October is Youth Justice Awareness Month, and as consensus builds in the Senate and the House around the need for criminal justice reform, the effort to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is gaining momentum.
The lived experience of young people and their families is crucial to creating good policy.
Toward that end, we empower alumni of our programs to courageously share their personal stories with local and national legislators.
Sonya, from New Orleans, participated in a House briefing with other youth focused on the experiences of girls in the juvenile justice system. Aeryn, from Las Vegas, represented the youth voice on a panel to build support for the bipartisan Senate bill reauthorizing the JJDPA (S 1169). Most recently, Sloane, from Washington, D.C., participated in a congressional hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Sloane provided insight for an overview of the JJDPA and the ways in which it diverts youth from juvenile justice system involvement, supports alternatives to incarceration, saves taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, promotes safer, stronger and healthier youth, families and communities.
His perspective is important:
“I was in trouble with the law and spent time locked up in a juvenile detention center before coming to Boys Town Washington D.C. at the age of 15. Boys Town was the program that helped me and so many others just like me turn our lives around, but I’m not any different from other kids who end up in the juvenile justice system. The difference is that someone didn’t just lock me up and throw away the key. Instead, I got help and support in my community, and I was able to make changes for the long term.
“I think all youth want to do something positive with their lives and are looking for consistency and structure — whether we can express it effectively or not. At the hearing, they asked me what advice I would give to help other young people avoid the juvenile justice system, and it was a hard question to answer. It’s not as simple as telling someone to avoid negative peers or stay away from drugs. For me, hands-on programs with tangible outcomes brought out my best self. When I was given responsibility, it created a sense of fulfillment and obligation to do better and to be more.
“Youth need skills to change their behavior, and they shouldn’t have to get locked up before they are eligible for help. That’s what the JJDPA supports, and that’s why I support the law.
“I feel like if I can give back, I should. I hope sharing my story helped make the issue real for the congressmen who heard it. I hope others speak out, too. If anyone wants to know what works, talking and listening to individual young people is the key.”
Sloane’s testimony affected committee members. Many shared their own backgrounds working with and advocating for youth as principals, school board members, state legislators and lawyers before they became members of Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike stressed the importance of effective programs that address the root causes of delinquency and prioritize family involvement in prevention and rehabilitation.
Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., expressed appreciation for the voice of a directly affected youth on the hearing panel, stating, “Mr. Baxter, thank you for the example you’re setting. By sharing your story with us today, you’re helping make a difference in the lives of others.”
The power of youth voice should not be underestimated. With the help of voices from around the country, Congress may finally be compelled to reauthorize this crucial piece of legislation.
Sloane Baxter, 22, is a volunteer youth advocate from Washington. Lisette Burton is the director of national advocacy for Boys Town, where she advocates for effective federal and state policies related to child welfare, juvenile justice, education and health. Boys Town is a member of the Act4JJ Coalition, a national group of juvenile justice, child welfare and youth development organizations advocating for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and increased federal funding for juvenile justice programs and services.
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