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The Conditions Necessary for Reform: Take Action Now

Posted in 2015, Take Action Now Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Only a few more weeks remain for the New York State legislature to decide whether to support Governor Cuomo’s Raise the Age Bill. A bill that would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 years of age; aligning New York with the majority of the country. On March 16, the Children’s Defense Fund in NY held a symposium to educate the public on how the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice determined its recommendations and the impact the law would have, if passed, on youth and public safety.

The tone of the morning was set by Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative, author of the best selling book, Just Mercy, and a powerful voice in the reform efforts of the criminal justice system. Mr. Stevenson, sharing his belief that “all children should be treated as children” broke down four conditions necessary for reform:

  1. Reformers must be proximate to those impacted by the law—keep people who are impacted close to the reforms. See and feel their humanity and the trauma they have experienced, for it is the same humanity and trauma that is within us.
  2. Reformers must change the narrative. The US presumes too many black children as dangerous and guilty. This narrative must be replaced with one of truth and reconciliation.
  3. Reformers must protect our hopefulness. “Change will be minimized if we don’t believe that something better is possible.”
  4. Reformers must do uncomfortable things. “Justice requires this. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

These themes resonated throughout the morning. Building from the powerful statements from a formerly court-involved young person, Jim S., who talked about the transformative nature of the youth/family court for him personally; every member of the panel clearly was proximate to this issue. There was no lack of stories of injustice, racialization, and deprivation that youth experience when incarcerated—particularly when incarcerated side by side with adults.

Commissioners talked about the importance of bearing witness to the conditions that youth endured in adult jails and prisons—including cell-study, outdoor recreation in a 2 x 5 foot caged area, months of solitary confinement, isolation from their families, and lack of access to age appropriate services. The observation, documentation and sharing of these experiences has been critical to developing the political climate necessary for reform.

In terms of changing the narrative—Commissioners and community-based organizations articulated and accepted that youth of color are disproportionately harmed and traumatized by incarceration; but also commented that this harm extends to all youth who lack access to age appropriate services and to the communities in which they reside. Panelists highlighted the vicious cycle that treating kids as adults creates in our families and communities—and the need to invest resources up front to keep young people and families stable and out of the criminal justice system. Panelists, many who have been fighting to raise the age for half a decade, discussed ways they have seen “toughness” toward these young people evolve into “trauma informed” services and care. Many cited excellent community based programs and continuums of care that exist, but need to be scaled, to keep kids close to home and connected to their communities.

Hopefulness was referred to repeatedly. Advocates referred to the system changes that have happened to get NY ready to raise the age. From the Youth-Part Court, to the dramatic reduction in state-based youth care, to a reorganizing of financial streams that allow youth to get accessible services, all prior reform has gotten NY in a position where raising the age can be implemented effectively. There was also consensus that this bill is something that would benefit youth, regardless of where they lived in the state.

Finally, the uncomfortableness that has accompanied “Raising the Age” in NY was also expressed throughout the morning. Not a panelist spoke, who didn’t reference some discomfort—either with what they see happen to youth and families day to day; or from their frustration with lacking authority to make the change from where they sit; or from holding systems and families accountable; or even where the final recommendations from the Commission ended. One might say that it was the pervasiveness of the discomfort that ultimately led to action.

By all accounts, NY has in place the pieces necessary for reform; the question remains, is the legislature ready too? If you haven’t yet reached out to your legislator in NY, please TAKE ACTION now, by clicking here.