Using revolutionary rhetoric, chants and African drums, a national network of juvenile justice advocates gathered for a rally in Washington, D.C., this week to call on Congress to put money behind legislation they say will lead to fewer youth of color being locked up.

“I like to think of those resources that are used to lock us up as our resources,” said Tshaka Barrows, program director for the San Francisco-based Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY) speaking Dec. 5 at the rally held at L’Enfant Plaza.“But if we don’t demand it and do what it takes to secure those resources and bring them back to our community, make no mistake about it: We will not see those resources.”

Barrows was one of several juvenile justice advocates at the rally, which was the culmination of a three-day conference that featured workshops on topics such as gang intervention, helping young mothers navigate the family court system, and how to organize youth-led campaigns to fight for social and political change. Staged by the Network, which advocates on behalf of youths of color, the protest was a call on Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Act, or JJDPA.

In short, the JJDPA offers federal formula funds to states that meet certain criteria aimed at reducing youth incarceration and disparities in incarceration along racial lines.

Those criteria include not locking young people up for “status offenses,” such as truancy or running away; not locking them up in adult jails or prisons except in certain rare circumstances; keeping youth out of sight and sound of adult inmates when they are held in adult facilities; and making efforts to address practices that lead to “disproportionate minority contact” with the system.

States that fail to address these things could see the formula funds withheld. The amount of formula funds at stake depends on how much Congress appropriates each year and how many youth are in a given state.

Barrows and the other advocates who spoke at the rally argue that the JJDPA ? which expired in 2007 and was extended briefly but has not been reauthorized since ? will help make a dent in reliance on incarceration for youth who run afoul of the law.

The effectiveness of JJDPA is currently being studied by an ad hoc committee through a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, but the study is not expected to be completed until 2012.

Several speakers at the CJNY rally had children who were locked up or had been locked up as juveniles themselves and spoke of the adverse effect that incarceration has on young people.

In the case of Vicky Gunderson, of La Crosse County in Wisconsin, five years ago incarceration led her son, Kirk, to take his own life.

“Five years ago, if someone would have said to me I’d be at a conference like this today, I would have said, ‘Hell no. I’m not gonna work with those people. My kids are accountable for what they do.’ I didn’t even know where our local jail was. The criminal justice system wasn’t even part of my mind.”

But her son, under the influence of drugs and possibly suffering from brain injuries, stabbed his father and his brother, who survived. As called for in Wisconsin state law, the 17-year-old was locked up and treated as an adult, something Gunderson believes played a role in his suicide.

“Today I’m taking action for Kirk’s voice,” Gunderson said. “Our youth are at stake. They’re our children. They’re not adults that should be in adult facilities and treated like adults.”

Tarsha Jackson, state coordinator of the Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth, spoke of how her mentally ill son was locked up at age 11 for breaking a window at a neighborhood pool and was sent to a facility for nine months, which turned into three-and-a-half years.

“Not only did the system rape my son of his right to live, but he didn’t have the opportunity to be a kid,” Jackson said of her son, who suffered sexual abuse from another youth while locked up.

Chino Hardin, of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives, spoke of her first encounter with the juvenile justice system at the age of 13 for fighting.

“I was scared. I was hopeless and it turned me into an animal,” Hardin said. “I had to leave my humanity at the door in order to survive at the place that I was put.”

Hardin said youth are being harmed in juvenile lock-ups and detention facilities. “As we breathe right now, some child is being raped in a juvenile facility. Some child is hanging up in a juvenile facility,” Hardin said. “People are dying behind walls as we sit here.”

She urged those in the audience to fight against youth incarceration.

“If we don’t take care of business right now, we’re not gonna pack it up and go home,” Hardin said. “They’re going to keep bending us over and taking our pride and joy until we choke the system.”


Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO