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Open Letter to Presidential Candidates on Youth Justice Reform

February 26, 2016
NJJN and Eight Other Justice Reform Organizations


[Editor's note: NJJN joined with eight other organizations focused on justice reform to write a letter to the 2016 presidential candidates, laying out a vision for transforming the youth justice system for safer neighborhoods and better youth outcomes. Download this letter and the vision for reform here.]

February 26, 2016

Dear Presidential Candidate,

We know you care about keeping our communities safe, ensuring the welfare of our children, and guaranteeing a fair and equitable justice system for all. While there are realistic, sensible policies and programs that can help us realize these goals, our current justice system is like a bicycle stuck in one gear: incarceration. We rank number one in the world in the incarceration of youth ­­ wasting millions of dollars and lives in the process. Too many of our youth of color have unequal opportunities, and people are marching in the streets to protest the unfair and racist practices of our police and other justice stakeholders. Finally, our current justice system is more apt to blame parents than to engage families in solutions that can help their child get back on a positive track. The American people need a coherent and compelling vision for moving forward to address these issues, one that offers different responses to a variety of situations ­­ shifting gears to providing mental health treatment, addressing educational disabilities, and developing age­appropriate responses to children and teens. In that vein, we are offering you “Redefining Youth Justice: A Call to Action” as a roadmap for shifting our failed juvenile justice policies in a way that increases public safety, achieves better outcomes for our children and families, and brings us closer to a legal system that is fair and just for all.

The directors of the nine justice organizations we represent have, collectively, more than two centuries of experience in reforming our justice systems. During the past year, we worked together to  articulate this shared vision for changing our country’s justice policies so that they contribute to our overall growth and health as a nation. This vision incorporates three fundamental ways in which our justice system can reorient its approach so that we can improve our youth and public safety outcomes.

We recommend that we:

1) focus on child well­being, not child wrong­doing;
2) promote racial equity and fair treatment for all; and
3) engage with families to identify solutions and meet the needs of children.

While all three are crucial to achieve a better justice system, we would like to focus your attention on the importance of promoting racial equity and fair treatment for all. It is well documented that although youth of color and white youth engage in the same levels of delinquent behavior, the juvenile justice system disproportionately engages with ­­ and harms ­­communities of color. The evidence on the presence and scope of racial disparities is unequivocal: results from hundreds of studies submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice over the last two decades make clear that overrepresentation of youth of color is present at nearly all contact points on the juvenile justice continuum. Although there have been efforts over the past 20 years to address this harm, far too little attention has been paid to the contribution that routine youth justice policies and practices have made to these persistent racial and ethnic disparities. As a country, we must make an explicit and committed decision to acknowledge and end the over­representation and disparate treatment of youth of color coming in contact with the justice system. And leaders like you must use your influence and position to acknowledge inequality and to inspire action.

We invite you to read the attached vision for reform and respond to us with your thoughts about how we can make sure that our country has a truly just system for holding youth accountable. We would, individually and collectively, be happy to sit down with you and your staff to discuss how we can actualize this vision through federal and state practices and policies.


James Bell
Executive Director
W. Haywood Burns Institute

Grace Bauer­Lubow
Executive Director
Justice For Families

Sarah Bryer
National Juvenile Justice Network

Shaena Fazal, Esq.
National Policy Director
Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.

Jessica Feierman
Associate Director
Juvenile Law Center

Jody Kent
Executive Director
Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth

Marcy Mistrett
Executive Director
Campaign for Youth Justice

Liz Ryan
Executive Director
Youth First!

Marc Schindler
Executive Director
Justice Policy Institute

Photo: Flickr user William Warby.

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