The “beast” of America’s ravenous juvenile justice system is gobbling up our tax money, government resources, and most importantly, our kids.

On January 14 at Impact Hub Oakland, people were lined up out the door abuzz with ideas about how to dismantle the juvenile prisons that are failing our society.

“Prison” was a description deliberately chosen by Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, to stress the kind of place our youth are shafted into when handled by the law.

Bernstein was among the participants in a panel discussion with other Bay Area leaders in the juvenile justice reform movement. When describing public reaction to her book, Bernstein said, “The only pushback I’ve gotten is that I’m lying, that it cannot be true that [staff of these institutions] force kids to kneel for days and nights in chains, or that they pepper-spray them at point-blank range. But it’s true.”

Bernstein likened many of today’s juvenile justice institutions to The New York House of Refuge, America’s first youth detention center notorious for its maltreatment and brutal punishments.

Joining Bernstein in the discussion was Lateefah Simon, program director of the Rosenberg Foundation and moderator of the panel. Zach Norris of the Ella Baker Center and Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley’s De-Bug were also panelists.

The Alameda County juvenile justice system disproportionately arrests and detains black males from low-income neighborhoods. For a lot of those cases, young people are simply extracted from communities for crimes they commit as a result of being failed by their society. This does nothing to ensure public safety or their own betterment.

Wednesday night’s conversation centered around progress the Bay Area has made in providing under-resourced communities with tools to take care of their own and in developing alternatives to institutionalizing our youth. Time was also reserved near the end of the event for the audience’s questions.

“[Incarcerated youth] are not being reformed, they’re being repressed. There’s nothing about being in a cage that makes you a better person,” Simon emphasized.

Bernstein’s book includes several stories of incarcerated young people. “With every kid that I asked, ‘When did you veer off track?’ they described the death of a grandmother or incarceration of a father or addiction – some kind of loss, and then grief that’s recognized as anger.”

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According to data from the 2013 Census Bureau, nearly three out of ten children in Oakland’s under-18 population live in poverty. In 2010, the Alameda County Community Food Bank found that an astonishing 80 percent of households with at least one child under the age of 18 faced low or very low food security.

Simon pointed out what should be obvious. “If we can give adults jobs, their kids won’t have to hustle. If you are hungry, by any means necessary you will eat.”

A shift in focus from the child to their community, where we can stop crime before it happens, is what Bernstein defines as “justice reinvestment.”

“Folks here are part of organizations: temples, churches, neighborhood associations,” said Jayadev, “Each one of those places should be a community organizing place to protect young people from incarceration.”

Jayadev is also coordinator of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP), a program in its seventh year that provides trainings in “participatory defense,” an advocacy strategy that empowers communities and families in impacting the outcome of their loved one’s case. Part of what the ACJP does is produce social biography packets to demonstrate the life of the person on trial.

Banding support networks together to intervene in an individual’s sentencing process is profoundly effective. To measure their impact, the ACJP compares the time people would have served to time that was saved through these interventions, which is an astounding 1,862 years.

Norris also testified to just how influential collective voice can be: “[The Ella Baker Center] has closed down not one, but five youth prisons in California, and it was a result of the determination and dedication of folks who are in this room … and who said ‘no more.’”

Along the same lines as promoting community accountability in keeping our young people from becoming institutionalized, multi-systemic therapy, which works with kids in their homes and considers the entire family as the client, has proven to be extremely effective.

The 200+ audience members fell silent when Simon concluded the discussion with a challenge for us all: when it comes down to individual efforts in “starving the beast,” the simplest and perhaps most basic question we can ask ourselves is, “Would this be acceptable if it were my child?”

For more information on Bernstein’s book, check out this NPR interview. To continue the conversation and take further action, the Ella Baker Center offers many resources.

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at simonelarson@oaklandlocal.com

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