The Youth Justice Board: A Model for Youth-led Policymaking

March 10, 2011

I’d like to start this post by posing a question to those of you who work in the Family Court system: How does your work affect the lives of young people? Whether you interact daily with teenagers as a judge, lawyer or caseworker, or whether your work includes less direct (but no less important) contact with teenagers, it’s safe to say that within the Family Court system, a substantial portion of the work that we do has a profound impact on young people’s lives.

Now for a follow-up question: How are young people’s wishes taken into account on a systemic level as part of your work?

If you found the second question difficult to answer, you’re not alone. Gaining credible, consistent input from young people is something that Family Courts, juvenile justice practitioners and policymakers across the country struggle with on a regular basis. But why is this the case? It certainly isn’t because young people don’t care about the decisions made related to their lives. Nor is it due to a lack of care and concern on the adult side; most of us have, after all, dedicated our lives to this work. Yet too often a considerable disconnect remains between youth and the adults charged with helping them.

In 2004, the Center for Court Innovation in New York City developed a new approach to bridging the gap between young people and adult policymakers by founding an after-school program called the Youth Justice Board (the Board). The program allows 15-20 high-school aged young people to participate in local policymaking by conducting field research on relevant juvenile justice and public safety issues, crafting recommendations for policymakers about how to solve these issues, and then working to implement key recommendations over the course of a two-year program cycle. Throughout this process, Board members develop teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, and oral communication skills that will benefit them both as members of the program and throughout their personal and professional lives. Past recommendations have addressed issues of public school safety, juvenile justice, and the foster care system. In June 2011, the Board will publish new recommendations about how to reduce incidences of youth crime in troubled communities.

Incorporating Youth Voices into Juvenile Justice Initiatives, a panel scheduled Wed., March 30 – during the National Conference on Juvenile & Family Law in Reno, NV — will discuss the Youth Justice Board model and provide attendees with practical information about how this method can strengthen connections between young people and adults within the court system. The panel will include first-hand accounts of how the Board contributed to positive changes in the New York City permanency planning process from Family Court Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria (ret.) and Youth Justice Board alumna Jessica Reichert.

Between now and March 30th, this blog will be periodically updated with notes from the field, as Board staff members and program alumni reflect on the program and its effect on youth, adults, and policies. In the meantime, I invite you to submit questions about working with young people to yjb@courtinnovation.org. We will do our best to respond to your inquires in this blog and through our presentation.

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