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Rehabilitation vs. Criminalization: The Need to Rethink Juvenile Justice Programs in New York

An editorial from this week’s New York Times, “When Children Become Criminals,” engages the question: at what age and under what circumstances should a minor be tried as an adult? This is in response to Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, recently announcing that he would be putting together a commission to develop a plan (recommended changes in laws and procedures) for raising the age for adult criminal prosecution by the end of 2014. Nearly 40,000 adolescents are sent through the New York criminal courts every year, most charged with nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, jumping the turnstile in subway, or possession of marijuana. As is well known, Black and Latino young people, especially young men, are highly overrepresented in New York’s court-involved youth population. One of the major takeaways from the article is the mention of the effects of putting children as young as 16-years-old through the adult court system:

Federally financed studies have shown that minors prosecuted as adults commit more violent crimes later on and are more likely to become career criminals than those sent though juvenile courts, where they receive counseling and family support. Beyond that, neurological science has shown that adolescents are less able to assess risks and make the kinds of mature decisions that would keep them out of trouble.

In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of criminal prosecution from 16 to 18, a law which took full effect in 2012. The state has also adopted new strategies for court-involved young people based on “rehabilitation, not lockups,” working to reduce arrests and save the state money. The Connecticut Legislature created a council of experts from law enforcement, mental health, and other fields to coordinate policy changes. The interdisciplinary collaboration is significant. Connecticut has ceased trying cases involving “nonthreatening adolescent misbehaviors,” like possession of tobacco. Most importantly, the state invested in counseling and intervention programs that “allow young people to make amends for minor misdeeds without going to court.”

I was surprised to learn that New York is one of only two states (North Carolina is the other one) in which 16-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults.  The New York law came into effect with the state’s creation of the juvenile justice system under the Family Court Act in 1962. Unable to agree on an age at which offenders should be declared adults, lawmakers temporarily set it at 16, but “…as often happens with public policy, inertia set in and ‘temporary’ became permanent.” More than 250,000 youth under the age of 18 are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year. And in New York, almost 90% of boys released from juvenile incarceration are arrested again.

As mentioned above, there have been growing conversations about the repercussions of sending young people through the criminal court system as opposed to providing them with rehabilitation services that might help to address underlying emotional, physical, mental, sociocultural, and environmental factors influencing behaviors. When young people are labeled as criminals or delinquents and tried as adults, their education is disturbed, their psyche is affected, and their re-entry into school and life can be extremely difficult and damaging, especially as they are going through crucial developmental stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence.

In addition, critics argue that many detention centers wrongly focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for young people. In a recent article on activists’ call for juvenile justice system reforms, AlJazeera America, highlights a new campaign working to change the procedures that the justice system uses with children and adolescents. It’s called Raise the Age:

Raise the Age New York is a public awareness campaign that includes national and local advocates, youth, parents, law enforcement and legal representative groups, faith leaders, and unions that have come together to increase public awareness of the need to implement a comprehensive approach to raise the age of criminal responsibility in NYS so that the legal process responds to all children as children and services and placement options better meet the rehabilitative needs of all children and youth.

I encourage you to check out the Raise the Age website and learn more about the reasons for the campaign and the holistic impact that raising the age could potentially have on the state’s juvenile justice system.

Reading the NYT article and learning about the Raise the Age campaign served as reminders about how the juvenile justice system needs a lot of work, but it is also highlights how imperative it is that we–society, educators, activists, parents, mentors, allies–work hard to challenge dominant narratives about “juvenile delinquents.” It is easy, especially in a sensational-news-saturated world to make snap judgements about young people incarcerated at a young age (who continue to lead lives of crime and punishment). Instead of just accepting the idea that young criminals look or act a certain way, lead certain lifestyles, or have the ability to make different choices but choose a life of crime instead, I encourage us all to take a step back and think about the programs and procedures that are set up to address and hopefully prevent such lifestyles and trajectories. Let’s think about productive and meaningful ways to support young men, in particular, labeled as failures and delinquents before they even grow facial hair.

How can we raise awareness? What kinds of conversations can we have? What new strategies and laws must be put in place in order for legitimate change to occur? Ask yourself these questions, pose them to others, and find more answers at Raise the Age.

Developing Justice Monthly Roundtable

Greetings, Students based in or around New York City,

Check out the NYC Student Collective to End Mass Incarceration! A group of interested students from all over the NYC metro area got together at the Beyond the Bars conference organized by the Columbia School of Social Work in the spring. Since then, the group has been working to build connections and support for students and student groups who are interested in bringing more justice into the justice system. At the moment, the group is primarily made up of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of institutions, but is looking to involve high school and younger students as well.

The group met this past week at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, but stay tuned to the Facebook page for links to news, student group events, and other important stuff!


Possibilities of Virtual Dialogue

A recent op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, When Children are Traded, about the private re-homing of children who are adopted (often internationally) is a compelling addition to the larger sphere within which the YMEJ course contextualizes its work.  I came across the op-ed piece in a backwards way: I first found a link to a series of letters to the editor written in response to the piece.

Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/opinion/when-an-adoption-doesnt-work-out.html

While I could use this post to disentangle the broad narratives Kristof infuses in his piece, I am more interested in the conversation the piece sparked, since I read the response first.  More specifically, it caused me to wonder about the dialogue surrounding foster care in mass media and the space certain medias create for people to speak back or engage in dialogue.  The opinion/response was posted by the New York Times and therefore, I am aware that many other responses may not have been shared on the website. Next, I looked at which letters had been chosen for inclusion in the paper. One came from Westchester Child and Family services — part of Kristof’s op-ed questioned American adoption agencies for being leery to accept foreign adoptions that were not working in the US.  Another response was from the Children’s Law Center and the final letter came from the Center for Adoption Policy.   I immediately noticed the absent voices: parents, children, teachers, social workers.  This lead me to Kristof’s original op-ed piece and the comments section at the bottom of the website.

What I find fascinating is in the opinion pages the New York Times makes a point to explain who is writing the opinion and whether or not they are affiliated with a group, agency etc.  In the comments section, anyone can leave a comment.  But the comments are divided into sections, NY Picks, Readers Picks and All comments.  The freedom to respond is still mediate and moderate, which causes me to question the role the New York Times website, itself, plays in constructing a response to the op-ed.

I call this into question because the conversation and comments that interact with the article demonstrate a wide range of responses and perspectives.  Though the comments include many more parent voices, I still had to search to find young peoples responses and even responses of people who were adopted or lived in foster care.  Which begs the question, whose story is Kristof telling?  What can those of us involved in the YMEJ graduate seminar do to get involved in these conversations? How can we generate our own conversations in the public sphere? I hope this blog is a starting point and look forward to the virtual dialogue that unfolds.

Engaging Youth as Active Participants In/For Social Change

What do texting, hanging out, breaking bread, and laughter have in common? They are all practices central to Tara Conley‘s thoughtful and pathbreaking work in embracing a participatory design approach to the critical engagement of youth in the creation of a digital artifact that is meant to support their wellbeing. This is participatory prototyping at its best. (Wanna know more? Check out Tara’s talk — details below.)

Tara, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College and founder of Media Make Change (and YMEJ project team member), kicked off this year’s Racial Literacy Roundtable (RLR) Series (founded by Prof. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz)– this year’s focus: The Year of the Youth — on Monday night with an interactive and highly participatory presentation in which she explored for the audience the affordances and challenges of pursuing this form of action-oriented research.

Central to Tara’s mission is finding innovative ways to leverage everyday media and technology resources to create opportunities to interrupt and transform geographies of dislocation, particularly among young people who experience social and institutional marginalization on a regular basis. (Multiple forms of dislocation are especially evident in the lives of court-involved youth with whom she and we work on a regular basis.) She pursues this goal — what she called her life’s work — not only seeking out young people’s input, but by co-constructing the research and design contexts, direction, and intention with them (not a seamless, but definitely worthwhile undertaking).

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Watch an excerpt and read more about Tara’s talk — “Possibilities of Designing with and for Underrepresented Communities: A Conversation about Participation, Court-involved Youth, and Humility” — in which she provides an overview of her socially engaged social action project, TxtConnect. You’ll also find a link to her slides, which are chock full of useful and important information.

Please share widely!

(Congrats, Tara!)

Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care


Jef Aerosol public art, near Rue Mouffetard, Paris. For more about Jef Aerosol, see: http://www.jefaerosol.com/
(Photo by Lalitha Vasudevan, 2012)


I started reading “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care” by Cris Beam a few weeks ago. At this point I feel it necessary to say that I am usually a fast reader, a habit nurtured by years of reading voraciously by flashlight as an adolescent, long after “lights out.” And yet, I can only read this book in small chunks, 30 minutes at a time. Beam’s writing is engaging and her style brings stories of foster children’s and foster families’ everyday lived realities into conversation with institutional and legislative history, current social science research, and large scale demographic data sets. In short, her book is compelling. However, I find myself pausing to ponder after each scene is depicted or after one of countless bon mots dropped carefully along the reading expedition.

With the end of the book looming near, I find myself wanting to start the book again, as if I’m hoping for different realities or for the existing ones to change. And it is from this unsettling place of seeking agency that I recently read a related article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune: “The arduous journey of the foster child” by Jaime Ballard.

This is the first piece in a three-part series the newspaper is rolling out to call attention to how California youth experience that state’s foster care system. Like in Beam’s accounts, the voices of the youth who were interviewed for the piece call up questions about their caregivers and the conditions in which they lived prior to entering the system. Children being removed from their homes is a scenario that plays out over and over again in my mind in technicolor (and occasionally my mind drifts back to that vivid image of Elián González, the young Cuban boy who was forcibly removed from his relatives’ home; of course the circumstances were altogether different. Still, the image remains.) What must the circumstances be for a child to be removed and then placed in one of any number of placements that themselves may be viewed as “unstable” in a different light.

My friend and colleague (and YMEJ team member), Melissa Wade, is all too familiar with such stories and reminds me again and again that there must be an “imminent threat or danger to the life of a child” in order for a child to be removed. And in the same breath shares the story of a young person who was removed from her home because her parents were found guilty of “educational neglect,” or not enforcing her school attendance. One wonders not only who is making the consequential decisions that drastically alter a child’s path, but also how those decisions are informed. Who is on the side of the youth?

What stands out in the Sonoma news article as well as in Beam’s book are the many faces of pain evident in the words, actions, and postures of the young people who are held in suspended reality as a “dependent of the court.” To whom do I belong? To whom do I show allegiance? By whom will I be protected and nurtured? Who truly has my best interests at heart?

These are among the questions that lie underneath the sentiments that youth like Angie (pseudonym) express:

“I was a good kid, never did anything wrong, stayed out of trouble – but was always treated like a criminal by the courts.”

Or when Phoenix, another foster youth quoted in the article, says:

“Mostly I was a child of neglect and emotional abuse – being called names and yelled at all the time.”

These recollections are woven through a system that is characterized by and “strenuous and sometimes harrowing court proceedings” and “too few foster families available to care for children in need.”

Ballard’s article concludes with a note of advocacy: for more people to take on the role of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA*. In some ways, the piece plays to the public’s desire to do something in response to reading about the situations that comprise (and often compromise) the wellbeing in these young people’s everyday lives.

[Millie] Gilson [director of the Sonoma County CASA branch] said, “There is a proactive point of order. I would encourage everyone to become a CASA, to get involved. Being a CASA is one of the most unique forms of citizen involvement, and it’s very much a staple of the foster care system.”

Both Beam’s and Ballard’s writings about the foster care system, albeit in two different locales, offer glimpses into everyday realities of thousands of children and youth and the families who care for them, both biological and foster. But as the stories they weave also suggest, there may be a significant role for non-family adults to play, thereby begging the question: Who is responsible for the care of all the children? (and relatedly, Who is implicated in their care?**)

Whether relying on the interested other — the socially engaged stranger — is a flaw or force of the foster care system is debatable.  But that children and youth need caring adults in their lives — to inspire and nurture them, to push and attend to them, to listen and provide guidance, to see them — is not.

*For more information about CASAs, including the process for applying to become a volunteer CASA, check out these resources:

**During last year’s YMEJ Seminar, Joe Riina-Ferrie (then a graduate student mentor in the course; now a member of the YMEJ Project/Teaching Team) pursued an inquiry into the idea of care. His yearend publication brought together this inquiry in the form of edited interviews with members of the seminar, including youth, other graduate student mentors, and other members of the teaching team. Listen to these multiple perspectives on care:

what is care?

Youth Making Change Across the Country

Wonderful list of youth-led groups and programs originally tweeted by @prisonculture, organized below by state and city (where possible). For another list of youth-led, school-reform initiatives, check out this list by What Kids Can Do: Youth Organizing for school reform 

If you know of other youth-led social change efforts that should be added to this list, please leave a comment below with any relevant information.


School of Unity & Liberation (SOUL) (Oakland, CA) – supporting the development of a new generation of organizers rooted in a systemic change analysis -especially people of color, young women, queer and transgender youth and low-income people.

Youth Together out of Oakland (Oakland, CA) – address the root causes of educational inequities by developing multiracial youth leaders and engaging school community allies to promote positive school change.

Youth Justice Coalition (Los Angeles, CA) – youth-led movement mobilizing community-based action against youth criminalization.

The Center for Young Women’s Empowerment (San Francisco, CA) – supporting young and adult women in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.


Dream Defenders (FL) – training and organizing youth and students to create a sustainable network focused on creating real change in their commmunities.


Chicago Freedom School (Chicago, IL) – creating new generations of critical and independent thinking young people by providing training and education opportunities for youth and adult allies to develop leadership skills through the lens of civic action and through the study of the history of social movements and their leaders.

Chicago Students Union (Chicago, IL) – Voices of Chicago Public School students and parents.

Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) (Chicago, IL) – works to nurture young people’s visions for change ; member of STOP Chicago: Southside Together Organizing for Power.

Immigrant Youth Justice League (Chicago, IL) – led by undocumented organizers working towards full recognition of the rights and contributions of all immigrants. (Follow: @IYJL)

Mikva Challenge Juvenile Justice Council (Chicago, IL) – finding new ways to support youth re-entry and civic leadership after incarceration. (Follow: @MCJJustice)

The Young Women’s Empowerment Project (Chicago, IL) – offering safe, respectful, judgment-free spaces for girls and young women in the sex trade and street economies to recognize their goals, dreams and desires.


The STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) (Kentucky) – a diverse regional network of young people throughout Central Appalachia who are working together to advocate for and actively participate in their home mountain communities.


BreakOUT (New Orleans, LA) – fighting the criminalization of LGBTQGNC youth

Reflect & Strengthen (Boston, MA) – a grassroots collective of young working class women from the urban neighborhoods of Boston who take a holistic approach to organizing to create personal and social transformation.


Detroit Summer (Detroit, MI) – transforming communities through youth leadership, creativity and collective action.


Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MS) –  working to protect Mississippi students from harassment and discrimination. (Follow: @MSSafeSchools)

New Mexico 

Young Women United (NM) –  community organizing project by and for young women of color in New Mexico.

New York

FIERCE NY (New York, NY) – building the leadership and power of (LGBTQ) youth of color in New York City.

Make the Road NY (New York, NY) – builds the power of Latino and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.

NY Students Rising (NY) – statewide student movement in New York’s public universities. (Follow: @nystudentsrise)

NYS Youth Leadership Council (New York, NY) – First undocumented youth led organization in NY, working on passing the @NYDreamAct. (Follow: @NYSYLC)

Safe & Streetwise (New York, NY) – fighting criminalization of youth (particularly LGBTQGNC)

Rockaway Youth Task Force (Rockaway, NY) – empowering youth through civic engagement & volunteer opportunities and seeking to spark social change in the Rockaways through youth leadership.

Desis Rising Up and Moving (Queens, NY) – mobilizing and building the leadership of thousands of low-income, South Asian immigrants to lead social and policy change that impacts their own lives–from immigrant rights to education reform, civil rights, and workers’ justice.


Ohio StudentAssociation (OH) – fighting for educational justice across Ohio. (Follow: @OHIOStudents)


Philadelphia Student Union (Philadelphia, PA) – build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system.

Youth United for Change (Philadelphia, PA) – youth-led, democratic organization made up of youth of color and working class communities to hold school officials and government accountable to meeting the educational needs of Philadelphia public school students.

Rhode Island

Providence Youth Student Movement (RI) – mobilizing Southeast Asian youth into community organizing campaigns to foster healing and dialogue and build support and love for those who are isolated and marginalized.


Urban Underground (Milwaukee, WI) –  youth leadership development organization that engages youth in bold and life changing opportunities to address the most pressing problems facing them and their communities through  youth development, academic enrichment, and civic engagement.

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