At 10 Years Old, Campaign for Youth Justice Has Had Clear Impact

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Campaign for Youth Justice, an organization founded by Liz Ryan with help from the Public Welfare Foundation to directly take on the use of adult courts to prosecute juvenile offenders.

It’s pretty difficult to trace a straight line between the achievement of policy and advocacy, other than to say that almost no politician sticks a neck out to help kids who commit crime without someone pushing them to do so.

But it would be ridiculous to look at the juvenile policy landscape and conclude anything other than that the presence of a national entity dedicated to reform in this area has had a major impact.

In 2006, Ryan started the Campaign under the fiscal wing of the Justice Policy Institute with $500,000 in annual funding from the Public Welfare Foundation. Ryan had for six years led the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, a multimillion-dollar project involving dozens of nonprofits that was conceived and spearheaded by her employer, the Youth Law Center (YLC).

Now, there are two ways that juveniles come to be tried in adult court. One way is that, in the eyes of the law, the state considers them to be adults. This is called the age of jurisdiction.

The other way is if one or more of the key players in jurisprudence – lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges – decides that a case or a class of cases must be handled in the adult system. This is called the transfer, or waiver, process.

In 2006, there were 13 states that considered certain youth under the age of 18 to be adults in the eyes of the justice system. Today, there are 10 states that still count minors as adults without exception:

  • 16- and 17-year-olds are adults: New York, North Carolina
  • 17-year-olds are adults: Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin

The Campaign was a significant player in raising the age of jurisdiction in Illinois (was 17), Massachusetts (was 17), and Connecticut (was 16). If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that a) nothing had changed on this subject for a couple decades, and b) there are several thousand kids in each of those states, each year, not saddled with an adult record now.

At the moment, new Executive Director Marcy Mistrett told YSI recently, there is legislation somewhere in the pipeline in every state left with an age below 18.

On the latter subject of transfers, Youth Services Insider would suspect that Ryan and Mistrett, loathe the lack of movement since 2006. Few states have changed their policies about transfers, and all of them have at least one vehicle through which a juvenile can be tried as an adult.

As for transfer laws, it would probably help the Campaign and other like-minded advocates if there were more clarity on the issue. A planned federal study of the rate and impact of juvenile transfers has been delayed now for several years.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.