Part 2: Transformative Youth Engagement, Not Reform

Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher

Rachel Jackson is a youth advocate in California who once talked about the juvenile justice system, saying, “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.”

That was more than a decade ago, and since then her words have infiltrated the corridors of power. After successfully showing lawmakers, judges and other that…

  • The average daily cost of incarcerating a young person ($241) compared to that of an effective, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program ($75);
  • That Black youth are incarcerated in state-run youth prisons at five times the rate white youth are, and;
  • How 60,000 young people under 18 are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given day,

…organizations including the ACLU and others have declared that the juvenile justice system is beginning to change. There are other reasons, too, including corruption, violence and youth voice.

In my research, I’ve found that the juvenile justice system has began moving toward holistic, positive and transformative youth engagement. This is happening through the laws, legal bodies, and processes that are used to prosecute, convict, punish and rehabilitate young people who commit criminal offenses. Ultimately, transformation focuses on building the capacity of people, policies and programs throughout the juvenile justice system to engage young people in positive, purposeful and powerful ways.

Transforming systems is different from reforming or simply changing the courts, police, detention facilities or voters minds. Traditionally, youth/law interactions have been transactional in nature: You do something wrong, you get punished. Throughout time, these punishments have been largely arbitrary, demonstrating the racist, sexist, classist and adultist biases of legal systems across the country.

I propose moving away from transactional youth justice, and toward transformative youth engagement. That requires seeing the entire legal apparatus as a system, and working to radically reposition the culture, structure and individual attitudes within that system in order to foster meaningful youth engagement within and outside of juvenile justice. I’ve been studying work already underway, and from what I’ve learned about the place where I’m living, I believe change is coming across the entire country.

 


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