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2021: Our VIsion of Justice

December 21, 2021

Graphic Image with title 2021 Our Vision of Justice

Dear NJJN Members, Allies, Partners and Supporters

As 2021 comes to a close, we here at NJJN wanted to share a moment of gratitude and acknowledge the hard work that all of us working to transform the youth legal system have put forth this year. Twenty-one months after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, our work remains ever more urgent.

Earlier this December, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory declaring youth mental health a national crisis. According to the advisory, even before the pandemic:

  • Up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. had a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder.


  • From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% to more than 1 in 3 students.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly exacerbated the national youth mental health crisis, and we will likely see the impact of the stress and trauma on children in the years and decades to come. What research tells us, and what our 2021 policy platform highlights is that marginalized youth, especially young people of color, will face disproportionate criminalization due to their mental health challenges. If our current system remains intact, youth facing the residual impact of COVID-19 will find themselves caught up in a carceral system instead of supported and loved through the trauma that we have all shared.

We are at an important crossroads. Our work today can help bring about a reimagined vision of justice that will have an immediate impact on young people in the coming years. As we look back at what we were able to achieve together in 2021, let's remember what’s at stake: a future where children are treated as children and given the opportunity to grow, learn, heal and pursue all that they can imagine themselves becoming.

Here’s a brief look at some of the highlights of what we achieved together this year and what lies ahead:

Covid-19 Response:
NJJN continued to engage in COVID-19 rapid response work in 2021 to ensure youth in facilities are not left behind as the pandemic rages on. Working with partners ACLU of NC, Disability Rights NC, Emancipate NC and Forward Justice, NJJN joined in filing a lawsuit against North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to challenge the conditions of confinement in North Carolina’s state prisons as unconstitutional in April 2020. Nearly a year later, in February of 2021, the lawsuit reached a landmark settlement resulting in the early release of at least 3,500 people of all ages in state custody. The release was among the largest in the country achieved via COVID-19 litigation efforts. The settlement also ensured the state of North Carolina took efforts to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons, through vaccination and safe testing, cohorting,  transfer protocols, as well as monitoring and complaint processes.

Continuing our COVID-19 rapid response work from 2020, our grantees from the NJJN COVID-19 Youth Justice Response Fund and mini-grant fund completed their work in 2021. Five state-based organizations or coalitions received 1-year grants to bolster their efforts advocating for alternatives to institutional care and detention and 20 organizational mini-grants helped youth and families mitigate the hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for youth in facilities. We were able to share the progress of those funds this year through our newsletter and website in the following articles:  

National Campaigns:
In 2021, NJJN spearheaded and partnered in multiple national campaigns to change the landscape of the way youth are treated by the legal system.

#ShutDownSequel / End for-profit facilities

On May 1, 2020, Cornelius Frederick tragically passed away due to injuries after being restrained for 12 minutes by staff at Lakeside, a youth behavioral health facility, in response to allegedly throwing a sandwich. His senseless death shed light on a pattern and practice of harmful restraint and abuse at for-profit facilities including Lakeside, run by Sequel Youth and Family Services. As a result, NJJN launched the #ShutDownSequel Campaign to push states to close for-profit facilities, end contracts to place kids at Sequel facilities, and eliminate the practice of sending children out of state for care. Continuing throughout 2021, nearly 330,000 people signed a petition to state governors calling for states to cut ties with Sequel. Several facilities are no longer operated by Sequel: Lakeside Academy in Michigan, Starr Albion in Michigan, Ohio Pomegranate, Clarinda Academy in Iowa, Normative Youth Services in Wyoming, Auldern Academy in North Carolina, and Northern Illinois Academy in Illinois. In addition, five states have ended contracts that placed kids in the care of Sequel Youth and Family Services: California, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.

In May 2021, on the 1-year mark of Cornelius' tragic death, NJJN released our Shut Down Sequel Progress Report, outlining progress made in our efforts to shut down Sequel facilities and advocate for systemic reforms. NJJN also expanded national partnerships to expand our focus on not just closing Sequel facilities, but ending youth placements in for-profit facilities. We collaborated with the Fix Foster Care Coalition to end for-profit placements, Think of Us which is focused on reducing the use of congregate care for youth, Children’s Rights Families not Facilities campaign, We Warned Them Campaign to end abuse in the troubled teen industry, and Paris Hilton’s campaign to reduce institutional abuse. 

#RaiseTheFloor/ Raising the Minimum Age of Youth Prosecution

Building off of work that began in December of 2020, NJJN moved the campaign to raise the minimum age of youth prosecution forward in 2021. In partnership with staff from UCLA, NJJN continued to convene a national coalition of 100 public health and youth justice advocates focused on establishing/ increasing state’s minimum ages of youth prosecution. To supplement our policy platform, Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Juvenile Court,” which was released in December 2020, we released a raising the lower age toolkit in February 2021, specifically designed to help advocates push to raise the minimum age in their states.

Throughout the year, NJJN provided legislative testimony, local press support, strategy and tactics conversations, and other forms of technical assistance to 15 states working on establishing or raising their minimum ages of jurisdictions. Further, our communications and narrative outreach helped place the importance of raising the lower age of jurisdiction at the forefront of youth justice advocacy. A social media day of action with our #RaiseTheFloor coalition raised awareness of the issue, and NJJN’s Executive Director K. Ricky Watson, Jr. was interviewed on the Imprint podcast in 2021 to discuss local and national efforts to raise the lower age. Additionally, we encouraged health care providers to develop and release a statement advocating for raising the lower age which was spearheaded by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

All of these efforts provided momentum to push lower age legislation. In 2021 alone, 18 states introduced minimum age legislation.  Of those states, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Mississippi (commitment age), North Carolina, and New Hampshire successfully passed legislation raising their state’s minimum age of prosecution, detention, and or commitment.  Furthermore, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania still have active campaigns.

Treat Kids as Kids 

This past year, NJJN and our partners at Human Rights for Kids, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Human Rights Watch, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, First Focus Campaign for Children, and Rights4Girls have been leading advocacy efforts in Congress to change the way children are treated in the federal criminal justice system. In April, a bipartisan coalition led by Congress members Karen Bass, Tony Cardenas, and Bruce Westerman introduced the most sweeping criminal justice reform package focused on children to date. If signed into law, these measures will fundamentally change the way kids in the justice system are treated by requiring  parents of youth to be notified at the point of arrest or entrance into the system; requiring that youth consult legal counsel before being able to waive their constitutional rights and be subject to custodial interrogation; establishing a minimum juvenile and adult court age; removing kids from adult jails and prisons;  ensuring treatment and services for vulnerable youth; and retroactively ending life and de facto life without parole.

NJJN’s federal advocacy throughout the year yielded important strides on shifting the narrative on how youth should be treated in the legal system to center healing, trauma-informed and community based care, and equity for youth of color and marginalized communities. During Youth Justice Action Month, our members met with their Congressional representatives to discuss youth justice issues and NJJN spoke during a press conference on Capitol Hill with other coalition partners. We also actively participated as part of the Act4JJ coalition and the steering committee of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC). 

Forum and Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM):
This year our Annual Forum was once again virtual. NJJN members got together to imagine a world where all youth have the supports and resources they need to thrive, while also taking time to center self-care practices. As a result of our time together, our membership built a collective vision of justice and a roadmap to anti-racism.

Building off our Forum, NJJN looked to use Youth Justice Action Month as a time to leverage our collective vision to make concrete policy changes. In 2021, NJJN hosted Youth Justice Action (YJAM) month for the first time with our partner the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The month featured multiple webinars, trainings, discussions, social media activations, and advocacy campaigns all aimed at building awareness for a new vision of justice centered on healing and trauma-informed, community-based care. The White House, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives all recognized October as Youth Justice Action Month. Additionally, the youth justice federal action coalition joined U.S. Representative Tony Carndenas for a press conference on the importance of treating children as children. And advocates across the country participated in a week of federal advocacy during "Hill Week."

One of the important themes of YJAM was casting a new vision for youth justice. Starting with a Twitter chat to launch YJAM, NJJN also released our one-pager, NJJN’s Vision of Justice and Patrick McCarthy and K. Ricky Watson, Jr. published the op-ed “Congress must replace youth prisons with something that actually helps youth” in The Hill. We also premiered a new podcast NJJN Voices from the Field, with our first episode featuring The Gathering for Justice’s Luis Hernandez and Carmen Perez.

YJAM social media activations reached 15 million people, with over 500 registrants for NJJN’s workshops and panel discussions on the following topics:

  • Protecting childhood by establishing a minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, establishing police free schools, and addressing the mental health needs of youth outside the confines of courts. 
  • Treating kids as kids by stopping the push of youth into the adult legal system, ending youth interrogations, direct file reform, and repealing Juvenile Life Without Parole laws.

  • Centering care, not cages by closing youth prisons, ending contracts with dangerous for-profit residential treatment centers, and committing to reductions in congregate care.

  • Ensuring accurate reporting and ending the unjust criminalization of youth of color in the media by helping reporters cover youth legal issues with nuance, context and dignity for youth and families.

During YJAM, our public outreach gained an incredible partner in entertainer Paris Hilton, who released her own Washington Post op-ed during the month calling attention to the abuses that run rampant in the troubled teen industry. Hilton’s advocacy helped draw waves of attention to the need to keep youth safe by ending the use of for-profit facilities.

Focus on Mental Health:
As mentioned in the introduction, this December, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on youth mental health calling attention to the urgency of the national youth mental health crisis. Before the advisory, NJJN sounded the call on the criminalization of youth with mental health challenges with the release of our policy platform, Keep Children with Mental Health Challenges out of the Youth Legal System. In conjunction with our policy platform release, we also launched the Youth Justice Wellness Fund to support young advocates actively engaged in advocacy work with our members. The Youth Justice Wellness Fund provides a wellness opportunity for young people within our network to promote and develop a consistent self-care healing practice to support their health. 

Youth Justice Leadership Institute:
NJJN’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI) reached a milestone in 2021, as it celebrated 10 years of preparing advocates of color to lead the youth justice movement. Over the past 10 years, nearly 100 alumni have come through YJLI and gone on to lead social justice advocacy, run for political office, champion legislative reform and much more. In 2021, YJLI welcomed its 11th cohort with nine new advocates. In December, we also launched the Youth Justice Institute Alumni Fund to cultivate ideas on race, youth justice, and many other areas of intersection that impact youth and people of color across the country.

NJJN continued to publish resources for youth justice advocates in 2020. Publications disseminated this year include:

2022 Looking Forward:
In 2022, we look forward to building on this year’s campaigns and initiatives specifically by:

  • Investing in the wellness and leadership capacity of youth and advocates of color through our Youth Wellness Fund and Youth Justice Leadership Institute Fund.

  • Starting the work of our member-led regional brain trusts to spearhead policy innovation, connections and anti-racism accountability within our network. 

  • Building transformation through narrative advocacy and public outreach efforts, including the continuation of our new podcast NJJN Voices from the Field.

  • Continuing our campaigns to raise the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction in states across the country and to end the use of for-profit confinement of youth by companies such as Sequel.

  • Publishing toolkits, policy briefs, fact sheets, and other materials to support our members’ work in advancing initiatives that will help young people and their families.

We thank all of our members, allies, and partners for your continued support, and we look forward to continuing to build together in 2022.

The National Juvenile Justice Network Team

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