Families in Power: a Guide to Organizing on Juvenile Justice Reform

[The following column appeared in the February 2010 Campaign for Youth Justice e-newsletter, and is reprinted with permission. It has been edited slightly to incorporate hyperlinks into the text. - Ed.]
juvenile-justice-reform-family-organizing_CFYJ-GuideThe Campaign for Youth Justice recently released a guide for families who want to do something to change the foolish and ineffective practice of trying our children as adults. Our new guide is entitled, "Families in Power: Family Guide to Networking, Coalition Building, Organizing and Campaign Building."  The guide provides basic information about how families and allies can begin to organize themselves and others to change  transfer practices and other overly punitive policies that negatively affect our children and our communities. 

Here is one highlight from this new guide:

The first step in creating powerful families and organizing others is developing a way to talk about your issue with a wide variety of audiences.  Many organizers refer to this as your "rap."  Your rap about the transfer of children into the adult correctional and court systems should be your 30-second commercial that is designed to open up dialogue with others.  It should include: a fact or two about youth transfer in order to educate people who may not know about transfer laws, why this is issue is important to you, and what you need from the person you are talking to.  Be sure you have your facts down and that they are accurate.  There are several fact sheets on the Campaign's website that can help you easily identify important facts.  The best fact sheet to use summarizes the findings of CFYJ's Jailing Juveniles report and speaks to the danger children face in jails every day in this country.   

The goal of the rap is to eventually gain support for the issue.  Thus, you should have a couple raps worked out in order to address what would be the most important to the person you are talking to.  Below are a three examples of different raps on youth transfer for different audiences:

First example: Someone sees my Join the Movement bracelet and asks me what it means. I simply want to provide them with some brief, but compelling information that piques their interest. 

I say: "I wear this orange bracelet to show support for the hundreds of thousands of children that run through the US courts each year. Many of these children end up in prisons and jails with adults and suffer abuse and neglect. Most of these kids have not committed violent offenses, and yet they come out of these systems with adult convictions that destroy their chances at education or employment. The "adultification" of children has taken a severe toll on our children and our communities. Would you like to know more?" 

Second example: I attend a community meeting with several legislators from my district. When speaking to a legislator, I want to make sure s/he understands how the practice of prosecuting youth as adults is destroying the communities s/he represents and that transfer is not providing us with the public safety that some politicians have promised. 

I say:  "Hi, my name is Grace Bauer and I advocate on behalf of families of children involved in the adult criminal justice system. You may not be aware, but most of these children are not charged with the violent crimes as one would expect. These children face harsh and brutal consequences as the result of being housed with adults. Children in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide, and sexual abuse is prevalent, destroying the lives of young people every day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a report saying that treating children as adults actually creates younger repeat offenders. This practice is not helping us as a community and we need to change the law that allows this to happen. I would like to spend a few minutes providing you with information and talking with you about this issue. Can we set up a time for me to drop off the information and talk?"

Third example:  I am talking to someone who I want to join with me in my work advocating for youth and families. In these instances, I often try to see where this person's life intersects with the justice system. One point you can make with most people is that we want money for community building and less crime. 

I say: "Here in the United States, we are addicted to incarceration. We continue to spend money on building prisons and jails while cutting education and other community programs such as libraries and recreation centers that reduce crime. We also know that the transfer of children into adult facilities does not reduce crime, but rather increases crime. We need to be smarter about this. Will you help me work to reduce crime through advocating for community-based prevention and intervention rather than the transfer of youth to adult court?"

Once you develop your own rap, which you can model off those above. It is helpful to practice it so you become comfortable with saying it to someone, just as you would be comfortable sharing your name and occupation. 

Finally, your rap will be most effective when you understand the issue of transfer completely. Learn the issue and understand that most people believe that the children who go through the adult system deserve to be there. Therefore, you must think of yourself as a teacher and tell them the truth about transfer. Set them straight by sharing the facts that most people don't know: the high percentage of kids in adult courts are there for non-violent offenses and the incarceration of youth with adults increases crime.
If you would like help developing your rap or writing letters about the issue of transfer, please give us a call at the Campaign at 202.558-3580. We are happy to help. Also, if you have suggestions on how families can increase their power to change the policies that throw our children away, please let us know. We always learn from your expertise as families and welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and ideas.

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Updated: March 21 2018