Lately, we have been receiving from powerful emails from you, our readers, asking, essentially “now what?” You see the kids, you read their stories, and you want to do something: you want to make a change. So to better channel that energy we are working to turn our “Take Action Page” into a better resource to help you go from “in the cloud” to “on the ground” to affect measurable policy change, ultimately to reduce incarceration and create better outcomes for children. As a part of this effort we will be featuring some of the organizations we support and work with to introduce you to their work and how you can contribute.
For our inaugural featured organization post, we spoke with our friends Liz Ryan and Jessica Sandoval at the DC-based Campaign for Youth Justice. The Campaign for Youth Justice is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, though they also do great work in all aspects of juvenile system reform.
CFYJ was co-founded by Liz Ryan and a parent whose child was facing transfer into the adult system in 2004. Together, they felt that the net was too wide, that too many children were being sentenced and incarcerated as adults without enough discretion. The parent, who remains anonymous, provided the funding necessary to start the Campaign for Youth Justice.
To provide some background on the issue of children being sentenced as adults, to adult prisons, we turned to Liz for a brief history. She writes:
The first juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago to create a separate justice system for children. Prior to that, children were dealt with in the adult criminal justice system and were routinely placed in adult jails and prisons. Within 25 years, most states created juvenile courts.
During that time, state laws still allowed for the prosecution of youth in adult criminal court in very exceptional circumstances and only at the discretion of a juvenile court judge. Very few children were processed in adult court as a result.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a few states changed their laws to lower the age of criminal responsibility (eg CT, NY), and then in the 1990’s, almost every state changed their state law to make it easier to prosecute youth in adult criminal court. Experts speculate a number of reasons for this such as a spike in juvenile crime in the early / mid 1990’s, a prediction by some that there would be a wave of juvenile crime as a result, a high profile case in NY (the Central Park jogger case).
Since children in many states were now under adult court prosecution, they became subject to the same treatment as adults, which meant they could be placed in adult jails pre trial in most states, could be sentenced to adult probation or adult prison, and would face the same barriers as adults with criminal records in obtaining education and employment.
Today, the Campaign works tirelessly on a state and national level across the country, focusing targeted campaigns on state legislative reform efforts, as well as national initiatives. Their campaign model is based on organizing and media advocacy towards a legislative goal. One of their biggest advocacy goals is an amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to ban the placement of kids in adult jails and prisons. The JJDPA is now five years overdue for reauthorization and hasn’t been substantially revised in nearly 20 years. For CFYJ, the key to getting congress to make the reauthorization a priority is to make sure they are hearing from their constituents loud and clear on this issue. CFYJ is currently expanding their efforts to engage more individuals and organizations.
The good news, CFYJ reports, is that in the last five years nearly half the states have changed their state policies to remove youth from adult criminal court and/or from adult jails and prisons. This, Liz notes, “underscores that the climate is ripe for juvenile justice reforms.” Earlier this year, CFYJ worked to incorporate into the Prison Rape Elimination Act a provision to protect children from the dangers of adult jails and prisons. The regulations state that kids should not be kept in isolation nor in the general population with adults. This essentially imposes difficulty on placing them in adult facilities at all.
Unfortunately, CFYJ still has its fair share of major challenges. There are too many policy makers who have not made this issue a priority. Secondly, federal, state and local governments continue to invest billionsin policies and program that do not work: such as trying kids as adults, putting them in adult jails, scared straight programs, boot camps, and youth prisons. Liz writes, “The U.S. is spending the MOST amount of money on the policies and programs that consistently produce the WORST outcomes for children and communities.” Third, policymakers consistently disregard affected youth and families in discussions about these issues. CFYJ is always asking families and youth to participate, attend, testify, and speak at meetings and events with policymakers.
Juvenile-in-Justice is partnering with CFYJ to connect our audience with their campaign work. You can see everything on our Take Action Page here, but below is a list of some of the different ways you can help their efforts:
On a basic level, CFYJ acts as a clearinghouse of information. You can always start by contacting them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other basic ways to get involved, and you can see more details and links on our Take Action Page, include: promoting their campaigns through social media, signing petitions, taking part in October Awareness Month Events, and sending postcards pressing for specific legislation to the district office of your member of congress. Other materials they offer to send include Take Action Kits, Videos and discussion guides, and House Party Kits (we want one of these…)CFYJ can also connect you with different organizations based on your activism interests. For example, those focused on ending juvenile life without parole, should get in touch with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
They also offer a wealth of information for families of youth in the system or facing transfer. In addition to forums for families, they offer the Alliance for Youth Justice which trains families to be advocates and spokespersons and testify in cases. For those in crisis mode, CFYJ can serve as a connector and refer a family in a tailored way to organizations and contacts in their state.
The Campaign for Youth Justice needs your help to best help kids in the system. CFYJ asserts that anyone, anywhere can take action on youth justice. You don’t have to be an organizer; there are lots of ways. If it’s just you, great. If you want to get more people involved, that’s great too. CFYJ also accepts contributions and puts them straight to work. In 2011 they were named a Top Non-Profit in the Philanthropedia Review. They are also featured in the Arnold Foundation’s Giving Library video library of effective non-profit organizations. You can donate here.