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Policymakers, law-enforcement, and advocates must include justice-involved youth when making decisions regarding juvenile facilities and rehabilitative programming because these changes directly affect young people and their communities.

Disregarding youth’s personal experiences in the juvenile justice system overlooks young people as resources in developing programs that address their unique needs relating to trauma, mental-health, and substance abuse issues. Having been through the juvenile system, these youth can provide first-hand information to decision-makers about the conditions of juvenile facilities and the effectiveness of programs. They know what works and how future improvements can best support other young people in similar situations.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)-California, a private nonprofit child advocacy organization, employs this youth-centered approach in their publication Rising Up Speaking Out: Youth Transforming Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Justice.” The report shares the experiences of five formerly justice-involved people within Los Angeles’ juvenile facilities.

Despite their varied ages, sentences, and offenses, the young people featured in CDF’s policy brief shared similar experiences: little to no extra-curricular programs, a lack of mentorship and supportive relationships with adult figures, inadequate sanitation and daily nutrition, and few opportunities to receive family and community support.

With the largest juvenile justice system in United States, Los Angeles County operated 19 probation camps in the early 2000s, downsizing to 14 probation camps in 2014. All but one of these camps are over 50 years old and have not been remodeled to align with practices to foster rehabilitation in juvenile facilities. Facilities are also geographically isolated, far from youth’s families and communities.

There has been a population decline in juvenile facilities, from 1,600 youth in 2006 to 600 in 2014, which provides the opportunity for financial readjustment and policy changes, yet many large facilities continue to implement the same antiquated practices. In fact, within the last 10 years, Los Angeles County has been sued for failure to educate youth in its largest probation camp, fostering filthy and unsafe” conditions, feeding young people expired or not enough food, providing insufficient access to hygiene products, and the inappropriate use of solitary confinement.

Systemic inadequacies like these contribute to high recidivism rates, and do not allow young people the opportunity to develop into successful members of their communities.

Justice-involved youth have the power to truly represent the social and political realities experienced in juvenile facilities. Giving them a voice in decision-making, like CDF has done, empowers youth to create political change and participate in the healing process by telling their stories, while serving as a resource for advocates.

Providing leadership opportunities for justice-involved youth would create a much needed space for their recommendations on model rehabilitation and programming. Moreover, these youth should be recognized as a resource for innovative juvenile justice policies, rather than as passive persons who quietly assume the social roles imposed on them.