Call to Action for Youth Justice

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By Lashon Amado
Associate
National Council of Young Leaders - Opportunity Youth United

In the past few years, we have seen more mainstream attention both from community members and influential leaders to a population that has largely been invisible: young people involved in the juvenile justice system. This fall alone, Pope Francis spoke out about injustice in our justice system, in particular involving children and youth.  Just last month, the president issued a proclamation declaring October to be Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM).

As a young person with experience in the juvenile justice system—whose life has been changed (for the better) but is not defined by that involvement—the Pope’s words and the president’s actions speak to me. I know what it is like to be largely written off by our society, and why we cannot afford to keep doing that to tens of thousands of boys and girls each year.

For a land that takes pride in freedom and equal justice for all, we lock up more children than any other country in the world. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the rate at which the U.S. incarcerates youth is six times the total number of other countries such as Canada, Germany and Australia, and several others.

Instead of creating pathways to a positive adulthood, we are creating direct pathways into confinement, isolation and deprivation. In addition, we start labeling kids “delinquents” and “criminals” as early as the age of six. How could you determine if someone is a criminal if they have not even completed elementary school?

Our system is not fair and is not working as well as it must. Too many young people, especially youth of color, are tangled up in the justice system in this country. The National Center for Juvenile Justice estimates juvenile courts handle about 116,000 status offense cases each year – that is, cases for actions that would not be consider crimes if committed by adults, like skipping school, missing curfew or running away. Again, minority youth are disproportionately sentenced for these “crimes.”

While African American youth represent 17 percent of their age group in the general population, they represent 31 percent of arrests nationally, according to Justice Department data. Arresting, trying and incarcerating young people costs more than the community-based interventions that are proven to be more effective. It is also more dangerous for these youth:  families are torn apart, children are being exposed to physical, mental, and sexual violence, their options for the future erode. No child, of any race, belongs in jail or prison.

We can fix this. We now have brain science and evidence from studies of programs to guide our way forward.

Congress and other influential players must enact serious reforms to reduce funding for the confinement of youth and invest more in community-based and comprehensive programs such as YouthBuild, Public Allies, The Corp Network and others.

The best way to start? Reauthorize the nation’s main federal juvenile justice law, the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). It needs to be updated and fully funded so states can do more of what works.

Fixing our inequitable justice system one of the recommendations of the National Council of Young Leaders: Opportunity Youth United, a national youth-led coalition of formerly disconnected young people—myself included—working to reduce poverty and increase opportunity for all. It costs an average of $400 a day and $150,000 a year to lock a kid up. It costs less than $75 a day to support a young person in a program like YouthBuild where they can earn an education, gain vocational job training, engage in community service and develop leadership skills. In addition, the amount spent on one individual in a calendar year could finance three full rides to a state university, and we all know that educational attainment is one of the most effective tools in reducing recidivism rates.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Pope’s comment, “The person who is most high among us must be at the service of the others."  I also agree with the president when he said, “All our Nation's children deserve the chance to fulfill their greatest potential, and nothing should limit the scope of their futures.”

Too often young people, especially those in the juvenile justice system are written off by society and labeled “someone else’s problem.” We all need to take responsibility for them in a positive and nurturing way. Otherwise, our responsibility will be to finance their confinement—because either way, we are responsible and at service to our children.

We need to give all kids a second chance.


This blog has been reprinted with the permission of The Hill.

Lashon Amado is an associate with the National Council of Young Leaders – Opportunity Youth United.