Juvenile Justice 101

In Our Own Words: Youth-Led Strategies for Better Justice

February 26, 2019

Two young leaders, themselves impacted by the justice system, share their insights on the system and on the newly reauthorized Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). 

The bipartisan Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) — the nation's landmark federal law that sets standards and protections for children and youth in state juvenile justice programs — was updated and reauthorized by Congress in December 2018. It is now up to states to implement the new provisions and use the newly updated law to improve their approaches.  

On February 26, 2019, the Act 4 Juvenile Justice Campaign held a Juvenile Justice 101 briefing on Capitol Hill to educate Members of Congress and their staff about the JJDPA and how the implementation will affect young people and communities. The briefing included a panel of advocates and community stakeholders who spoke about the history of juvenile justice reform, what the reauthorization of the JJDPA means for young people, and priorities for the new Congress, with testimonies from formerly incarcerated young people.

During the briefing, Shamelen Henderson and Anahi Figueroas, both formerly incarcerated young women, shared their personal stories and insights. Some of their remarks are below.

Juvenile Justice: A First-Hand Perspective

Shamelen Henderson

"My name is Shamelen Henderson and I grew up in Southeast Washington, DC. I am speaking to you today from a formerly incarcerated youth's perspective. I was securely detained for a status offense classified as P.I.N.S. It stands for Persons In Need of Supervision. I was committed to the custody of Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS) at age 15 for truancy and running away. These aren't even classified as criminal charges but status offenses. 

Instead of getting locked up, I believe I should have been provided with the proper mentoring and therapy services like the services I receive now in my community.

"Instead of getting locked up, I believe I should have been provided with the proper mentoring and therapy services like the services I receive now in my community. Since being committed to DYRS I have benefited from the programs they offer. I currently serve as the president of DYRS Youth Council. At DYRS Youth Council we recruit youth like myself to participate in community service projects we conduct. I am apart of DYRS Youth Council because I think youth advocacy is very important and crucial for the youth in my generation to have a voice about things we experience and about services we need to prevent us from committing the crimes we do.

"One of the advocacy activities we participated in was the "Show the Love Campaign" when we went to Capitol Hill and delivered Valentines Candy to offices to educate them about the federal law JJDPA that protects youth like me who are involved in the justice system. It felt good to have staff listen to us about what needs to change. And it was great when the law passed!

Advocacy is sweet: Valentines delivered to Members of Congress in 2018.

Some of the important things the new JJDPA does are things that DC had changed a few years ago. For example, DC can't lock up kids like me who get arrested for status offenses anymore. Also, DC moved the kids who are in the adult jail back to DYRS. A family member was sentenced as an adult in DC when he was 16, and was sent all around the US at different federal prisons. It was really hard on him, so I know that keeping kids out of the DC jail will make a big difference.

Recommendations for Improving the Juvenile Justice System

Anahi Figueroas, a member of Juveniles for Justice — coalition of young people and young adults who use their experiences with the justice system to develop policy reform campaigns — offered insights from their 2017-2018 campaign, Broken Bridges, which addressed harmful conditions that she and her peers experienced. Along with her testimony, she shared stories and recommendations from the booklet created to summarize the campaign's recommendations.

Read the recommendations from youth that she shared during the briefing below. 

Recommendation 1: Keep Kids in their Communities
What's the problem?
Myself and my peers faced a lot of problems we feel could have been solved in our homes and communities. Things like not having transportation in school, family problems, school conflicts, bullying, or mental health or behavioral health challenges that contributed to how we entered in the justice system.
What's the recommendation?
We believe that states should provide community-based resources to youth and families to help keep kids out of the system.
Recommendation 2: Connect Youth with their Families in Placement
What’s the problem?
For many of us in placement, not having contact with our families was used as a form of punishment and sometime when my peers were harmed their parents were not contacted or notified.
What's the recommendation?
Ensure that we are given access and have a way to contact our families, by phone, email, mail, visits, etc. Making sure we are actually connecting to our families and that families involved in a youths entire plan while they are in placement, including ensuring families know about our medical needs, behavioral needs, overall success and re-entry plan for going home.
Recommendation 3: Improve Oversight Accountability and Reporting of Abuse
What’s the problem?
Kids are being abused in placement and kids are afraid and don’t have a safe, efficient way to tell anyone what’s going on.
What's the recommendation?
Designating a point person to follow up with youth about abuse and unsafe conditions- training staff on how to report and safe way for them to report abuse and holding them accountable for our safety and reporting. These should be reports should be made within 24-48 hours of an incident.
Recommendation 4: Develop Alternatives to Physical Restraints:
What’s the problem?
A lot of my peers shared that there was an excessive use of restraints in the facilities they were in and that they felt unsafe. We know that this isn’t just our experiences, In Philadelphia, David Hess died due to the use of restraints that cut off his breathing. This should never happen to youth.
What's the recommendation?
Restraints should not be a first option, staff should exhaust other options first before using restraints. This includes training staff on positive alternatives and the least harmful restraints, including training on the purpose and proper use of restraints and prohibiting staff from using any restraints if they are not properly trained.
Recommendation 5: Use Restorative Techniques to Help Youth with Behavior Management
What’s the problem? 
Youth were being physically harmed by untrained staff as a disciplinary action instead of being offered supports that address behavior concerns
What's the recommendation?
We recommend that officers get better training on de-escalation techniques and find alternatives to isolation and restraints.
Recommendation 6: Provide Quality Education to Youth Returning from Placement
What’s the problem?
Youth are not getting the proper education when they are getting placed inside of a placement facility and once a youth is discharged their credits don't get transferred correctly properly and sometimes they were not transferred at all.
What's the recommendation? 
We recommend that every child is placed in the right level quality work inside of placement facilities including if they need or have an IEP or other educational needs. Also making sure that there is a reentry plan established and providing help to get back into school and credits transferred.
Recommendation 7: Eliminate Strip Searches
What’s the problem?
Youth feel violated when they’re getting strip searched. Strip searches can be traumatizing and unnecessary.
What's the recommendation?
Staff should need more training to use more positive techniques if a strip searched is required, including:
  • Technology
  • Common Sense
  • Ensure these happen in a safe non-degrading and traumatic way.
Anahi affirmed that these issues are real for many young people all over, saying, "We know we’re not the only youth to experience this problem. Some youth have seen worse like David Hess or the youth in Glen Mills being harmed. People need to start being held accountable for our safety."
"People need to start being held accountable for our safety."
"In order to create better policies and laws, you all need to start talking to the right people…  our youth," says Anahi, because "they’re the ones being impacted by these decisions."

Learn More

Shamelen Henderson is 17 years old and a senior in high school. She is a member of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS) Youth Council and recently testified before the D.C. City Council on behalf of DYRS on issues impacting youth in the foster and juvenile justice systems. Already an impactful advocate for youth, Shamelen plans to attend college and eventually become a lawyer who represents children in the criminal justice system.

Anahi Figueroas is 19 years old. She has been an advocate with Juveniles for Justice (J4J), a project of Juvenile Law Center, for four years. Anahi participated in the Juveniles for Justice program advocating for policy reform for youth who have had experience in the juvenile justice system. She has done specific work on eliminating harmful juvenile costs, fines and fees, and improving education, and conditions of confinement for youth. As an alumnus of the programs, Anahi continues to work closely with Juvenile Law Center staff on various projects. Anahi graduated from El Centro de- Estudiantes in June 2018.