By: Samantha Goodman, CFYJ Fellow
Last week, Congressmember Karen Bass (D-CA) led a briefing in the U.S. House of Representatives with a focus on improving the juvenile justice system for incarcerated girls. Panelists from across the country included: Members of Congress, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Hon. Patricia Martin (Ill.), Hon. Donna Groman (CA), Hon. Joan Byer (KY), Sonya Brown (Boys Town’s Care Coordination Program, Esché Jackson (Anti-Recidivism Coalition), and Haley Caesar (Pace Center for Girls). The advocates on the briefing called for better strategies regarding representation as well as more holistic ways to view girls victimized by trauma.
Rep. Scott , the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, began the hearing by articulating the need to take a proactive approach to crime and stop waiting for, “people to get off track.”
Esché Jackson, who now serves as the co-chair for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition Member Board, grew up in south Los Angeles traumatized by domestic issues and involved with gang violence and illegal substances. At 15, she was facing murder charges.
“At the time of my incarceration, I had a lot of deep-rooted issues. I was crying out for help and no one seemed curious about my story,” Jackson explained.
Another panelist, Haley Marie Caesar, described how physical abuse from her mother sent her over the edge. At age 12, when she fought back and defended herself, Caesar was charged with Domestic Aggravated Battery. Caesar expressed the need for judges and lawyers to ask questions and try to understand where the anger and violence stems from.
“I was just a case number, and no one asked about who I was,” she said.
Judge Byer, Circuit Court Judge in the Family Division of Jefferson County, Kentucky, stressed tha,t “If I had only known,” is not an adequate excuse. Unless judges stop and ask why an action occurred, “they are letting down the community.”
Judge Martin, the Presiding Judge in the Child Protection Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, urged all of the people dealing with a particular child to communicate and collaborate. Martin reaffirmed Byer’s belief that judges need to have a baseline knowledge of all the disciplines affecting children in order to make the best decisions for their futures. This includes everything from trauma, adolescent health, neglect, substance abuse, etc.
“Let’s make certain that their lives are what they want. It is my responsibility to let them shine their stars” , said Martin.
Rep. Lee, the ranking member for the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, emphasized her hope, “to breathe life into the criminal justice system”, and called our current efforts, “unfair and unjust as they particularly relate to our young people.”
She spoke of recent events in McKinney, TX, where a police officer threw a 15-year-old bikini-clad girl to the ground and drew his gun on other teenagers. She believes the 114th Congress is the session when juvenile justice reform will take place.
Rep. Bass closed the hearing with words of hope, explaining the bipartisan nature of this issue, “the best policy is done when the people involved are a part of the decision-making.”