Voices Elevate to Advance Juvenile Justice Reform
By Marcy Mistrett, CEO, and Abby McNeal, Juvenile Justice Fellow
Juvenile justice is perhaps one of the only political issues that continues to see strong bipartisan support from Congress. This trend was continued once again last month at the House Judiciary Sub Committee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations held a hearing on juvenile justice reform in the modern era. This hearing comes weeks after the House passed the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) worked with her Republican Sub-Committee members to organize a hearing that prioritized juvenile justice as a critical component to criminal justice reform overall; focusing on successful alternatives to incarceration and the work that still needs to be accomplished around the treatment of youth who remain confined.
Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA), opened the hearing with comments highlighting the growing evidence base to reduce recidivism among youth who come in contact with the law. Citing the progress of states in reducing youth incarceration while also reducing youth arrests, the Chairman stated, “States are laboratories of democracies and show the Federal Government what works.” He was joined by Congresswoman Jackson-Lee who paid tribute to the memory of Kalief Browder, a young man who was beaten by guards and other youth offenders and who was placed in isolation at Riker’s Island for nearly two years. Mr. Browder eventually had the charges against him dropped; but at great cost—he took his own life a year after his release. The witnesses who spoke at the hearing unified in their message that children do better in therapeutic environments, that are close to home, and that tend to the underlying causes of delinquency.
Joining the hearing were witnesses Joe Vignati (Assistant Commissioner and Chief of Staff at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice), Devon McDonald (Chief of Staff and General Counsel at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute), Jim Saint Germain (impacted youth and co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow) and Liz Ryan (founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice and current president and CEO of Youth First). Each witness offered a unique perspective and insight into different aspects of the juvenile justice system, and the positive impacts that recent reforms have had for themselves personally, in their state, and across the country.
All witnesses were firmly united around the fact that incarcerating youth is a high cost, largely damaging and ineffective practice. They also repeatedly, spoke about the importance of using validated risk and need assessment tools, and community based alternatives to incarceration. It was evident from the testimonies provided that there are community and evidence-based practices that will do far more to serve and protect our youth.
Those in attendance filled the room and helped to emphasize just how important and far-reaching this issue is. The Campaign for Youth Justice is looking forward to working more with the Judiciary committee and the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations on improving the juvenile justice system in the 115th Congress.