Creating partnerships and getting broad buy-in from an array of stakeholders is essential to any transformative system change and to the type of shift to community-driven justice we are aiming for.
As youth crime and incarceration rates have declined steadily over the past few decades, these parallel trends have contributed to swelling support for systems change. At the same time, recognition has grown regarding the ongoing harms of incarceration, including the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of young people; over-incarceration of young people, even for low level offenses; and significant racial and ethnic disparities. In concert, these phenomena — declining crime and incarceration, increasing support for reform, and an urgent need to address ongoing harm — offer an opportunity for meaningful change within the youth justice system.
This rising awareness provides a window of opportunity for system leaders seeking to drive transformation. However, in order to capitalize on this opportunity, leaders must work to understand both the dominant public narratives as well as the local political landscape, and gain the trust and buy-in of a variety of stakeholders inside and outside of the youth justice system and at the policy level, which may take significant time, strategy and coordination. Doing the work to build sustained public and political will for youth justice transformation goes beyond the typical job description of the youth justice leader.
It is nevertheless essential to the success of any leader who is committed to fundamental youth justice transformation, and therefore most leaders will want to get help from communications and public affairs professionals, whether in-house or through contract (or a middle-ground of staff at a state-level who can be utilized for local agencies, or who work for a separate branch of the government from youth justice or corrections), to provide the expertise necessary to create a strategic communications plan and execute it. The buy-in and collaboration of community leaders will be essential, including many of the strategies noted throughout this Guide. One strategy which we do a Deep Dive on in this section is community-led asset mapping to go along with other participatory processes. Asset mapping gives a clear picture of the strengths and opportunities already existing in the community, from their perspective and can not only create buy-in through the mapping process and connection to existing resources but also pave the way for building will across other stakeholder groups as well.
Indicators that progress has been made in building political and public will.
Indicators that more action is needed to build political and public will for change.
These steps provide specific guidance for how to build political and public will for change, and the process of garnering broad support and working with key allies. All of these steps are central in youth justice system reform, and can be implemented concurrently.
While some support for transformation may already exist in the jurisdiction, and support may come naturally from some stakeholder groups, building widespread support requires a well-planned and executed campaign to mobilize groups and anticipate and respond to groups that may oppose the proposed reforms.
Youth justice reform efforts across the country have often used task forces or workgroups as a vehicle to bring together key stakeholders to plan, design and/or oversee implementation of transformation processes. Such groups can help build the
public buy-in necessary to implement transformation processes.
If staff with communications expertise are not already employed and available, consider hiring or contracting with communications professionals to help create and implement a communications plan. This plan should center community to guide the work to control the narrative around youth justice.
Many people in significant positions of power may not be deeply familiar with the system and the harms of current approaches. Transformation requires the support of these important players who may require relationship building and education to become supporters and potentially vocal allies for transformation.
To develop a compelling narrative about
youth justice that can drive public and political will for transformation, leaders and advocates should examine what current narratives are circulating about the system and the young people involved with it and then shape the story in an impactful way for audiences to drive transformation.
While gaining the support of officials is critical, transformation requires much broader support among the public and groups with special interest in youth justice. Tailoring and packaging the narrative will be a key step in driving transformation.
In addition to a full map of the public system and the nonprofit providers that work within the system, senior system leaders should work with partners to identify assets within each of the communities that have high numbers of young people touched by the system.
The purpose of developing a community asset map is to identify resources and people who can help the system move away from an approach reliant on institutional incarceration and residential placement far from the young person’s home, and toward an approach grounded in the community.
Take a look at some notable examples of places working to build political and public will for change, and tips for how to build that support, create buy-in and change the narrative in your own jurisdiction.
In the late 1990s a group of advocates and attorneys in California came together to improve the poor conditions incarcerated children were experiencing in facilities. Through hard work and collaboration, they realized that the institutional model being used was inherently harmful. Working alongside young people who had lived in the California Youth Authority prisons, this small group of advocates and attorneys worked for decades to dramatically reduce the number of children in these state-level facilities.
After a report was released by the DOJ in 2002 detailing the concerning conditions in Mississippi’s youth prisons, community organizers and a wide range of advocates joined forces to advocate for legislation that would transform the juvenile justice system. As a result, they were able to reduce the number of children in custody and close multiple detention centers, a youth prison, and a prison that was specifically for children tried as adults.
Amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Texas juvenile justice system, advocates were able to shift the narrative from focusing solely on abusive prisons to focusing on reducing the number of facilities and incarcerated children. Through the collaboration of advocates, youth and their families, and lawmakers, the state passed legislation which overhauled the juvenile justice system and reduced the number of incarcerated children.
When considering how to address the opposition, leaders should build on the common desire across stakeholders to see young people succeed, and frame changes in ways that speak to their concerns. For instance, engaging with correctional staff to listen to their insights and suggestions for reform, including their roles within it, might assuage fears of job loss, and therefore reduce the likelihood of pushback from unions. Similarly, gaining support from a district attorney or judge and understanding their concerns might increase their use of programs and decrease pushback. Engaging with diverse stakeholders can also help to align reform goals and their vested interests, leading to a range of messages that might appeal to different audiences and address various concerns.
Directly impacted young people and their families can share their experiences with the existing system to further emphasize the need for reform. They can be important spokespeople for the vision of transformation, including at town halls, legislative hearings, and advocacy events. Young people and their families can also speak credibly about what has worked for them, how they can best be engaged, programs that have helped, and what a relevant and successful community-based continuum requires.
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 building public and political will to drive transformation.