Get Your Candidates Talking About Youth Justice
By Rachel Marshall, Federal Policy Counsel
We’re a little less than 5 months away from 2018’s crucial midterm elections, but before we can get there, states across the country are voting in packed primary elections. Here at the Campaign for Youth Justice, we’re using this opportunity to make sure local communities are getting out to vote and getting their local candidates to talk about youth justice. That’s why we were thrilled to hear Pod Save the People host DeRay McKesson talk to two out of the three candidates for Baltimore State’s Attorney on a recent episode of the podcast ahead of Maryland’s June 26 primary election (he invited all three candidates, but the third candidate did not respond).
During their interviews, McKesson made sure to talk to both candidates about their plans for juvenile justice reform in Baltimore. Ivan Bates, currently senior partner at Bates & Garcia, actually got his start as a prosecutor in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. Thiru Vignarajah also worked for Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office as Chief Major of Investigations, and he was later named Deputy Attorney General for Maryland. During his interview, Bates discussed how important it is for youth to receive wrap around services rather than be incarcerated. Instead of attacking kids, he said, we need to figure out what is going on in their lives to cause them to behave a certain way in order to tailor an appropriate response. Vignarajah noted that juvenile justice is “one of the most vexing problems” that Baltimore currently faces.
During their separate interviews, both Bates and Vignarajah discussed how important it is to ensure there are prosecutors actually dedicated to a career in the juvenile court. Vignarajah wants to create a dedicated division of juvenile prosecutors, and he also wants to assign a prosecutor to each high school in the city so that prosecutor can serve as a resource and help end the school-to-prison pipeline. Under this type of system, Vignarajah explained he would not allow a case for in-school conduct to move forward for prosecution unless the assigned prosecutor authorizes charges. Vignarajah noted that he is the only candidate who opposes the mandatory charging of youth in the adult criminal justice system. Bates explained how he wants to ensure that prosecutors assigned to juvenile cases don’t view it as something temporary. Rather, he wants to make the Juvenile Division a permanent assignment and he wants to ensure the prosecutors hired are dedicated to juvenile causes.
While Mckesson’s interviews are a great resource for Baltimore voters, you don’t have to be a famous activist and podcast host to ensure candidates in your local election are talking about youth justice. In many jurisdictions, officials like prosecutors (such as the Baltimore race), sheriffs, and judges are elected. These officials are the ones responsible for day-to-day decisions, such as what charges to bring against youth, which youth are charged as adults, and who gets a second chance with diversion instead of detention. Your outreach to candidates not only helps you become more educated as a voter, but it allows candidates to understand your priorities and concerns as a constituent.
There are plenty of ways you can get involved and get candidates talking about youth justice, from sending out a candidate survey to all of the candidates or getting a question included in a survey that someone else is leading (check out Youth First’s great guide here) to helping host or attend a candidate forum and ask questions about youth justice. As an individual, you can even write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper highlighting whether a candidate shares your values on youth justice. For more information and tips on how to reach out to local candidates, the Campaign for Youth Justice has put together a great guide, which includes sample questions that can be used in forums and surveys, such as those asked by Mckesson to the Baltimore candidates. Make sure you get involved, learn about your candidates, and, most importantly, #voteyouthjustice when you head to the polls this year!
(And if you’re interested in listening to the full interviews with Bates and Vignarajah, which I highly recommend, you can check them out here.)