I want to take a moment to advocate for a group of people who don’t often get the attention they deserve. Misunderstood, frequently marginalized — yet essential to reforming our juvenile justice system to make it smaller, fairer, age-appropriate, and more cost-effective.
Yes: I’m advocating for advocates. My colleagues.
Now, when I say “advocate,” I’m referring to folks who are usually outside the conventional power structure. Sometimes they’re paid, sometimes not; regardless, it’s their job to rock the boat. To carp, criticize, and say, “There’s a better way.”
An advocate could be a parent with a child in the system, like Tarsha Jackson of Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth. An advocate could be an activist like Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition, who lives and works in South Central Los Angeles mobilizing community members and educating youth to agitate for changes to policies that affect them. Or an advocate might work for a nonprofit, like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project, filing lawsuits to protect incarcerated kids from abusive conditions.
Advocates are ideal change agents because they’re mission-driven. They focus on good outcomes for youth and their communities regardless of shifting political winds, staffing changes, and funding fluctuations. And they can do things that other players can’t: they can press for change in spite of resistance, they can bring out the community to make their voices heard; they can appeal to the press; and if necessary, they can file lawsuits. As a result, they’re not always popular. They can be scrappy, loud, and say things that are politically inconvenient. But those are also their strengths, and as a group, they are extremely effective, out of all proportion to their resources and their numbers.
I’ll give you a broad-spectrum example of this. As you may know, in the past ten years, we as a society have made a lot of progress on reforming the juvenile justice system. To get a sense of the depth and breadth of what’s been accomplished, you need look no farther than Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011. It’s a new publication put out by the National Juvenile Justice Network to document recent efforts by states and local jurisdictions to reform the way they handle teens in trouble with the law.
Its 63 pages provide capsule summaries of over 250 separate changes to law and policy made in 47 states and the District of Columbia across 24 policy areas, such as conditions of confinement, racial and ethnic disparities, juvenile defense and court process, the school-to-prison pipeline, laws and registries that affect youth who commit sexual offenses, and many more. (By the way, if you go to NJJN’s website, you can follow hyperlinks to the actual legislation, policy, or other documents related to each specific reform.)
Most of those 250+ reforms were put forward, pushed through — or will be monitored — by advocates. When Louisiana and Washington D.C. closed down notoriously abusive and violent juvenile correctional facilities in 2009, advocates were behind it. When Connecticut and Illinois passed legislation that removed teens from adult courts and kept them in juvenile court where they could receive the services and help they needed, advocates were responsible. When Little Rock, AR passed a one-cent sales tax to provide more community-based services to prevent juvenile crime, advocates were the champions who helped enact it.
Naturally, advocates don’t work alone. Their victories are a team effort. They usually work closely with policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders. And their impact is dramatically magnified by their many philanthropic partners. In fact, without the generous support of many foundations across the country, Advances in Juvenile Justice: 2009-2011 would be much, much shorter.
Still, when it comes time to take stock of how far we’ve come and how we got here, advocates are too often overlooked. So please take a moment to be thankful for the squeaky wheels, the immoderate crusaders, the broken records. We need more of them.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy organization that consistently wins major victories for at-risk youth. She has served as co-chair of the Executive Committee of the National Juvenile Justice Network since 2007 and was formerly on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. In naming her to its prestigious “40 Under 40” list, Connecticut Magazine said: “She has reframed juvenile justice as a mainstream issue by stressing the savings achieved by getting timely services to kids before their behavior becomes a public-safety concern.”