Richard Ross Juvenile in Justice

Justice through a New Lens: Reframing Youth Incarceration through Art

February 25, 2019

On any given night in the United States, there are approximately 5,000 children and youth in adult prisons. Some may have access to a bed while others may not. Some may have a window to peer through, while others instead are forced to stare at nothing but concrete walls as the days go by in complete isolation.

The image seems almost unreal; most people can’t imagine, let alone actually see this. Artist and photographer Richard Ross, Distinguished Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, has dedicated much of his professional life to chronicling the lives of people who have experienced incarceration.

Ross’ new exhibit in Washington, DC, Justice through a New Lens: Reframing Youth Incarceration through Art, aims to reframe the conversation around youth justice. The February 6, 2019 opening of the exhibit was co-hosted by the American University’s School of Public Affairs Justice Programs Office, the Campaign for Youth Justice and Georgetown Law School.

At the opening, justice advocates, community partners and students came together to listen to Ross discuss his work and the different ways he is communicating stories that go beyond data—including his much-lauded book and online photo series, Juvenile In Justice.


[Sharing] the ways arts can be used as effective tools in advocacy.


Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, says she was grateful to be a part of the event “and to share with college students the ways arts can be used as effective tools in advocacy.”

Ross uses his images to helps create change by sharing his photographs with advocacy groups and decision-makers. The Campaign for Youth Justice has worked with Ross for years, using his photos on Capitol Hill, at conferences, and in state legislatures to educate lawmakers about what young people experience while incarcerated and “on how horrifying the U.S. response is to our children,” Mistrett says.


Making the Invisible Visible

There are currently about 45,000 young people who are detained in the U.S. juvenile justice system (in addition to the 5,000 children and youth in the adult system noted above). These staggering figures provide us with a sense of how society and institutions value our children across this country—but numbers alone can’t show us what it’s like to experience the system. Through images, Ross shares the real, vital and human stories often hidden behind the numbers. He also lays bare the dehumanizing experiences that incarcerated children living in detention and isolation go through each day, giving audiences an opportunity to embrace the uncomfortable and step into a setting that some of us rarely see.

Many young people who have experienced poverty, trauma, and loss because of contact with the juvenile justice system have been disregarded by the very adults and institutions deemed responsible for their care and protection.

Our systems too often criminalize adolescent behavior, punish those who have been repeatedly victimized and disproportionately target youth of color, permanently altering the trajectory of young people’s lives.

The structural racism and discriminatory practices of the juvenile justice system are well documented. In 2016, black youth made up 14 percent of the overall youth population but accounted for a total of 35.5 percent of all juvenile court cases, according 2015 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Further, research from the CDC and other sources finds that youth who are prosecuted within the adult system are 34 percent more likely to recidivate than cases tried in the juvenile system. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, abandonment and neglect have long-term impacts, and are correlated with delinquency. Estimates put the rates of system “cross-over” – youth experiencing both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems – at as high as 29 percent.

Through photographs like Ross’, policymakers and the public have an opportunity to see young people for who they are and who they can be, rather than dismissing them for their past or letting damaging labels and stereotypes define them. Ross serves as a conduit for young people in detention so that they may have a voice in front of the adults who are making life-changing decisions on their behalf.

Photographs give us a closer look into another person’s life for a fraction of a second. As we look into the eyes of each young person bravely standing before Ross' camera, we get a glimpse into the cold facilities that house incarcerated children. We can almost hear the chilling echoes that follow a correctional officer’s boots down a dimly lit corridor.


Ultimately, Ross’ goal is to create empathy. He walks us through the architectural authority that continues to govern the lives of young people, through the watchful eye of corrections officers or the ways in which youth are forced to line up and look down to the ground as ordered by adults.

“These kids are destroyed. They have nothing. With the stories of these kids, I’m going to build empathy. I’m going to take that empathy and that’s going to create action.” - Richard Ross

“These kids are destroyed. They have nothing. With the stories of these kids, I’m going to build empathy. I’m going to take that empathy and that’s going to create action,” Ross says.


Using Images to Spark Conversation, and Action

Walking through the hallways of American University where Ross’ photographs are on display, we see various images of youth, some too young and too small to even understand why they have been placed in detention.

Each image tells the story of a person and sheds light on the thousands of young people who have been touched by the juvenile justice system in our country, showing each as an individual.

We see images of shackled wrists and masked faces seated upright secured tightly in chairs where they are forced to remain until directed otherwise. We see the faces of grown men and women who were once youth themselves but as fate would have it, ended up living out most of their lives in and out of prison.

Lastly, images of gravestones lined up behind some of the same facilities send a powerful, terrifying message—some detained as young people are denied the ability to finish life outside prison walls.

The photographs ask us to think about how we can ensure that our society and institutions are accountable to our children. How do we ensure that the lives of young people are not completely marred and defined by the trauma that they have endured both within and outside of the prison system?

Paired with statistical and anecdotal data, Ross’ photographs have had a powerful effect on social, judicial and legislative policies in the US and abroad.

One concrete example of how artists such as Richard Ross, together with advocates across the country, have helped usher in progress: in December 2018, Congress passed a long overdue federal reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA sets forth statutory provisions requiring states to ensure the safe treatment of justice-involved youth and collect data on racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice programs. The law also requires states to submit plans to support adolescent development, and to eliminate restraints on pregnant girls in custody (learn more). State compliance under these laws fall within the jurisdiction of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the US Department of Justice.

Policy change requires the belief that change must happen, as well as the ability to show, through more than facts and data, why change is necessary.


Policy change requires the belief that change must happen, as well as the ability to show, through more than facts and data, why change is necessary. Without art and photography—media that allow stories to transform into true stories and depictions of experiences—crucial changes to policy like this might not be possible.

Through Ross’ photographs, we are able to glimpse how much more our children deserve, and be moved to advocate for important measures like the JJDPA that will transform harmful practices in the justice system.

You can learn more about the JJDPA in your state at and learn more about the exhibit and Ross’ photography, here.


Jo Ann works as part of The Forum for Youth Investment’s Policy Team. She is responsible for the policy and advocacy efforts of the Forum’s federal campaign work. Jo Ann is originally from Los Angeles where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from California State University, Dominguez Hills. She later pursued her Juris Doctor at Whittier Law School and completed her Legal Fellowship in the area of children’s advocacy by working on behalf of the needs of foster youth in Southern California. In addition, she was a staff member of Whittier’s Journal of Child and Family Advocacy. Prior to joining The Forum, Jo Ann was a faculty member at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she taught undergraduate courses in political science. With experiences in direct client services in public interest law and as a practitioner in the field of education, Jo Ann credits her passion for youth advocacy to working directly with youth populations as well as her own roots of growing up in Los Angeles.