Youth voice can address a lot of issues throughout the juvenile justice system using a variety of approaches. Some of the juvenile justice system components that transformative youth engagement is happening through include policy, programming, multi-systems approaches and legal defense. The issues youth voice is addressing include mental health; treatment; education; re-entry issues.
With efforts nationwide to ban youth solitary confinement, stop physical violence in youth prisons, stop the sentencing of youth as adults, and end police resistance to transforming juvenile justice roles for youth are increasingly obvious within, throughout, and surrounding the system. Working within and outside the system, there are courts, attorneys, nonprofits, schools and other organizations working together to affect the hearts, minds and heads of court-involved youth.
In many places nationwide, this work is neither brand-new or a silver bullet. However, it is essential and the future. The following examples show how transformative youth engagement is happening right now in juvenile justice settings where I live.
“Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being treated the worst are the young people who are going to lead us out of this nightmare.” – Rachel Jackson
FEDERAL WAY: In Federal Way, Washington, there has been a growing amount of violence in the city, including more gun deaths, beatings, and domestic violence. Many youth being implicated in these crimes are brown and black, low-income and frequently, under-educated. A program from the Federal Way Youth Action Team is called Helping Youth Perform Excellence, or HYPE. Believing that community members can make a positive difference in the lives of local youth, HYPE empowers local community members to take action to create a safe and healthy community with young people who are involved. Learning diverse adult living skills, establishing authentic mentorships with local adult allies, and building support for each other within the program and beyond, HYPE is challenging the status quo and working to end youth violence in their city. This program is transforming juvenile justice by making discussions personal, promoting strong community connections, and building a sustainable infrastructure for changing Federal Way today and in the future.
SEATTLE: A program led by the Seattle-based Vera Institute for Justice works in three cities nationwide to build educational success and workforce training for youth who are at risk of juvenile justice system involvement or who are already in the system. Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, or CYJ, has a program called Youth Futures that aims to help build youth stability through employment. Building the skills and support youth need to achieve long-term success, the program focuses on youth living in or returning to high-crime, high-poverty communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Through comprehensive, individualized services linked to workforce development, education, and training programs, the lives of youth are transformed from the beginning of young peoples’ involvement in juvenile justice. Assigned and volunteering to participate in Youth Futures, the lives of these youth are changed forever through their involvement.
WASHINGTON STATE: Reflecting a commitment to address the entire system of youth engagement, officials in the State of Washington’s Department of Social and Human Services have adopted a statewide cultural competence plan that positions youth voice as vital to youth at the family, neighborhood, local, regional, and state levels. Within a standard focused on embedding diversity practices, they seek to expand youth voice in order to, “Infuse culturally and linguistically appropriate goals, policies, and management accountability throughout the organization’s planning and operations.”
The Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation United Youth Council program, or UYC, is a new youth voice mechanism for youth to share their knowledge, ideas, concerns and opinions of youth specifically in regards to improving the juvenile justice system. There is a UYC at the three main juvenile justice facilities in Washington State. Youth who have successfully completed the application process join the UYC at their facility; then, a few of the local UYC participants make up a statewide youth committee to inform state-level decision-making. The UYCs focus on what’s working and what’s not working regarding their juvenile justice experience. They also share input on treatment processes and outcomes from rehabilitation; current and future policies; and process re-design.
SEATTLE: More than a decade ago, the ROYAL (Raising Our Youth As Leaders” Project began fighting to reduce disproportionate minority confinement and recidivism in King County by fostering radically powerful youth/adult partnerships. They hire adults to serve in the traditional role of mentors, youth participants wanted more than friends. The original participants sought critical feedback, substantive insight and meaningful opportunities to connect with adults from the communities they lived in. The Royal Project wanted to fill that desire by positioning adults as life coaches who would instruct youth about life, teach them business principles, and help them set and work toward goals. Ultimately, the positions are powerful youth-adult partnerships that significantly change the lives of many participants
Many programs fostering transformative youth engagement are explicitly antiracist, and/or led by people of color. They provide community alternatives to juvenile incarceration, often giving Black people, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islanders direct control over the structures created to address youth misbehavior. Community-led, community-owned responsibility for their own children matters.
KING COUNTY: Other approaches insist on addressing juvenile justice as a public health issue. In King County, Washington, that means that officials are embracing strategies such as rather than spending time incarcerated while awaiting trial, youth can:
- Work with counselors to deal with trauma in their lives
- Attend workshops with parents to learn new skills
- Other paths to avoid ending up in the adult justice system in the future.
It means that officials will look at the entire ecology of a young person when considering their offenses and the results, and because of that they work with the goal of zero detention for youth, also called “Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders” or DSO. This movement to end youth incarceration is inherently anti-adultist because it places youth wellbeing in tandem with adult intentions.
As the stories above show, action for transformative youth engagement should focus on fostering youth/adult partnerships. Focused on engaging young people with their communities, these are intentional relationships emphasizing equity between youth and adults, and building social justice throughout the lives of young people. It should focus on supporting youth voice, which is any expression of any youth anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Creating safe, supportive environments for youth voice within the juvenile justice system is important, as well as fostering the adult support needed to sustain and expand youth voice in appropriate, relevant and meaningful ways. Finally, transformative youth engagement should expand, deepen, criticize and necessitate youth empowerment throughout the system. Youth empowerment “is not a process, a product, or an outcome. Instead, youth empowerment comes from the individual attitudes, shared cultures, and everyday structures that children and youth share with adults throughout society.” Instead, it happens when the capacities of youth are enhanced, including their inner-strength, self-respect, motivation, future-thinking, and abilities to connect with people outside of themselves.
Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t just organically happen or authentically sustain itself. There are real roadblocks standing in the way, and they must be addressed.
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