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Why the Institute is Needed

The Juvenile Justice System is in Need of Widespread Reform

Youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s harsh treatment because of the way that racism and the legacy of slavery has been embedded throughout our justice systems. We can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. Our courts and prison systems have consistently been used as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. The very language of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” serves as a guidepost for this structural discrimination. During reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” - criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. It is upon this foundation that our first juvenile courts were created at the turn of the 20th century by the founders of the settlement house movement, who wanted to instill ‘white, middle class values’ in poor vagrant children -- largely immigrant youth and youth of color.  Within short order, black youth were both overrepresented in the system and treated more harshly than their immigrant peers. This disparity based in racist views of youth of color is now baked into our justice policies so that seemingly race neutral policies have disparate impacts because of which communities are policed and which communities are resourced. It is a testament to the efforts of community-based leaders and advocates that youth of color are not carrying an even heavier burden in the name of justice. The Institute’s goal is to bolster the bold work of advocates of color in order to achieve lasting change.

Diverse Leaders Are Needed

Youth justice solutions that are crafted without the critical knowledge of people of color are of little long-term value in freeing communities from oppression. Leaders of color connected to, proud of, and hopeful for their communities will be integral to the fundamental changes needed for true justice. While there is a robust advocacy movement for youth justice transformation, if the advocates and organizers do not appropriately reflect the communities most affected by the juvenile justice system, their activities will likely mirror – and may in fact perpetuate – the power imbalances, inequities and patronizing approaches that plague juvenile justice systems today and that have done so historically. We believe that the voices and determination of communities of color, youth and family members are critical to the implementation of any meaningful durable reform. We developed the Youth Justice Leadership Institute to elevate, support and follow the leadership of those most directly affected, in order to achieve a truly just system.

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