Juvenile Justice Reform: CFCC’s Urban Child Symposium, The Beginning or the End? The Urban Child’s Experience in the Juvenile Justice System

Bernardine Dohrn
opened CFCC’s fourth annual Urban Child Symposium with a powerful
presentation on the Supreme Court’s recent consideration of juvenile justice
cases.    Over 200 people attended “The Beginning or the End? The Urban
Child’s Experience in the Juvenile Justice System,” which included
interdisciplinary panel discussions of issues such as the psychological,
social, and emotional characteristics of juveniles; whether juveniles can
and/or should be tried as adults; racial disparities/disproportionate minority representation;
and the school-to-prison pipeline, among others.

You can view the agenda here
and listen to some of the panelists discuss juvenile justice issues on WYPR’s
Midday with Dan Rodricks here.

Professor Dohrn spoke about positive changes in the juvenile
justice field in the past decade. She discussed recent Supreme Court decisions that
have banned capital punishment for juveniles and life-without-parole for
non-homicide juvenile offenses.  She
urged symposium participants to pay attention to the Supreme Court’s
recognition that children experience the world differently and that there must
be a more accurate understanding of children’s interactions with the law.

Several ideas emerged during the course of the symposium:

Juveniles should
be directed toward community and family-based treatment rather than
Speakers urged
consideration of evidence-based, non-residential programs as the single most
important alternative to sending juveniles to detention facilities, many of
which are characterized by violence and poor conditions.  Speakers described a number of alternative
and diversion programs that are proven to be more effective in addressing
juvenile crime and recidivism.  The Annie
E. Casey Foundation’s
and other speakers discussed the massive financial burden of juvenile
incarceration (including Maryland’s proposed $100 million juvenile prison
facility), which could be used instead to support widespread diversionary prevention
and treatment programs.

     Racial and
ethnic disparities (“Disproportionate Minority Contact”) must be addressed on a
system-wide basis and across all decision points in a juvenile case.  Special populations, like girls; trauma
victims; children with special needs; and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and
transgender youth must also be protected and considered. 
Many presenters, including Professor Odeana Neal,
attorney and reform advocate Dana
, and Assistant State’s Attorney George Simms encouraged the
expansion of best practices in this area to combat current differences in
outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics.  

     Laws requiring
or allowing juveniles to be tried as adults should be abandoned because they hurt
children and endanger society. 
Dohrn and other presenters reported that juvenile involvement in the adult criminal
justice and prison systems is counter-productive.  Juveniles are often victimized by adults in the prison system, and
recidivism (re-offending) increases for juveniles who come out of adult

     All stakeholders
– including families, schools, prosecutors, departments of juvenile services,
social workers, employers and more – should be involved in reform efforts.  
Parent Advocate Kimberly Armstrong spoke
poignantly about her experience as the parent of a child in the juvenile
justice system.  Instead of finding
support and collaboration in the juvenile justice system, she encountered multiple
barriers when seeking help for her son and often felt alone in advocating on
his behalf.  She now encourages all
stakeholders in the juvenile justice system to enlist the support of parents
and to treat them as valuable partners in addressing their children’s

For more information, you can watch a podcast of the symposium
proceedings and access many of the Powerpoint presentations here.  We hope that our presenters and participants
will blog about the issues discussed during the event, and we welcome comments from
our readers.

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