Home News Center YJLI Fellow Jeff Wallace Helps Community Hold the System Accountable

YJLI Fellow Jeff Wallace Helps Community Hold the System Accountable

October 29, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain & Julianna Cann

got you into youth justice reform? 

I got involved in youth justice reform because of my history being a youngster involved with the juvenile justice system. During my system involvement, I saw the consistency of youth being placed in the prison around me, and I watched as they were coming in and getting younger and younger. And the thing that really got me was when 85 percent mandatory minimum started for any crime that was considered violent. Young people were coming in sometimes at 16 or 17 and they were going to spend at least eight and a half years in prison. Watching that trend get worse and worse was the biggest thing that propelled me into getting involved.  

Tell us about your YJLI advocacy project. 

My advocacy project focuses on creating a local accountability committee made up of stakeholders with the local youth justice system. The stakeholders should be former system-involved youth, youth court officers, parents, concerned citizens, law enforcement, detention staff and judges. The committee would trace how monies are spent on local preventive programs, track trends related to youth arrests, adjudication and adult waiver stats, and discuss youth justice trends and best practices to impact change.  

My goal is to help the community hold juvenile court officers and the judicial districts more accountable for what they are doing with resources and the service providers they work with. A lot of times, the judicial districts will go to a particular provider because that provider is willing to pad the numbers, allowing the chief to say how great the program is, when in fact they’re often targeting kids that aren’t at high risk of justice involvement. In that respect, the numbers are going to always look good 

Who are you hoping will participate in the community action board?  

I believe in trying to get the people who are most affected on both ends. For example, I want to get youth who have formerly been involved in juvenile court, but also juvenile court officers. A big stakeholder is parents, who often don’t get included in these types of efforts. A lot of times those parents may be or have been involved in the legal system, so they may have hostility towards court services. But they are the people we really need to hear from.  

Do you think that this project could be helpful in getting the issues of youth justice more top of mind for people in the community so that there’s more general awareness in the public?  

Yes, absolutely. I call it making the shift. I recently did Facebook live and the beginning of that whole conversation was about making the shift from inaction to action. In that discussionI opened up with three things that have been mobilizing people to be more active in how they view justice issues in our countryOne is the George Floyd video. The second is COVID-19which makes people realize their own vulnerabilities and their own mortality. Third, probably one of the hottest and most important, is the 2020 election. 

Tapping into that energy that people have right now to get involved is really important. A lot of times, people who want to get involved don’t really know how to make that shift. So, I want to plug into their motivation and energy and actually show them how they can make the shift in their own community.  
What motivates you in this work?  

My motivation is strictly about redemption, honestly. Giving back to a community and to a world that I have taken so much from.  

There were two individuals who mentored me when I was in prison. They would call me a contentious young man because I argued and battled everything they said. I had people that at the time talked to me in the most unlikely place and not everybody has that. I happened to find my salvation in a cold, dark cell but some people - they don’t find itbut they want it.  
What motivates me is giving someone that light so that they can see - when they’re in the darkest place in the world to make some changes about who they are, what they want to do, and how they act. Not only for themselves, but their family and their community.  

What’s your dream for youth justice? 

This is something else that constantly evolves and changes. If I had a figurative magic wand and could say, “this is the end result,” I’d want to see people given opportunity and consideration. It sounds pretty simple, but opportunity and consideration, regardless of color, economic background, or even what people have done if they’ve been incarcerated – that in my opinion, is what a lot of people don’t have. 

When I look at all of the different things I’ve been involved in, it’s always about a lack of opportunity and consideration. That’s what everything is about. When you combine the movement to get homeless youth some type of life or you collaborate to get justice-involved girls the help they need, it’s all opportunity.  


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