Members of the National Juvenile Justice Network primarily seek reform on the state and local level. These reforms can take years to push through the legislature or administration. Once new laws and policies are put into place, our members act as stewards of the reforms to insure they are implemented on time, with fidelity to the original goals and purpose, and with sufficient funding.
But their work rarely receives the recognition it deserves. To change this, we regularly spotlight individual reform campaigns. Here's our latest:
Children's Action Alliance (AZ)
Arizona Praised for Reduction in Youth Incarceration Rates
Arizona has made great strides in reducing youth incarceration over the past 16 years: according to a recent KIDS COUNT report, the state’s rate of youth incarceration fell by 57 percent between 1997 and 2010, with no corresponding increase in crime. Beth Rosenberg (shown at right), Director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice at NJJN member organization Children’s Action Alliance, attributes Arizona’s progress to a number of factors. She notes specifically that collaboration with prosecutors and conservative legislators; legal action supporting safe conditions at youth facilities; and aggressive education and awareness campaigns on the ways incarcerated youth differ from adults have all contributed to the state’s reformulation of its youth justice practices.
Though advocating for youth justice in a largely conservative state has its challenges, in Rosenberg’s view, engaging with those who may not agree with CAA’s agenda has had some unexpected benefits. “We’ve still fought bitterly at the legislature,” Rosenberg said of local prosecutors and her organization. “We don’t always agree and we know that from the outset. I think we’ve both learned and I think they’ve changed some of their practices based on sitting at the table with us.” Such relationships have proven fruitful in other areas as well, she said. “We’ve worked with some extremely conservative legislators and been surprisingly successful.”
Further, Rosenberg adds, efforts to push legislation and educate policymakers have often gone hand-in-hand, combining to increase awareness of the specific needs of youth in the justice system. Rosenberg explained, “On the deep end of the system we’ve been working on kids who’ve been prosecuted as adults. We’ve passed three or four bills specifically related to that and in that process, and in the reports that we did on that issue, it has certainly raised the issues of adolescent development, that [youth] aren’t little adults, that kids are harmed in the adult system.” That process has been essential to garnering support for further legislative efforts, reaching not only other juvenile justice reform advocates, but stakeholders working in probation and the county attorney’s office.
The financial crisis also arrived at a serendipitous time for Arizona reformers. Combined with advocacy campaigns, budget cuts paved the way for the closure of two Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections facilities, followed by the consolidation of the remaining two. The closures were also cemented by the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into three Arizona youth facilities under the Civil Rights of Incarcerated Persons Act. The investigation found deficiencies in suicide prevention, abuse prevention, education, and medical and mental health services. Raising questions about the safety of the state’s youth facilities, Rosenberg believes, had a significant impact on youth incarceration rates. “That [investigation] gave judges some pause when sentencing kids.”
While Rosenberg is glad of the strides that Arizona has made, she’s also aware that her state’s methods may not be the best ones for every state. “Each state’s juvenile and adult systems are set up differently,” she says. “There’s not one model, plus the political environment makes a difference. You do what you can within reality, and sometimes those incremental steps make a difference.”
Moving forward, Rosenberg hopes that these achievements will create momentum for future reform. She described a wide range of future goals for CAA’s advocacy: ending solitary confinement of youth in adult facilities, extending the jurisdiction of the juvenile system so that youth at the cusp of age 18 continue to be accountable in the youth justice system rather than the adult system. Rosenberg is also interested in getting the state more involved in cross-systems youth work, for kids who are in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “We’re [trying to prevent] kids from moving into or moving deeper into the system,” Rosenberg says. “[As it stands], we’re not doing these kids justice.”