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Youth panelists discuss the flaws of the juvenile justice system at the 45th Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference. (Photo by LaTrina Antoine)

Part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference included a Sept. 17 forum on ending the system of youth imprisonment, which overwhelmingly affects the Black population’s sense of progress and justice, according to panelists.

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, African Americans comprise 17 percent of all juveniles, but 31 percent of all arrests.

The session, part of the “With Liberty and Justice for all” conference theme, included two panel discussions: one with young adults, who have become advocates fighting for youth rights in the criminal justice system, and the other of seasoned professionals from the medical, nonprofit and legal fields.

The panels, moderated by Donald Cravins Jr., the National Urban League’s senior vice president for policy, and Jenny Collier, of the Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaboration, respectively, were spearheaded by Rep. Lacy Clay Jr. (D-Mo.)  The Kennedy Foundation hosted the event.

“I believe that incarceration is not the key,” said Quwanisha Hines, a volunteer with the Virginia Department of Justice as an advocate on the committee for juvenile justice, during the first panel.

She was joined on the panel by Jim St. Germain, Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow; Jabriera Handy, Just Kids Maryland and Alton Pitre, Anti-Recidivism Coalition. All of the panelists in the first discussion had complications with the law and, at one point in time, were detained in the juvenile correctional system.

One inadequacy of the juvenile system, according to St. Germain, was the lack of resources to provide young people with the tools they need to readjust to society after their period of incarceration.

He also spoke of a policy in New York that tries 16- to 18-year-olds as adults, which his organization is fighting to change. To highlight the severity of the situation, St. Germain spoke of a young man who committed suicide after spending time in Rikers Island Correctional Facility, where he was subjected to daily physical abuse and routinely placed in solitary confinement.  

The panelists also pointed to poverty and the lack of adequate education as the main contributors to Black children getting stuck in the system.  St. Germain said that the best way to overcome so many Black youth being trapped in the criminal justice system is by giving them opportunities to make a living in positive ways through job training and mentors.

Handy agreed with St. Germain, adding, “A lot of kids, they have the hopes and dreams, they just don’t have the exposure behind them.”

Pitre noted that a prevention method to keep youth out of the system was investment. “I believe that positive youth development is the key,” he said.

All panelists agreed that the funds currently being used in the system need to be redirected to new programs that involve mentors to keep youth from being trapped in the system or to help them readjust back into society, such as youth employment or education programs.

The second panel, comprising Robert L. Listenbee, of the Department of Justice; Donald Cravins Jr., National Urban League; Christopher Scott, Open Society Policy Center and Dr. Jennifer Woolard, Georgetown University, expanded the first panel’s conversation, focusing on the mental health help that incarcerated youth are not receiving.

According to Listenbee, the society needs to figure out how to bring both the mental and educational services together to reach troubled youth. He said that a child needs to know that someone believes in their progression.

“What I’ve learned is that one model doesn’t fit every kid,” Cravins said.

The panelists suggested two possible solutions to completely stopping the system of adolescent incarceration: creating a program to send children to Africa to learn of a different way of doing things while being productive; and helping youth get access to needed resources through nonprofit programs, such as the Urban League’s Project Ready, a mentorship program specified for Blacks and other urban youth in the eighth to 12th grades to get them ready for college, work and life.  

“We have an obligation, in our programming, to put together programs that kind of catch some of the issues that our young people are talking about, some of the things that they are not getting home because their parents may not know, may not be financially savvy enough to know about college and the cost,” Cravins said.