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Changing Youth Lives Through Testimony and Awareness

Alton Pitre - Juvenile Justice Advocate Thursday, 01 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Take Action Now

YJAM FB square 01Several years ago I found myself facing adult time as a teen in Los Angeles. I was held in detention for two years, serving dead time fighting my “fitness,” a court process where they were “determining” if I would be tried as a juvenile or an adult for a crime for which I was later exonerated. Presuming that I would be charged as an adult, I was housed separately from other youth in the detention center, even though we were all the same age. Through the years I spent pending my trial and since my release, I’ve learned that the juvenile justice system is failing our youth all over the nation, and it is time for everyone to realize that in its current state it is destructive and ineffective. 

I am constantly amazed yet distraught at how America treats its youth who are in essence its’ most vulnerable and teachable citizens. It’s true when people say that our children are the future but how can they ever be if they are often thrown away to die in prison? Sadly, the United States is the only country that does so.

When kids are locked up as adults they are immediately subjected to punishment instead of rehabilitation. Hence, they are deprived of the care and treatment necessary to turn their lives around; instead they are exposed to threats and acts, of physical, sexual and mental trauma and abuse. For their “protection” from this abuse, they are welcomed into the beautiful world of solitary confinement, burying them alive and permanently interrupting healthy brain development.

I have countless childhood friends who have lost the rest of their fruitful lives to the prison system. Yes, children will make mistakes; some will make bad mistakes depending on the type of environment they were raised in and the supports they had (or lacked). However, children shouldn’t be judged solely on the type of crime they committed but also considering the contributing background factors leading up to why they did it.  They should have the chance to learn from their mistakes and choose differently.

Currently, I am a  24-year-old, full-time student at Morehouse College and ambassador for juvenile justice reform. Through sharing my story of overcoming both the mean streets of Los Angeles and incarceration, I have been able to travel the country writing and speaking about this injustice. I have written op-eds that have gained the likes of U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Michael Eric Dyson, Rosie O’Donnell, and Orange is the New Black’s author Piper Kerman, all, who have shared them on their Twitter accounts.

In California, I participate in lobbying efforts with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), advocating for legislation that provides second chances to youthful offenders. This September, ARC helped passed SB261, which extends parole eligibility to 16,000 offenders under the age of 23. I also visited D.C. with ARC on a policy trip advocating for criminal justice reform at the White House.

This summer, I visited Washington D.C. again, interning with First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization where I was able to extend my political advocacy on a national level. There I attended congressional briefings and met with members of Congress, advocating for reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The JJDPA addresses youth in detention by providing funding to state programs that serve at-risk youth, addressing disproportionate minority contact (DMC) and removing status offenders from secure detention and youth from adult jails, or at least ensuring sight and sound separation. You can take action for the JJDPA here.

The practice of locking up and trying kids as adults is harmful to our youth and the world. Youth sentenced as adults are often condemned without a chance to redeem their freedom, even after they have been truly rehabilitated and served many years in prison. It is imperative that awareness of this devastating problem is brought to the attention of everyone in our nation, especially our law enforcement and policymakers. No child should be subjugated to this type of tyranny.

This month is Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM). As fellow caring human beings and advocates for justice, now is the time to challenge ourselves to get involved in this movement. We must use our personal stories and experiences to change the minds and hearts of those in power. Our children deserve to be treated like the children they are.

Written by Alton Pitre, Juvenile Justice Advocate.

YJAM: A Month to Celebrate … and Keep Fighting for Juvenile Justice

Marcy Mistrett Wednesday, 30 September 2015 Posted in 2015, Take Action Now

left hand outstretched11The chorus of voices calling for criminal and youth justice reform, from all points of the political spectrum, has never been louder. This is a good thing, yet some groups, like youth charged as adults, continue to fall through the cracks. That’s why Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM) is more important than ever.

Since its first year back in 2008, YJAM has continued to grow, with more groups holding more events in more places.  Also since that time, 30 of states have passed 48 laws reforming the system and reducing the number of kids subjected to the adult criminal justice system.

But while we should celebrate these steps forward, we have to acknowledge that there is MUCH left to do.  The way we treat kids in our justice system is directly contradicted by science, and continues to be riddled with racial biases and disparities. Nine states still need to “Raise the Age” because they consider all youth to be criminally responsible at age 17 (or in the case of New York and North Carolina, age 16), no matter how minimal the charge. Fifteen states still empower prosecutors to “Directly File” kids into the adult criminal justice system without any judicial review. 23 states (including Washington, DC) have not set a minimum age of when a child can be prosecuted as an adult.  Kids are too often still housed in adult jails and prisons, either with adult prisoners, or isolated in solitary confinement.

Raising awareness is an essential first step to ending these practices, and raising awareness is what YJAM is all about.  Throughout this month, CFYJ and other groups and individuals will be highlighting the stories of those directly impacted by, and those with expert knowledge of, this system that unjustly (and counter-productively) treats kids as adults.

Please help us share and amplify these stories; they are the key to opening the hearts and minds of those with the authority to legislate change. Below find the top five ways you can join the movement:


Pres Obama declares October Youth Justice Awareness Month! http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1 #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

YJAM is here!  Learn more about Youth Justice Awareness Month and get involved http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1 #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

It's official!  October is Youth Justice Awareness Month.  Check it out at http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1 #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

Time to get your #YJAM on!  http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1   #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters


President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring October 'National Youth Justice Awareness Month' and calls on Americans to "observe this month by getting involved in community efforts to support our youth, and by participating in appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs." http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1 #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

Today kicks off Youth Justice Awareness Month and the White House has made it official!  Check out the President's proclamation and learn more about how you can get involved!http://bit.ly/1KOKfD1 #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

Washington Lawyers’ Committee Report: D.C. Youth Facing Deplorable Conditions in Adult Jail

Tuesday, 07 July 2015 Posted in 2015, Take Action Now

By: Nicholas Bookout, CFYJ Fellow 
On June 11th, 2015, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released a report entitled, “D.C. Prisoners: Conditions of Confinement in the District of Columbia.” This report discusses the dreadful conditions faced by those housed in D.C. jail facilities, including vermin and pest infestations, heightened suicide rates, a crumbling physical infrastructure replete with leakages and mold, and an understaffed and undertrained correctional staff. 
While the reported conditions are dehumanizing and unacceptable for any individual, imagine being a child in such a facility. Unfortunately, at the time of this report, this was the reality being lived by 25 of D.C.’s youth under the age of 18. D.C. law permits youth under 18 to be housed in the D.C. jail, both for pretrial and post-conviction detention. To learn more about D.C. youth in the adult system, check out this 2014 report by DC Lawyers for Youth and the Campaign for Youth Justice.  
In addition to simply living in this deplorable environment, these youth face additional problems associated with being children in an adult facility. For example, in an effort to keep youth separated from adults in the D.C. jail, there is the excessive use of solitary confinement, in some instances a full two months of 23 hours a day in solitary confinement with only one hour of recreation. 
At a point in their lives when family involvement is critical, youth are limited to video visitation, unable to spend time with family members in person. Life for a juvenile in a D.C. adult facility is not limited to physical and emotional depravity, however. Per this report, education programming is vastly limited, and youth are therefore denied the mental stimulation their developing brains desperately need. Additionally, research shows us that youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34% more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crime.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee makes strong recommendations to improve conditions of confinement for D.C. inmates, including:
  • Closing the Central Detention Facility and the Correctional Treatment Facility and construct a new, safer, more effective facility
  • Expanding the Secure Residential Treatment Program
  • Correcting deficiencies in suicide prevention and youth confinement
  • Conducting a review of training of correctional officers tasked with specialized functions related to mental health or the juvenile unit
  • Revising current policies restricting “Good Time Credits”--a program which reduces sentences for successfully completing academic, vocational, and rehabilitation programs
  • Returning management of the Correctional Treatment Facility to District control
The recommendations are the product of a study that brought together legal, civil rights and criminal justice experts, as well as senior federal and District of Columbia judges.  With the assistance of the DC JOY campaign, DC Council should embrace these recommendations and take action to remove youth from the D.C. Jail.   

Family Engagement is Crucial

Kay Xiao Friday, 01 May 2015 Posted in 2015, Take Action Now

By Kay Xiao, CFYJ Intern

At the Campaign for Youth Justice, we recognize that  affected communities are at the heart and center of any successful reform effort. This includes the families of young people  tried as adults. Families are oftentimes the most vocal and powerful advocates of youth justice and are instrumental in transforming the justice system. Their personal experiences not only help to bring an urgency and expertise to reform efforts, but also provide rich and detailed information as to ways systems can be strengthened to support families.

The input of families is crucial to creating legislative change.  Families who engage in legislative reform are incredibly courageous—they share share their personal stories with the policy makers and the public,  opening themselves up to potential public scrutiny for the advancement of  the greater good.  More importantly, families remind us that children prosecuted as adults are more than the worst thing they have ever done—they are sons, daughters, siblings, students, athletes, community leaders, authors, and so much more. This is why CFYJ believes in engaging with families and youth to take action at state and national levels through public awareness campaigns that result in legislative action.

CFYJ works with families and youth to:

Convene families and youth in leadership, community organizing, and media trainings 

  • Develop and train those who are interested in becoming CFYJ spokespeople 
  • Provide materials to families who are interested in sharing their stories with the media and other sources.Identify opportunities for youth and families to participate in national meetings and conferences. 
  • Identify opportunities for youth and families to participate and testify in Capitol Hill briefings and hearings in their own state. 
  • Coordinate meetings of families and youth with policy makers and federal government agency leaders to discuss family engagement, educate policy leaders on the issue, and create solutions to end the practice of processing youth in the adult criminal justice system. 
  • Provide a comprehensive Family Resource Guide to assist families who have a child who is at-risk or is currently being processed in the criminal justice system. 
  • Support Youth Justice Awareness Month events in states.

In order to better understand the issue at hand and offer recommendations for change, we need to hear about the experiences of those most affected by the current system. Share your story or provide a testimonial and learn more about the family engagement and partnership practices in the justice system.

The Conditions Necessary for Reform: Take Action Now

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

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.

Actions Matter: How We Can Show our Girls We Care

Maheen Kaleem Monday, 20 October 2014 Posted in 2014, Take Action Now

I met Lee-Lee six years ago, while she was in juvenile hall. She was 14. Her first child was six months old. Her charge? Prostitution. Two days before Lee-Lee’sarrest, she was sexually assaulted by the man who bought her from her pimp. The next night, she was back on the streets. When I asked her if she reported her sexual assault to the police, she said, “of course not—they were arresting me.”

Federal law defines any commercial sex act involving someone under the age of 18 as a “severe form of trafficking.” And yet every year in the United States, hundreds of girls and gender-nonconforming children are arrested for prostitution, solicitation, and other-related crimes.

YJAM 2014: CFYJ Introduces "Sharing Your Personal Story"

Aprill Turner Monday, 06 October 2014 Posted in 2014, Take Action Now

October is Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM), and is an opportunity for communities, families, youth, and allies to host community-led actions and events to raise awareness about the consequences of children in the adult criminal justice system.

One of the primary ways CFYJ raises awareness about the injustices that young people face while involved in the adult criminal justice system during YJAM, and throughout the year, are through stories. CFYJ believes that personal stories put a relatable face on the people and families that are in the criminal justice system, shattering stereotypes and misconceptions about what our justice system is or is not. A story can affect change.

The Party’s Over. It’s Time to Act!

Aprill Turner Thursday, 02 October 2014 Posted in 2014, Take Action Now

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA)—the nation’s main law governing state juvenile justice programs.

“40 for 40”- A Multimedia Storytelling Project

All September long, youth, families, leaders, and advocates from across the country celebrated four decades of fewer youth in adult jails, fewer children who have committed no crime being locked up, and increased attention being paid to racial and ethnic disparities in our state systems.

Today is the Start of Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM)!

Wednesday, 01 October 2014 Posted in 2014, Take Action Now

It is finally here! Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM) kicks off today! We are very excited about a number of organizations joining us this year - Over 30 organizations in nearly 20 states are helping to make YJAM a reality!

With events happening throughout the country, YJAM is not only a time to raise awareness but also a time to build collective action, to strengthen relationships with other advocates, and to join local advocacy campaigns working to create policy changes. Events planned range from poetry slams, film screenings, community forums, and more. We estimate that over 3,000 people will attend YJAM events all over the country this year.

Youth Justice Awareness Month Kicks Off in 1 Week!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014 Posted in 2014, Across the Country, Take Action Now, Voices

The time is almost here - Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM) kicks off in just one week! We are very excited about the growing list of organizations joining us this year - Over 20 organizations in nearly 20 states are helping to make YJAM a reality. Events planned range from poetry slams, film screenings, community forums, and more. We estimate that over 3,000 people will attend YJAM events all over the country this year.

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