Q&A: Liz Ryan, Founder, Youth First! Initiative

For eight years, Liz Ryan, one of the leading national advocates for juvenile offenders, had little to do with the juvenile justice system. She spent eight years building the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization that continues to push for the removal of juveniles from adult courts, jails and prisons.

Last year Ryan left the house she built at CFYJ and has now embarked on a new venture. At Youth First! Initiative (YFI), Ryan hopes to use her brand of national-to-grassroots campaigning to curb the use of incarceration in juvenile justice systems.

Youth First! will begin with a goal of achieving a 50 percent reduction in youth incarceration in “about one-third of the states within five years.”

Ryan is not alone on that path. Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of YFI’s funders, expanded its juvenile justice portfolio to include deep-end incarceration reduction a few years ago.

Youth Services Insider sat down with Ryan to discuss the new project and the national climate on juvenile justice.

Youth Services Insider: How will you choose where to work?

We want to look at places where there are large numbers of kids locked up now, and where there are high disparities in terms of young people of color being locked up.

We’re also looking for potential ripeness. That could be a friendly department head, a governor who seems supportive, or other policymakers who want to advance this.

Part of the reason we think that at least a 50 percent reduction is possible is that if you look at the latest data that we have from [the Justice Department], it shows that the vast majority of kids don’t pose a risk to public safety and could be more effectively served in community.

YSI: Who is the appropriate group to take it to states where there isn’t any interest and start calling them out?

I expect that we will do that also. We’re an independent effort with several funders, so we work in tandem and on parallel tracks with the foundations working on de-incarceration.

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Liz Ryan, founder of the Youth First! Initiative, speaking at a Public Welfare Foundation event

There are states where there are horrific things have happened to children inside institutions and the people responsible for that need to be called out on it. I’m not afraid to call out any policymaker in any state.

Ripeness is a factor [in where we focus], but I don’t just mean a friendly [juvenile justice] head. I’m also talking about instances where children have been killed in institutions or the racial disparities have gotten really high.

YSI: You just got back from the World Congress on Juvenile Justice in Geneva. What are we doing better than them, what are they doing better than us?

It was hard to find anything that we’re doing in the United States better than any the rest of the world on juvenile justice.

[Ryan attended one panel entitled “The Worst Violations of Children’s Rights,” hosted by an Austrian judge, representatives from Amnesty International and a few other international organizations.]

I specifically had this question you’re asking, I actually wanted to find the answer when I was there. I asked the question: The U.S. leads the world in children’s incarceration and we lead the world in routinely prosecuting kids in adult court. Are we world’s worst?

They essentially said, ‘Yes, you’re the worst in the world.’

Of course the United States government wasn’t there.

YSI: Really?

The U.S. government didn’t send anyone. And I was told by conference organizers that the U.S. was invited: Department of Justice, the State Department, U.S. representatives to the United Nations in Geneva. None of them came as far as I could tell.

It was an embarrassment that the U.S. didn’t even feel it needed to send one single person to hear what rest of the world is saying about this issue. Or to even feel that they needed to be in the company of peers.

I was there to learn about what rest of the world’s doing. And I learned a lot.

There was a lot of discussion about restorative justice methods at the World Congress. Do you see that taking hold here?

The question is, do the federal and states governments trust communities?

You don’t hear about restorative justice much here. I don’t see it taking hold yet because the justice system wants to feed the justice system.

Are they willing to allow communities to develop community solutions that don’t rely on the justice system to respond to harm that someone engages in and try to repair that?

You may have localities that will adopt approaches that not everyone would really like. But I think we have a greater chance of having community-based solutions if we trust communities to come up with those.

John Kelly is an editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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