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Meet the Fellows: Elissa Johnson

January 8, 2014
Zoe Schein

This month we spoke with Elissa Johnson, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson, Mississippi (an NJJN member). Elissa is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

I’ve been interested in youth justice issues since I was a teenager. During that time, I did work with diversity camps and things like that, and I had my first interactions with peers involved in the juvenile justice system who were on probation. I continued to be interested in the issue during college, and I actually chose my law school because they had a child law fellowship – I was part of that program and had the opportunity to take courses and participate in experiences that were focused on child welfare and child legal issues.

I did two social work practicums in school, one at group homes for children and one in the legal system in Chicago. So one year I’m working with kids aged, say, 5-12, who have experienced trauma, and then the next year, working with system-involved adults. So I had the chance to learn firsthand how those things are entwined, how these issues are systemic. That’s why I like working at SPLC – working on those systemic issues.

Each fellow is required to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about yours? 

My project is policy-focused. My goal is to pass legislation that would create licensing standards for all of the juvenile detention centers in Mississippi. In Mississippi  there’s one state training school, but [juvenile detention] is a county-based operation, so there’s not a lot of consistency or uniformity. There are some standards in terms of the rights kids have, but there’s not a lot of accountability and it still looks very different across the state. The purpose of licensing standards would be to set a standard of care across the board, to reduce recidivism, and to make sure that the resources we have are spent as effectively as possible to strengthen youth, families, and communities. 

In 2012, S.B. 2598 created the Juvenile Detention and Alternatives Task Force. From August of 2012 through October of last year, the task force has been meeting regularly -- it took that year to discuss and develop proposed standards that addressed medical and mental health assessments, staff training, staff qualifications, visitation, use of restraints, suicide prevention, and other key areas. The task force report has been given to the legislature and hopefully many of the recommendations for licensing standards and alternatives to secure detention will be passed this year. The legislative session in Mississippi starts this week, so this is kind of the beginning of that process. Hopefully at the end of the session, there will be new legislation that will continue to improve Mississippi’s juvenile justice system.

Have you encountered any significant challenges with your project so far, or do you anticipate any obstacles in the future?

I think with policy reforms there are always obstacles. At this point, the task force involves stakeholders from across the board: judges, law enforcement, department of mental health, department of education – a cross section of the entities that work with this population. Hopefully going forward, the support [of those stakeholders] will help move those recommendations forward to become law, but with the legislative process there’s always the possibility of challenges, that things might get changed in the process.

Hopefully some legislation will come out this year with some key provisions to support implementing the standards in the next year or so, and also creating alternatives to detention to reduce reliance on that part of the system.

What originally interested you about the Youth Justice Leadership Institute?

I was really interested in the opportunity to work with other advocates from across the country who are doing this work. From doing juvenile justice work in law school, to now continuing that work in Mississippi for almost three years, that’s still a very small section of what’s being done. With the Institute, it’s nationwide – there’s no reason to limit who can be an ally who might have ideas to share from what they're doing.

From our first in-person meeting of the Institute, I was struck by the variety of points where our cohort was working to intervene in the youth justice system. That was a motivating factor in applying to the Institute: meeting other creative minds working in youth justice at the local and state levels and using that network to learn more, and hopefully bring some good ideas back to Mississippi.

I think [the Institute's] strength is the small community that you build throughout the Institute. I think that the opportunity that I’ve had to learn a lot about issues and communities in other places around the country has been very valuable. It's been great to continue to meet like-minded folks who understand the challenges of doing this work, the obstacles that appear, and to talk through and think about how to push back, to overcome those obstacles. 

[The other fellows] work at great organizations, and those conversations happen within those organizations, but it’s great to have those conversations with other advocates too—people you might not have met otherwise, mostly folks who have just started this path or are relatively new to this work in some way. It’s a renewed energy, it’s a great experience to be a part of. I’m looking forward to the second half of the year. 

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