Sarah Bryer is planning to step down from her position as executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network when her successor is chosen. The 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.
This story produced by the Chicago Bureau. The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers – the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides – some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation. Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system. Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).
On Nov. 7, the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) will hold a webinar focusing on the new Models For Change publication “Washington Judicial Colloquies Project: A Guide for Improving Communication and Understanding in Court.”
The guide, published by Washington State NJJN member TeamChild, offers advice on how professionals can better explain and describe the legal language used in court proceedings to young people. Working with the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network, TeamChild created a guide that suggests “colloquies,” pre-written language for judges and attorneys to use during young people’s first court appearances and further disposition hearings. The language is written at a 6th grade-level and designed to be easily understood by juveniles. In fact, according to the the guide, effective use of colloquies sometimes increased young people’s understanding of release and probation conditions from one third to 90 percent after hearings.
The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) recently published Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, a compendium of noteworthy reform measures enacted across 47 states and the District of Columbia. Tuesday, a quartet of NJJN representatives joined George Williams of Humane Exposures for a roundtable discussion of the new report, which was broadcast via a live Google Hangout feed. According to Williams, everybody lives in a state with juvenile justice problems. A resident of Louisiana, he said that his state has a higher incarceration rate than Iraq. “If we want public safety, we have to look at these issues in a different way,” said NJJN Director Sarah Bryer. She said that when state-based advocacy groups work together for reform policies, their combined efforts can serve as an “elevator for collective gain.”
Bryer said the information contained in the new compendium encompasses a “massive amount of data,” which allows organizations to analyze trends and policies enacted by agencies in other states.
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.
A recent report from the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), titled, “Bringing Youth Home: A National Movement to Increase Public Safety, Rehabilitate Youth and Save Money,” documented the extraordinary number of states and jurisdictions (at least 24) that are closing or downsizing their youth correctional facilities, due to budget cuts, legislation, lawsuits, and pressure from reformers. (Download the report for tips on ways to downsize wisely.)
This is a good thing, because it means taxpayers can save money or avoid the high cost of incarceration, and reallocate those monies to community-based programs that are more effective at helping young people turn their lives around. Right on the heels of the NJJN report comes a new report from Jeffrey A. Butts and Douglas N. Evans from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research and Evaluation Center in New York, titled, Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment: Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice. In it, they ask:
Do these reforms represent a permanent shift in policy and practice, or are they merely a temporary reaction to tight budgets and low rates of violent crime? Will policymakers maintain the reforms if and when crime rises and budgets rebound?