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YJLI Fellow Joshua Branch Uses Law Degree to Seek Justice for Youth

December 20, 2019

Interview with Joshua Branch, Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law, Juvenile Law Center

What got you into youth justice reform? 

After graduating from college, I worked in Miami, Florida as a middle school teacher. The school that I taught at had a school resource officer (SRO); it was my first exposure to an SRO who had arresting authority. He was able to arrest the students and charge them for what is pretty much normative adolescent behavior – things like horse-playing, coming to school late, skipping school. I found that frustrating and I wanted to do something to change that policy, which led me to go to law school. I graduated law school in 2018, and I’m now at the Juvenile Law Center as a Zubrow Fellow.  

In your current position what are some of the things that you’re working on?  

My work focuses on the intersection of race, education and juvenile justice. At Juvenile Law Center, we recently filed a class action lawsuit against the Glenn Mills Schools in Pennsylvania for its abuse toward youth who were held there. For decades, kids experienced physical abuse and were not receiving a proper education by state or federal standards. This is an historic class action case. Their license has since been revoked – so they are no longer in service 

On the education front, I’m helping to lead a campaign in Pennsylvania around an academic credit issue. When young people move around from school to school because they are placed in foster care or in a detention facility, their transcripts might not get sent to their new school and their credits might not be accepted. This causes a child to get held back and may delay their graduation, which only increases the likelihood that they will drop out. We’ve had several students talk to us about how frustrating it is that they’ve done two to three years’ worth of course work either in a detention facility, foster home or as they bump around from home to home only to find out that their school doesn’t accept their credits. That’s pretty devastating to a kid.  

I also work on economic justice issues like court fines and fees that are imposed on young people. Very few people know that when a young person can’t afford an attorney and one is court appointed, that actually comes with a cost. If you have a kid who is under the working age, they still get those fees imposed on them and are responsible for paying them; and if not the child then the family. I’ve had conversations with family members who have had to work additional jobs to pay off court costs or make a choice between buying groceries or paying the court costs. If they are left unpaid, a young person may have their probation extended, which of course only increases the likelihood that they will get in trouble again.  

For my YJLI project, I’m leading a campaign in Maryland to pass a state law to ban the imposition of youth fines and fees so that no court in the entire state can impose these costs on young people and their families. We’re also trying to make that retroactive to wipe out the bills of young people who had system contact in previous years. We’re drafting and revising the language of the bill right now as well as building a coalition with other advocates, including NJJN member Advocates for Children and Youth. We’re also making sure legislators and judges are informed, because many of them don’t know the full extent of the fines and fees issue. Our goal is to introduce legislation during the next Maryland legislative session, which takes place in the spring.  

What motivates you? 

My family was one of a few minority families in the town where I grew up in central Pennsylvania. Being one of the few minority families in a predominately white town, people didn’t believe in us – by that, I mean the community didn’t believe in us. My sister was held back because she had gone to middle school in Brooklyn, New York and then when we moved to this rural town, they tried to tell her and my family that her previous education wasn’t of the same quality. My brother got a track scholarship to Baylor and his guidance counselor told him he wasn’t college material, and he ended up not going to college because of that. I was told in middle school that I’d never be an attorney by a teacher

All of this to sayI think it’s morally reprehensible to give up on a child, and I think the system is designed to place these kids on an island, ignore them and basically castigate them towards a lifetime of being in and out of the criminal justice system. To me that’s absolutely disgusting and just another way that we as a society give up on minority communities. So that’s my fuel – that if I can invest in these kids and do what I can to improve their life situations, then I can give back to the communities that I identify with and hopefully improve outcomes for them.  

What’s your dream youth justice vision?  

Aside from not having detention facilities at all… the youth justice system philosophically is intended to be rehabilitative and it’s not. It causes more trauma for a lot of kids and a lot of families. If we are to live in a society where there is a youth justice system, then my dream is that it is actually rehabilitative and designed in a manner that helps kids as opposed to further hurting and traumatizing them. You don’t go to a doctor for trauma to have more trauma imposed on you. You go to a doctor to figure out a health problem. So, if the youth justice system is to be rehabilitative, it needs to be true to that.  


To learn more about Joshua’s work addressing youth fines and fees, read his recently published op-ed in The Root

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