The Mystery Ingredient in Juvenile Justice Reform: Advocates

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Anyone involved in reforming the juvenile justice system understands the respective roles that philanthropy, policymakers, and system stakeholders play in the process. But advocates are often misunderstood — and their contributions, I believe, are greatly underrated.

That will change, I hope, with the publication of a new report from the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, a 63-page report that provides capsule summaries of reforms made between 2009 and 2011 by 47 states and the District of Columbia in 24 different categories, including closing and downsizing facilities, blocking the school-to-prison pipeline, and removing youth from the adult system and returning them to juvenile court. (Anyone interested in learning more about a reform — by studying the legislation, the policy language, or related resources — can visit the NJJN website at www.njjn.org.)

I believe Advances will be an invaluable resource for advocates, policymakers, legislators, educators, and journalists working on juvenile justice issues. But I also hope that it will be obvious to even casual readers just how many of the changes highlighted in Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform occurred in large part due to the dogged advocacy of 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.

Why is advocacy such a powerful tool for reform? 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. They do this in several ways. Advocates:

  • Build awareness. Savvy advocates know how to frame the debate and for whom, when to push stakeholders and when to partner with them, and when to go public versus fly under the radar.
  • Are experts who get things done. Advocates develop sophisticated skill sets that include detailed knowledge about both the promise and flaws in their state’s juvenile justice system; the ability to assess the best strategy for reform, be it legislative, administrative or through litigation; and the know-how to build critical partnerships with like-minded stakeholders—and would-be opponents.
  • Amplify the voices of those most affected. Youth and families, who are too often sidelined by the systems that seek to serve them, frequently provide the most urgent, salient and informed voices for reform. Advocacy groups that are led by, partner with, or are inclusive of youth and families can be extremely effective change agents.
  • Monitor outcomes. Finally, after the legislation has been signed or the final memo written, advocates stay on duty, helping systems implement change through training, collaboration and knowledge sharing. This helps ensure that reforms yield the intended outcomes for youth, their families, and the community at large.

Of course, advocates don’t work in isolation. Their victories are a team effort. They work every day with policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders. And their impact is dramatically magnified by their many philanthropic partners. 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 here’s a toast to advocates across the country. Your job is usually thankless — but on behalf of the many thousands of people across the country who know we can do a better job of helping youth in trouble with the law while keeping our communities safe — consider Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform a token of our appreciation.

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