Activists Must Take ‘Macro’ Approach, Address Fundamental Inequalities, NJJN’s Bryer Says

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Smiling Sarah Bryer with dark hair and sunshine in the background.

National Juvenile Justice Network

Sarah Bryer

Sarah Bryer is planning to step down from her position as executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network when her successor is chosenThe organization, which she led since its founding in 2005, works for a fairer juvenile justice system through a network of state-based reform organizations and with the alumni of its Youth Justice Leadership Institute. Here, Bryer talks with reporter Stell Simonton about the changes she’s seen and the continued challenges.

Stell Simonton: You’ve been at the National Juvenile Justice Network for 14 years. Over that period of time there has been a big shift in the juvenile justice landscape and I wondered if you might describe some of the changes.

Sarah Bryer: I began at NJJN in 2005, but I started working in this field in the mid-90s, … really at the beginning of the massive crime [decline] that we’re essentially still in. At this precise moment, [we saw the rise of] the Dilulio superpredator theory [which argued] that we weren’t dealing with normal kids. [It argued that] we were dealing with kids who had no moral center, who had no conscience, who aren’t able to feel guilt and therefore we had to be very scared of these young people and we had to treat them harshly.

Of course, all of this was very coded language around race … and it wasn’t true in any way, obviously. But the damage had already been done.

Even though we were at the beginning at this great crime decline, it was the beginning of this incredible surge of tougher crime policy. So we saw the expansion of transfer of young people into the adult system and treating them as if they were adults. [We saw] increased prison construction and a general discarding of the basic tenets of the juvenile court. [There was] a rollback of confidentiality concerns and an increase in detaining kids … So, as our communities were getting safer, our policymakers were ratcheting up these punitive responses.

[This] laid the ground work for increasing advocacy on the state level. The goal [was] to move policy based on facts, and data rather than based on fear and anecdote. The youth justice policy advocates — the community that NJJN was made of —really emerged from this fundamental contradiction of crime going down but crime policy is becoming more punitive.

Simonton: What were some of the things that you all did that swung [the youth justice system] in a better direction?

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Bryer: You can’t underplay the importance of the MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development, which provided critical fodder for the policy [victories] that were to come, including many, many [U.S.] Supreme Court decisions. Many of our policy wins were based on this research that shows [adolescence is a] stage of life that demands a unique response from the justice system…I have to … note here that race defines our justice system … I would say still that we are only taking baby steps in this regard, we have not fully addressed this.

In March of 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile death penalty was unconstitutional and that it was cruel and unusual punishment and that kids are deserving of different approaches and responses to their behavior.

Simonton: That was a huge decision.

Bryer: It was a huge decision … There was a whole raft of Supreme Court decisions that followed. It was the beginning of what would be wave upon wave of positive policy change on the state level.

When we started in 2005, we only had about 12 state organizational members.They were largely isolated from each other and they were often the only advocacy organization in a state … Now of course 14 years later we have 54 organizations across 44 states and D.C. Within each state there are multiple organizations and multiple theories of change. We have separate campaigns around life without parole, around getting kids out of the adult system, around ending the school-to-prison pipeline … We even increased focus around trauma, health and substance abuse. There has been a sea change in the level, the intensity of advocacy around new justice reform.

Simonton: What about the challenges that remain?

Bryer: One of the things I’ve seen in the youth justice reform space is a bit of a game of whack-a-mole. We know that crime continues to go down, that there are fewer youth arrests for serious offenses, that secure facilities [for youth] in most states are increasingly empty, right? They cannot fill the beds, because there aren’t kids to put there.

… At the same time … we’re seeing more kids getting arrested in school… just as we’re making incredible headway …

One of the biggest challenges that we’re facing right now in the youth justice policy space is a macro challenge. [The effort] to contain and control black and brown youth is taking place in the context — both domestically and internationally — of the rise of far right and fascist movements and parties. It’s not just happening here, it’s happening around the world. But one of the ways that it is manifesting here in the United States, in part, is the increased targeting of our most vulnerable children. So this includes immigrant children, non-citizen children, black, poor black and brown youth, youth that are non-gender-conforming.

So for instance, in the Dream Act that’s moving now through the House of Representatives, they want to have exclusions for children who essentially have been adjudicated in juvenile court. Again this would toss aside everything that we know about the juvenile court, so why it was set up? [It’s] targeting black and brown and immigrant kids, our most vulnerable kids…

We know that when we set up the juvenile court we set it up with the idea that it should be confidential. That young people should be able to be held accountable for their actions, they should receive the services that they need, so that they can get back on with their lives and not carry the burden of an adult criminal conviction. That’s why we created a juvenile court. But, here we’re saying: “Not for immigrant kids. No, they don’t get the protection of that juvenile court.” It’s the targeting of our most vulnerable…

Simonton: So it sounds like the approach has to be wider than simply just focusing on juvenile justice? To deal with something that is a macro problem?

Bryer: That’s right … If we don’t address the fundamental question of racism in our society, without a full acknowledgment of how racism is locked into policy and practice and culture, we are never going to achieve a justice system. We will forever be nibbling around the edges.

It’s about pursuing the policies and practices that we’ve always been pursuing. But we also have to do so with an eye to these fundamental power imbalances and inequalities, that are defining our systems, our organizations and even our interpersonal relationships.

Simonton: I would like to ask you about conservatives and liberals working together on juvenile justice reform. Is this a very positive step in your view? Or are there any issues with it?

Bryer: We all should be working for justice reform, and conservatives and liberals working together for justice reform is fabulous. I’m a huge fan. When you get right down  to the policy making soup there are always compromises, right? The question is, when we make those compromises, what is our North Star? Are we making these compromises with the understanding of what we’re building toward? The kind of just society that we want to create … for those communities that don’t have any power?

… That’s what I mean about keeping our eye on the macro level problem, this North Star issue.

Simonton: I’d like to ask you what your immediate plans are. Will you continue in some way in this work?

Bryer: What I know is that I’m deeply compelled to address social justice issues … I am open to seeing where I can have an impact, a deep and positive impact going forward.

I want to add that I’ve been the recent recipient of the W.K. Kellogg Community Leadership Fellowship and that just started in March and it’s a year and a half program, it’s focused on racial justice.

This story has been updated.

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