free Minds’ Lead Poet Ambassador, encouraging youth at detention facilities and DC area schools to put a precedent on their education. In addition, he is a full time father to daughter, Chloe (1), and son, Charlie Jr. (1 month).

Tyrone Parker, of the DC Fatherhood Coalition and the Executive Director of the Alliance for Concerned Men, calls Curtis a role model and example to us all.

“He is a young man, who has faced the challenges of incarceration and is now manning up to be a father,” said Parker.

Check out Charlie's story here.

This Father’s day, and always, put family first.

Happy Father’s Day from the Campaign for Youth Justice.


Young, Queer, and Locked Up: LGBT Youth in the Adult Criminal Justice System

Christina Gilbert and Hannah Hussey Thursday, 18 June 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

In April 2014, a sixteen-year-old transgender girl of color and trauma survivor was placed in an adult correctional facility by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, which claimed the young woman was too violent to be housed elsewhere. Despite the fact that she had not been charged with or convicted of any crime, Jane Doe remained in the adult prison for two months, much of it in solitary confinement, before being transferred and subsequently placed in a juvenile detention facility for boys.

Unfortunately, situations like Jane's – in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) young people become involved with the adult criminal justice system – are all too common. While research about LGBT youth in the adult criminal justice system is scarce, statistics from the juvenile justice system illuminate a disproportionality that likely holds true in adult jails and prisons as well. Most estimates suggest that LGBT youth comprise 5 to 7 percent of the overall youth population, and yet approximately 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system self-identify as LGBT. Most of these youth are young people of color. New data suggest that the numbers for girls are even higher, with approximately 40 percent of all girls in the juvenile justice system identifying as LGBT or gender-nonconforming.

Research on the juvenile justice system likewise demonstrates that LGBT young people come into contact with law enforcement officers and the courts for a variety of reasons. LGBT youth are more likely than their peers to be detained for status offenses such as truancy or running away from home, probation violations, and engaging in survival crimes such as sex work. They are also more likely to be homeless and to struggle with substance use and abuse. Often, these behaviors stem from deeper issues related to the young person's sexual orientation or gender identity, such as family rejection, hostile school climates, or inappropriate foster care placements. Once in the juvenile justice system, lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people experience youth-on-youth sexual victimization at a rate that is nearly seven times higher than that of their heterosexual peers. LGBT youth are also more likely to be put into isolation by facilities who fear they are a threat to other youth or "for their own protection," despite the severe mental health risks posed by solitary confinement.

The experiences of LGBT youth echo those of LGBT people of all ages. LGBT youth and adults experience bias and discrimination at all stages of court proceedings. Certain drivers of incarceration for LGBT individuals contribute to this effect. LGBT people, particularly LGBT individuals of color, face pervasive discrimination in systems ranging from employment to housing to education. LGBT youth and adults are also profiled by police based on intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, as well as age, religion, disability, or immigration status.

Information about juveniles in juvenile justice settings is also informative in uncovering the experiences of LGBT young people in jails and prisons. Most youth in the adult criminal justice system are there for non-violent offenses. Many of them have never been convicted and are housed in adult jails and prisons while waiting for a trial. These youth face abusive conditions and often receive little or no rehabilitative treatment or education. Under federal law, incarcerated youth must be separated from adults for their own protection – which in practice often results in solitary confinement. This isolation has extremely negative physical and mental health effects, particularly on children. And according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, "more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse."

Numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in adult jails and prisons experience higher rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization – 6.3 percent of non-heterosexual youth compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youth, although the study included only a small sample of non-heterosexual youth. Beyond those statistics, little data exists on the specific experiences of LGBT youth in the adult system. Taken together, however, the research on LGBT youth, incarcerated LGBT adults, and youth in the adult system suggest that LGBT youth in adult jails and prisons experience multiple vulnerabilities, opening them up to discrimination and harassment from multiple systems.

Many states require that youth charged with a sex offense be tried in the adult system – one example of an area that impacts LGBT youth in unique ways. While "Romeo and Juliet" laws can reduce or remove penalties for consensual sex between adolescents who are close in age, these provisions have not always applied evenly to LGBT individuals. More recently, researchers found a public bias toward punishing gay youth more severely than heterosexual youth for consensual sex with another young person.

Where numbers are lacking pertaining to LGBT youth in the adult criminal justice system, anecdotal information indicates extensive trends of discrimination and disproportionate representation and points to troubling attitudes that may disproportionately harm LGBT youth. Such attitudes are visible, for example, when a prosecutor abuses their discretion by arguing that "a youth who is old enough to know their sexual orientation or gender identity is old enough to be tried in the adult system," or when feedback expressed during trainings with The Equity Project include questions about why juvenile justice professionals should bother learning about LGBT cultural competency if "the youth are just going to end up in the adult system" anyway.

LGBT young people, like all youth, need protection, safety, affirmation, and guidance in order to successfully transition to adulthood. They also need to be recognized as the young people they are – young people who are resilient in spite of discrimination, poverty, and abuse; young people who engage in normal adolescent behavior; and young people who have enormous potential. Adult jails and prisons offer no way forward for these young people to obtain the tools they need as they seek to empower themselves and change the world around them.

As we celebrate Pride during the month of June, we should encourage policymakers and advocates to promote fair and equitable treatment for all individuals in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, through promoting and supporting training and technical assistance regarding this population, increasing alternatives to detention, and supporting passage of legislation such as the long overdue reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

Christina Gilbert is the Director of The Equity Project. Hannah Hussey is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

OP-ED: UN Calls Out US on Police Violence, Criminalization of Youth of Color

Tawakalitu Amusa Wednesday, 28 January 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

The death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., has brought national attention to the serious and sometimes deadly interactions that youth of color often have with the police.

However, racial discrimination against youth isn’t limited to encounters with the police. These policing practices often result in youth being funneled into the criminal justice system. In the United States approximately 200,000 youth under 18 are tried as adults each year, and on any given day more than 6,000 youth are detained in adult jails and prisons. Due to the racial disparities at every stage in the process — from decisions about whom to stop through whom to prosecute as adults — the majority of the youth in the adult system are minorities.

These young people spend their formative years in adult jails and prisons that frequently place them at risk for sexual and physical violence. Locking youth away in adult facilities that do not address their developmental needs or capacity for change destroys their future.

A United Nations human rights body recently criticized the U.S. for the severity of police use of force against youth of color and its treatment of youth in the criminal justice system. The U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concern in “Concluding Observations” over the “conditions of detention for juveniles, including their placement in adult jails and prisons” and recommended that the U.S. “resort more to alternatives to incarceration” for juveniles. The committee also emphasized the need to end practices that are particularly harmful to youth. It stated that the U.S. should abolish solitary confinement for juveniles, “ensure that juvenile detainees and prisoners under 18 are held separately from adults” and prohibit the use of stun guns on children.

The committee also expressed concern about “numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups.” It articulated “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” It noted in particular reports of racial profiling and excessive use of force by the Chicago Police against African-American and Latino young people.

Other U.N. bodies have criticized the U.S. for racial profiling, discrimination in the justice system and laws and policies that allow or require youth under the age of 18 to be treated as adults in the criminal system. In August, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued “Concluding Observations” expressing concern about racial disparities at all levels of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. CERD criticized the “disproportionate rate at which youth from racial and ethnic minorities are ... referred to the criminal justice system, prosecuted as adults, and incarcerated in adult prisons.”

It recommended that the U.S. address the racial disparities and “ensure that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts and are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing.” CERD also expressed concern about the “practice of profiling racial and ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials.” It emphasized concern over the high levels of brutality and excessive force used by law enforcement officers toward mostly “members of racial and ethnic minorities, including unarmed individuals.”

The Committee Against Torture and CERD criticism of the U.S. reflect important concerns about how racism affects the policing of communities and the treatment of youth of color within the criminal justice system. They also reflect the consensus of the international community that children in conflict with the law have the right to special protection because of their youth and their capacity for change. Subjecting youth to adult criminal punishments rather than providing age-appropriate rehabilitative programs during a crucial time in their development will have a lifelong detrimental impact.

The comments from these two U.N. committees recognize that we must do more to address racial discrimination and to protect youth of color. It is time the U.S. is held accountable for the actions of law enforcement officials and pushed to develop alternatives to the criminalization of youth. Hopefully, the recent international scrutiny can support advocates currently taking to the streets in solidarity to show that the lives and future of minority youth do matter.

Tawakalitu Amusa is a third-year law student in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York Law School. IWHR submitted a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture with the Campaign For Youth Justice and other groups.

YJAM 2014: Advocates Making Waves in Youth Justice Reforms

Sunday, 19 October 2014 Posted in 2014, Across the Country, Campaigns, Voices

As we reflect on this year and in commemoration of Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM), we have seen the pursuit of many youth justice reforms across the country. Efforts to improve the lives of our youth come in many forms - whether it's pursuits to improve laws, efforts to change the hearts and minds of the public, or working to empower youth and their families - the Campaign for Youth Justice applauds the daily efforts of advocates who take a stand for youth. Today, we highlight what many say can't be done: change for the better. Our youth, our communities, and our nation have all felt the positive impact of your efforts. Thank you for all that you do.

Youth Justice Awareness Month Kicks Off in 1 Week!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014 Posted in 2014, Across the Country, Take Action Now, Voices

The time is almost here - Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM) kicks off in just one week! We are very excited about the growing list of organizations joining us this year - Over 20 organizations in nearly 20 states are helping to make YJAM a reality. Events planned range from poetry slams, film screenings, community forums, and more. We estimate that over 3,000 people will attend YJAM events all over the country this year.

Youth Voices: Why I Joined my SAG

Lashon Amado: The National Council of Young Leaders Wednesday, 17 September 2014 Posted in 2014, Voices

This past Tuesday night, I sat in a conference room at a juvenile detention facility here in Boston. I was scared a little overwhelmed, but not because I was being adjudicated. Instead, I was at a table with city officials and heads of state agencies—people who could casually talk about meetings with the Governor. I was there because I want to be a member of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Committee, our State Advisory Group (SAG) that oversees our juvenile justice system. I had contacted several people, sent lots of emails and made phone calls in order to get a seat at this table.

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