Advocating for Racial Equity in Youth Justice

Posted June 1, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
16 individuals, each in their own visual block, looking at the camera and smiling while wearing matching shirts

Defense attorneys selected in 2022 by Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative to participate as ambassadors

A pro­gram sup­port­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion is prepar­ing attor­neys to advo­cate for youth of all races in the juve­nile legal sys­tem and sup­port equi­table oppor­tu­ni­ties and out­comes for everyone.

The pro­gram, Ambas­sadors for Racial Jus­tice, pairs defense attor­neys part­ner with local orga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and schools to host racial equi­ty train­ings and spear­head pol­i­cy reform and pub­lic advo­ca­cy with­in their com­mu­ni­ties. With Foun­da­tion sup­port, the pro­gram is train­ing a new group of ambas­sadors — 10 attor­neys in youth defense and relat­ed fields.

Extreme Dis­par­i­ties Per­sist in Youth Justice

Stark racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in youth jus­tice have per­sist­ed despite more than 30 years of reform efforts to close these very gaps. In 2019, the lat­est year for which fed­er­al data are avail­able, Black and Native Amer­i­can youth were far more like­ly to be con­fined in court-ordered out-of-home place­ments than oth­er youth. Black youth were also more like­ly to end up in custody—over 16 times more like­ly than their Asian and Pacif­ic Islander peers; four times more like­ly than their white peers; and three times more like­ly than their His­pan­ic peers.

Ambas­sador Farah Rahaman, a youth defend­er with the New Jer­sey Office of the Pub­lic Defend­er in Union Coun­ty, under­stands this divide all too well. I want to shine a light on the bifur­cat­ed youth legal sys­tem in my coun­ty,” says Rahaman, speak­ing about the expe­ri­ences of her clients of col­or com­pared to those of their white peers. I want to ensure that my clients are afford­ed the same oppor­tu­ni­ties and chances to make mis­takes that their white coun­ter­parts are given.”

Ambas­sadors Mak­ing a Dif­fer­ence in Their Communities

As part of the pro­gram, ambas­sadors design and lead major projects, which rep­re­sent a range of inter­ests. For instance:

  • Kel­ly Jones advo­cat­ed for end­ing pros­e­cu­tors’ dis­cre­tion to direct­ly file minor charges against young peo­ple in adult court. 
  • Kris­ten Rome facil­i­tat­ed extern­ships to help more Black attor­neys gain expe­ri­ence in youth defense work. 
  • Ana Tent pro­mot­ed leg­isla­tive efforts to divert youth who had expe­ri­enced men­tal ill­ness or trau­ma into ther­a­peu­tic ser­vices with­out court intervention.
  • Ange­les Zaragoza cre­at­ed an aca­d­e­m­ic and men­tor­ing expe­ri­ence that enabled youth cur­rent­ly or for­mer­ly in cus­tody to earn trans­fer­able col­lege cred­its, expand their life skills, con­nect with cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers and par­tic­i­pate in cul­tur­al events.

Anoth­er exam­ple: Ambas­sador Bryan Jef­fries is work­ing to revamp the manda­to­ry legal train­ing mod­ule for cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. His updat­ed mod­ule will offer lessons on youth civ­il rights, due process, the trau­mat­ic effects of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and the his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­parate effects of the juve­nile legal sys­tem on youth of color.

The Advo­cates Behind the Ambas­sadors Program

Two groups — the George­town Law Juve­nile Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive and the Gault Cen­ter — are spon­sor­ing the Ambassador’s pro­gram. Key to its suc­cess are Pro­fes­sor Kristin Hen­ning, direc­tor of George­town Law Juve­nile Jus­tice Clin­ic and Ini­tia­tive, and Ebony Howard, deputy direc­tor of the Gault Cen­ter. Both lead­ers expect the pro­gram to forge a group of well-trained, diverse defend­ers who:

  • rep­re­sent the voic­es of all youth;
  • chal­lenge norms, poli­cies and prac­tices that harm youth of col­or; and
  • sys­tem­i­cal­ly reform the juve­nile legal system.

Ebony Howard, Pro­fes­sor Hen­ning and their col­leagues at the Gault Cen­ter and Georgetown’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Clin­ic and Ini­tia­tive rec­og­nize that defend­ers’ dai­ly prox­im­i­ty to young peo­ple and courts posi­tions them to design and exe­cute bold strate­gies that insti­tu­tion­al­ize racial equi­ty,” says Danielle Lipow, a senior asso­ciate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The Ambas­sadors pro­gram pro­vides defend­ers through­out the coun­try with the tools they need to ful­fill that vision.”

More Equi­ty and Inclu­sion Resources for Juve­nile Justice

Safe­ly and sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing rates of youth confinement

Race Equi­ty and Inclu­sion Action Guide 

2017 Race for Results report

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