More Collaboration with Young People is Key to Improving Youth Justice and Reducing Inequity

July 9, 2018


At the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s (CJJ) 2018 Annual Conference, researchers and justice providers focused on the power of collaboration, especially with young people themselves.

Each year, CJJ’s annual conference brings service providers, advocates, administrators and young people together to share their stories and their work. This year’s focus, “At the Intersections: How Federal, State, and Local Partners Can Work Together to Improve Juvenile Justice,” offered a chance to learn more about the work taking place across the country.

 Young people can often tell us as a field what data cannot.

Throughout the two-day event, there were conversations about what improving outcomes for systems-involved youth could look like across the United States. We dove deep into the intersection of juvenile justice reform and equity. We also looked at the ways in which youth engagement, done carefully and well, can lead to real and long-lasting solutions.

Confronting Ongoing Disparities

Throughout the workshops, researchers highlighted data that clarify the racial disparities and racially motivated underpinnings of policies that continue to disproportionately keep minority young people in systems. Minority youth still come into contact with the juvenile system at a higher rate than their white peers.

In the words of one researcher: “Implicit bias takes place in our preconceptions about children and families in certain Zip Codes.”

In other words,inequality is not only embedded in justice systems, it continues to impact young people, their families and their communities through policies that limit access to opportunities and supports—both those designed to prevent justice system involvement and those aimed at helping young people re-enter society.

In several workshop sessions, words of empathy filled the room as frontline workers described the conditions that young people experience as they enter and exit justice systems. Several providers spoke of the likelihood of recidivism when a young person does not receive needed supports.

As one advocate noted, “We want to ensure that these programs are working and not just existing.”

CJJ conference

Building Effective Partnerships with Youth at the Center

Throughout the discussions, collaboration emerged as a recurring theme. Participants from around the country shared examples of how collaboration – including involving young people themselves in reform efforts – can impact the trajectory of a young person’s life.

I spoke with direct service providers who shared why their collaboration models worked. One network prided itself on its ability to convene organizations to work and advocate with “one collective voice.” Whether they were sharing ideas or marching to the state capitol, they reinforced a common message.

Young people are the experts on their own lives. Young people can often tell us as a field what data cannot.

We often refer to a “juvenile justice system” but in reality, there are hundreds of different systems across the United States. In each state, there is a State Advisory Group, or SAG, that monitors and supports the state’s youth justice approach and tracks compliance with the core protections and requirements set out by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the nation’s main federal youth justice law.

In one particularly powerful workshop, participants explained how SAGs are a prime example of adult and youth collaboration. Each SAG must have youth representation, and in this way, young people can be change-agents in the effort to seek sustainable solutions.

In SAGs, adults work side-by-side with young people. SAGs stated goals offer a good model for youth justice approaches as a whole:

  • State compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act which requires that one-fifth of each State Advisory Group’s members join before reaching the age of 24;
  • Encouraging young people who are committed to becoming a part of a State Advisory Group through prerequisites such as six month participation period prior to officially joining;
  • Caring adults who are committed to be a continuing presence and source of support for young people;
  • Helping young people find the grit and resiliency to seek higher expectations for themselves;
  • Caring adults who understand the dynamics and challenges that a young person faces;
  • Supporting young people who could find the courage to connect with adults who invested in them; and
  • Caring adults who truly understand the value of working side by side with young people by listening to them and making sure that their voices and needs are being heard

By genuinely welcoming young people into the conversations that ultimately influence the policies that impact them, the field is one step closer to achieving equity.


Jo Ann
Jo Ann Paanio
is the Policy & Advocacy Associate at the Forum for Youth Investment (SparkAction’s organizational home). 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. More about Jo Ann: