From the onset, young people and their families most directly affected by the justice system must be central to any transformation efforts.
Only young people who have experienced system involvement and their families know fully and intimately the true scope and scale of damages - including violations of human dignity and perpetuation of trauma - that the youth justice system causes. Thus, their experiences and opinions must be prioritized when engaging in transformational system change work. Without lived expertise, the knowledge base from which leaders are making decisions is severely limited.
Further, radical inclusion exemplifies the values upon which transformation can occur. History demonstrates that youth and their families are often excluded from system decision making, often as a function of racialized marginalization and oppression. This paradigm must be reversed if a system with foundational values of equity, empowerment, and dignity is to be established - and these values must be practiced from the onset. In this way, the current exclusionary youth correctional approach can switch to a model of youth justice grounded in positive youth development theory, family cohesion and empowerment, racial equity and justice, and community ownership.
Youth justice leaders have the potential to set a powerful example, and render a more meaningful and effective reform process, by changing the frame through which young people and their families are viewed and engaged. This module provides practical steps by which this framework can be adopted and applied.
Explore indicators that youth justice system leaders have committed to full participation and leadership from young people and families.
Indicators that there is more work to be done to commit to participation and
leadership from young people and
These steps provide specific guidance toward developing and sustaining partnerships with young people and their families. All of these steps are critical to ensuring meaningful partnership with young people and families in youth justice system reform, and can be implemented concurrently.
Train staff to understand detention and incarceration as an emergency situation.
Ensure that case plans are intelligible and easy for youth and families to understand.
Train staff to work with young people and families in case planning
Review and strengthen mechanisms to learn about and respond to direct and indirect harm and ensure that reports of harm inform policy and practice change. Establish clear, proactive channels of communication, feedback, and responsive action with youth families experiencing harm in the system.
Create youth advisory councils and student councils at facilities. Establish family councils, town halls, and open houses as venues for ongoing, open communication. Take advantage of social events such as graduations, sporting events, and arts and cultural events to connect with youth.
Ensure the meaningful role of youth and families in system transformation planning and decision-making bodies. Utilize youth advisory boards and family councils to review policy, programmatic, and budget proposals.
Support existing calls for reform and policy wins led by young people with lived experience of the system and their loved ones. Build partnerships with organizations that are supporting reform efforts led by directly impacted individuals. Look for promising candidates for decision-making bodies among youth and family leaders.
Provide financial compensation for the time that young people and families invest in policy reform conversations. Elevate emerging leaders through thoughtful capacity building and skill development for young people and families. Invest in their personal as well as their professional development.
Take a look at some notable examples of places that have been working to center impacted youth and their families in the work of transforming youth justice.
The Washington State Partnership Council on Justice, the “the primary state advisory group for matters pertaining to juvenile justice in the state of Washington,” includes sub-committees where community participation is encouraged. Two such sub-committees, reentry and behavioral health, include active participation from families of young people and from community members and groups. In the Youth Justice Collaborative sub-committee, there has been a concerted effort to include youth members and think carefully about their participation and needs. Staff at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families’ Office of Juvenile Justice, say that they try to keep in mind that young people come into a collaborative space with very different needs and expectations from adults, regardless of the context or resources available.
Young people need support from administrators and leadership that may differ from what is typical with non-youth members, such as coordinating rides to meetings for members who cannot drive or don’t have transportation, or having additional resources to explain concepts or systems that may be unfamiliar to them. Many youth members of that committee are currently in state custody. For these youth, staff keep in mind that even when they are willing to participate and are given autonomy within a meeting, they “live in an unfree world” and leaders and other adults should recognize the stress and constraints obligated simply from requirements to have escorts and their subsequent return to confinement.
They also have limited access to computers, information, and resources which would enable other committee members to research between meetings or have additional background information. Keeping all of these constraints in mind, Washington State has encouraged and kept up youth participation by treating young people not as separate youth-members but as members equal to all others, appointed by the governor to serve on the advisory board. Along with that recognition as full members, youth receive a stipend of $25/hr and the types of individualized support mentioned above. Young people have made recommendations for programming and services that were then implemented, and have participated in policy changes and improvements to the system.
In 2019, Harris County began exploring options to accelerate the shift toward a community-centered approach to youth justice. The County introduced the idea of a Task Force to guide this process and make recommendations. Although the Task Force was derailed by the CoVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, stakeholders harnessed the momentum from the planning effort to look at how youth currently in detention could be safely and effectively be supported in their own communities, without jeopardizing public safety. While community groups stepped up to assist those youth, this period of time revealed some of the challenges and gaps within the continuum, including a lack of needed services operated by grassroots and neighborhood-based providers in the most impacted communities and limited funding, catalyzing discussions about how to remedy these issues going forward.
After demonstrating that youth could be safely served in community-based alternatives at the height of the pandemic, there was significant interest in how to more systematically invest resources in communities. System stakeholders and members of the newly-created Youth Justice Reimagined Coalition began collaborating to establish a reinvestment fund. They looked at models nationwide, including Colorado’s Community Reinvestment Initiatives, and also sought community input. To get the fund off the ground, the Probation department committed $2 million from its budget, which was matched by County funds. At the County’s February 2021 Commissioners’ Court meeting, the Youth Justice Reinvestment Fund was officially approved and passed, following testimony from many Coalition members.
Harris County encountered several challenges and barriers as it set up its reinvestment fund. Lack of understanding of county procurement rules meant that community groups that had been promised a role in the planning process could only be advisors, would not be compensated, and would not be able to apply for funding themselves. These factors delayed the project, and to some, also constituted a breach of trust. Additionally, there were few applicants when the RFP was first issued, due to concerns over funding timelines. The county reissued the RFP, which provided time to do the needed outreach. In April 2022, Change Happens was selected as the intermediary organization.
Directly impacted families and other advocates were essential to the Close to Home initiative in New York. For years, advocates documented abuse within large, upstate facilities that detained young people. As New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) began to institute continuum of care models that used institutional incarceration only as a last resort, they collaborated with many of the advocates who had long encouraged them to reduce youth incarceration. One of these organizations, the Correctional Association’s (CA) Juvenile Justice Project included a youth leadership training program, “prepar[ing] young people to become media spokespeople and to meet with legislators and policymakers in support of closing youth prisons and re-investing in alternatives.” Collaboration between OCFS and CA contributed to an “inside-outside strategy” with tangible goals and timeframes to close youth prisons throughout the state. This collaboration and the leadership of those directly impacted by system harms contributed to a national model for transforming the youth justice system.
California’s Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) initiative was launched in 2011 with the aim of improving outcomes and supporting the well-being of young men of color. BSS began through a partnership of 10 youth-led community organizing groups and two philanthropic foundations. This partnership enabled established grassroots groups to expand paid staff positions for young men of color, collaborate across goals and strategies, and invest in young people’s capacity to drive policy reform through budget analysis, media engagement, and advocacy.
Youth leaders of BSS identified challenges that affected their lives, including the school-to-prison pipeline, devised policy solutions that could address them, and advocated for these policies in public hearings, city council meetings, and state legislative visits.
The coalition helped to make LA Unified School District the first district in the nation to end suspensions for willful defiance in 2013, directed $60 million towards school counselors as opposed to punitive policies in 2015, and advanced state policies to ban arbitrary suspensions in 2017. The BSS model demonstrates how meaningful investments in capacity building for directly impacted leaders can contribute to tangible policy gains.
This discussion covered both the why and the how of having the most impacted youth and families leading transformation.
This discussion covered both the why and the how of having the most impacted youth and families leading transformation.
National Youth Partnership Strategist,
Youth First Initiative
New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition
New Jersey Parents Caucus
Pierce County Juvenile Court
Kathy Wright, Executive Director of New Jersey Parents Caucus, talks about the need to learn about the impact of the system directly from young people who experienced it and to trust them to lead if we are to create change.
Xiuhtecutli (Xiuy) Soto of the New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition speaks about how transforming youth justice begins with having patience with, providing support for, and relating to young people like him.
TJ Bohl, Administrator at Pierce County Juvenile Court, on some of the cultural obstacles inside the system to collaborating with communities, and the need for system leaders to overcome defensiveness to building a path forward together.
Explore some useful resources for centering youth and families as you take on transformation.