The Juvenile Justice Project at 10: A Look Back and Forward

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On March 19, Gladys Carrión, the new Office of Children and Family
Services (OCFS) Commissioner, met with members of New York City’s Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC) to discuss the Coalition’s reform agenda. For the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project (JJP)—which organizes the Juvenile Justice Coalition—this meeting is yet another important step in its quest, begun 10 years ago, to make the state’s juvenile justice system more fair, effective and humane.

The Correctional Association launched its Juvenile Justice Project in 1997 in response to the criminal justice system’s increasingly harsh treatment of young people. At its founding, JJP was “very reactive,” says Mishi Faruqee, JJP director, “responding to all the ‘get tough on crime’ legislation that was being introduced against young people. The focus of the project was to stop bad legislation from happening.”

In the past several years, however, the Project has developed a proactive juvenile justice reform agenda. JJP now concentrates on “introducing new legislation that would have far-reaching reforms,” says Ms. Faruqee. JJP’s current reform priorities include ending the incarceration of sexually exploited children; shifting funding from youth detention to much more effective and cost efficient community-based alternatives; protecting court involved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth from harassment and abuse; and creating an independent Child Advocate’s Office that would oversee youth prisons and jails and all facilities run by OCFS.

The Correctional Association is strongly committed to the principle that the individuals and communities most directly affected by criminal justice policies should be at the forefront of our work for change. In addition to directing its energy towards proactive legislative changes, JJP has in recent years concentrated on involving youth in its reform initiatives. The Project’s first Advocacy Day, in 1997, was attended by 17 people—all adults. By Advocacy Day in 2004, there were 250 participants, mostly young people. That same year, JJP launched Each One, Teach One (EOTO), an advocacy and leadership training program for young men and women from communities with high rates of incarceration. In 2006, JJP launched Safe Passages, the first program of its kind in the nation. In the model of EOTO, Safe Passages trains LGBT youth affected by juvenile justice policies in advocacy and organizing.

Ms. Faruqee points to a major victory in 2002 as a turning point in JJP’s approach to advocacy. That year, the Project joined the No More Youth Jails! Campaign, a movement to stop the city’s plan to expand its secure youth detention facilities by 200 beds. In response to a chorus of youth-led protests and the Project’s comprehensive report Rethinking Juvenile Detention in New York City, written by Ms. Faruqee, the city agreed to halt its plans. This experience demonstrated the power and importance of bringing people directly affected by the juvenile justice system into advocacy work.

The Juvenile Justice Project’s efforts over the past ten years have been rewarded. In 2007, the City is redirecting resources to build and strengthen alternatives to detention; court-involved LGBT youth are gaining rights and recognition; and OCFS is demonstrating a readiness to work with policy organizations like the CA to create a better system.

There are, of course, still areas in urgent need of progressive reform. In addition to its current priorities, JJP hopes in the future to address the policies that involve young people in the adult criminal justice system, including the mandatory prosecution of 16 and 17 year olds as adults. In the long term, the Project envisions creating a system that “fulfills the original mandate of the juvenile justice system,” says Ms. Faruqee, “recognizing that youth are developmentally different from adults and should receive age-appropriate sanctions, including community-based treatment and services in lieu of prison.”