The Future Looks Bright: Emerging Leaders Advocate for Change

August 14, 2014

Hernan Carvente, now in his early twenties, is a research assistant at the Vera Institute for Justice where he works on issues related to conditions of confinement. Jim St. Germain, meanwhile, is the Executive Director of Preparing Leaders for Tomorrow, a nonprofit focused on providing mentors for youth. James Anderson, the young protégé of director Scott Budnick, advocates for legislative change as the first full-time employee at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).

The three young men share a commonality beyond their status as activists: Each was previously incarcerated and has overcome his earlier challenges to fight for change in the juvenile justice system.

On August 8, the three young changemakers sat alongside Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Robert Listenbee and shared their experiences and insights.  The panel was part of an annual Youth Summit cohosted by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) and OJJDP, and gave participants the chance to share their personal stories, describe their current reform efforts, and discuss their vision for the juvenile justice system.  

Jim St. Germain emphasized the importance of juvenile justice reform when he stated that “giving young people chances will make a big impact on [their] lives.” St. Germain believes that young people in the criminal justice system with meaningful opportunities—for employment, mentorships and second chances—are important tools to help youth thrive. All three panelists proved that no matter what reform technique used, change in the juvenile justice system can happen regardless of age.

The Youth Summit brought more than 100 emerging juvenile justice leaders from 26 different states to Washington, D.C. on August 7-8.

This year’s event took place a month before the 40th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the landmark federal juvenile justice law, which has made it possible for many states to undertake youth-centered reforms. Throughout the Summit, participants and panelists talked about the law and the ways in which it has supported progress toward fairer and more effective state systems as well as ways that it must be strengthened and better enforced.

Youth were reminded that while there is still much work to be done, the JJDPA has helped improve the lives of system-involved youth. Prior to the JJDPA, participants learned, children who were charged with a minor infraction could be placed in jails alongside adults. While there, they were at times subjected to verbal harassment and physical and sexual assault. The JJDPA, they were told during a Friday morning session, had helped change the lives of countless youth by ensuring that they are taken out of adult jails and lock ups, and have neither sight nor sound contact with adult inmates.

Attendees learned that the JJDPA is overdue for Congressional reauthorization. They discussed different strategies for supporting reauthorization of the JJDPA and improving juvenile justice, including getting involved in state advisory groups, communicating with both state and federal legislators, and participating in grassroots advocacy campaigns.  Participants had opportunities to practice these new skills through group activities in which they prepared for, and had the chance to participate in, mock meetings with legislators.

Youth as Leaders for Reform

During the event, several young people shared powerful stories of their leadership in juvenile justice reform efforts. Jennifer Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, kicked off the Youth Summit by sharing her journey to becoming an effective advocate. Rodriguez described her early attempts to advocate for herself and others while growing up in the foster care system and in juvenile justice institutions, and shared how she learned to “speak the language” of the systems she was involved with, to build relationships with unlikely allies, and to develop other strategies that ultimately helped her grow into an effective advocate.

Attendees also had an opportunity to witness severe sentencing in the juvenile justice system and how it can impact young people through a screening and discussion of the PBS documentary, “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story”. Following the screening, Xavier McElrath-Bey of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, along with Sara Kruzan and Eric Alexander of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network facilitated small group discussions and shared their inspiring stories of how their own experiences of incarceration motivated them to become juvenile justice advocates.

Role-Playing Youth Justice 

Youth Summit PanelTshaka Barrows of the W. Hayward Burns Institute led a “choose your own adventure” workshop in which participants explored the pathways of the juvenile justice system. During the exercise participants got the chance to see how a simple event like witnessing a fight at the bus stop can lead to different outcomes for different people based upon the decisions that they, and others around them subsequently make. Throughout the exercise, participants chose cards at random that would determine their fate. Some cards sent them home to their families. If they picked the wrong card though, they were stuck on probation, or worse yet, wound up incarcerated.

Participants questioned why the same event resulted in some people being sent home quickly, while others got stuck in the system. Observers, meanwhile, noted that the exercise – much like the real juvenile justice system – featured a logjam at intake, with more people finding their way in to the system than the system had the capacity to handle.  

A Speed Networking session also provided attendees the opportunity to speak with leaders in the juvenile justice field and learn about their careers. The Youth Summit ended with a keynote address by Dr. Jonathan Brice, Deputy Assistant for Policy, Office Elementary and Secondary Education at the Department of Education. Dr. Brice encouraged attendees to seek reform opportunities at different stages of the juvenile justice system, and to remember “if you are a juvenile justice advocate, then you are also an education advocate.”

Yosha Gunasekera is a rising third year law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is currently an intern at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.  

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. jjdpa matters icon

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.


Yosha Gunasekera



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