Shut It Down: A Conversation on Ending Juvenile Prisons

It is not ordinary to see people lined up around the block to hear a panel discussion on juvenile justice. But on the evening of Jan. 14 in downtown Oakland, California, nearly 200 people gathered for a conversation about, as moderator Lateefah Simon of the Rosenberg Foundation put it, “how we end the brutal systems we’ve created.”

Credit: Impact Hub Oakland
Credit: Impact Hub Oakland

Billed as Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (after the title of a recently published book by Nell Bernstein), the discussion featured Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Raj Jayadev, founder and director of Silicon Valley De-Bug as well as Bernstein.

The audience included youth and families as well as organizers, advocates, policy makers, and funders.

Poet and educator Jazz Monique Hudson opened the evening with a spoken word performance honoring the spirits of named and unnamed individuals lost to police violence, with the audience calling out names toward the end.

The panel then delved into the question of how to chart a new way forward in juvenile justice. At the heart of the inquiry lies the question of who gets locked up, and why?

“The ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a fiction, and it’s a fiction that we need in order to maintain these institutions,” Bernstein said. “Juvenile crime is real—it’s down but it’s real…but this notion that committing a crime de facto gives you the identity of ‘juvenile delinquent’ is racialized.”

Teens who step outside the law and are white and not poor, living in neighborhoods that aren’t patrolled, Bernstein noted, “don’t even get channeled into diversion programs.” They are more likely given the chance to “grow out of” what in other neighborhoods is deemed criminal activity.

“When they are kids of color from poor neighborhoods,” Bernstein said, “that kid is much less likely to be allowed to be handled by the family and the community, by people who love him.”

Panelist Raj Jayadev and his team at Silicon Valley De-Bug bring communities to the courtroom, with families of young defendants becoming an extension of the legal defense team. Relatives of defendants participate in their defense, said Jayadev, “reviewing discovery and pressing for motions.”

“The only way to change a system,” said Jayadev, “is for people to see the power of their own agency.”

When the community tells the court that a young person is not alone, Jayadev pointed out, the life story of that young person is changed, and so are the courts and the policies that govern them.

Through De-Bug’s Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP), families tell the story of their loved ones who are facing charges, with the hope that the judges can see each young person before them as “more than a criminal charge.”

Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a former director of the Books Not Bars campaign, noted that the campaign’s chants of ‘Shut it down’ outside correctional facilities “went from aspirational to accomplished as we closed not one but five youth prisons in this state.”

Noting the line out the door to get into the night’s event, Norris pointed out that those who first started calling for the closure of youth prisons “did not get that response.”

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Norris, “but it’s testament to what can happen when you have a committed group of folks who are determined, and who stick to it over some years.”

The event was sponsored by the Akonadi Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, Sierra Health Foundation, the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation.

Melinda Clemmons is a reporter and marketing manager for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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