Conferences aren’t typically spaces for spontaneous outbursts of creative expression. But the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY) National Conference, held last weekend in DC, wasn’t your average conference. The event brought together hundreds of energized organizers and advocates from across the country to join in a weekend of collaboration, creation and action.
Perhaps most inspiring, reflects CJNY's Malachi Garza, was that amidst the many workshops -- ranging from "Know Your Rights! Deportation 101" to "Hip Hop Not Cop Stops -- Combating the Criminalization of Our Youth" -- “there was an open space policy,” allowing those who had the urge to grab the mic, express themselves and be heard. This provided youth, who made up three-fourths of the participants, the space to be themselves. If the mood struck, anyone who wanted to could share a poem, sing a song, start a cipher, show a video or perform a dance routine. And when someone did share, he or she was embraced by a room full of love, acceptance and appreciation.
It is this kind of welcoming environment that enables Garza to call CJNY “more of a family than an organization.” Made up of 140 community-based programs, grassroots organizations, service-providing agencies, residential facilities and advocacy groups in 23 states, CJNY’s goal is to “Stop the Rail to Jail” -- also known as the “school to prison pipeline” -- by supporting organizers and practitioners that work with youth who are at risk or already involved in the juvenile justice system.
CJNY brings together all who are involved in and impacted by the juvenile justice system, including court administration, judges, state chiefs of detention, police, community and family members, and youth around the same table to discuss issues like the glaring racial disparity within detention centers and the benefits of community-based alternatives to detention. They engage in and promote methods for sound data collection, training juvenile justice officials in the use of the Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Geography, Offense (REGGO) data system that makes inequities within juvenile justice too obvious to ignore.
Many states are out of compliance with data collection requirements, Garza says, and when officials have the opportunity to see the numbers, they are often shocked.
CJNY member organizations are taking steps at all levels, utilizing insider/outsider strategies to address the needs of our communities’ most marginalized youth. They are demanding that the juvenile justice system maintain the kind of accountability that is expected of the youth who enter its realm, while providing the kinds of opportunities and services that help keep young people in their communities.
While the juvenile justice system has a recidivism rate of 89 percent, CJNY community-based programs have demonstrated their effectiveness with a 22 percent rate. And while the system spends over $200,000 per year on every detained youth, community-based alternatives can provide young people with full services for around $10,000 per year. As Garza points out, “If all of the money that is spent on detaining youth was filtered into these kids’ communities, there would be no shortage of the support necessary for caring for them and meeting their needs.”
After the conference and a lively rally, CJNY organizers and advocates flocked to the Capitol for meetings with congressional representatives to ask them to show their support for reform through the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA) [S.678 in the Senate] and the Youth PROMISE Act [H.R. 1064/S. 435]. Armed with personal stories, hard data, and a plan to “combat terror with love,” they clearly made an impact.
Photo Credit: Wendy Jason