As part of our ongoing blog series highlighting the learnings of our Justice Solutions tour, Jesuit Social Services’ Executive Director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications CATHERINE NEVILLE writes about the importance of advocacy in striving for humane youth justice systems.

Nate Balis and Liane Rozzell from the Annie E Casey Foundation.

Jesuit Social Services’ approach is to ‘do’ and to ‘influence’ in search of a more just society.Our ‘doing’ is through Jesuit Social Services’ 40 years of practical experience working with marginalised people including those involved with the criminal justice system.

This has been accompanied by our efforts in influencing – based on our learnings from our program work and our policy and research efforts. Searching for effective, humane and evidence-based policies, practice and legislation is critical, and Chairman Patricia Faulkner and I recently met with several organisations in Baltimore and Washington DC to exchange findings and insights.

In Baltimore, we met with the Annie E Casey Foundation, a philanthropic organisation which aims to advance child welfare and juvenile justice across the USA.

The President and CEO, Patrick McCarthy and his senior staff, Nate Balis and Liane Rozzell, spoke of the importance of establishing a clear and shared understanding of the purpose of detention – that youth detention is always a last resort and never simply a punitive response, and that any effective youth detention system must have an overall mission and vision focused on rehabilitation.

Our political leaders need to work collaboratively, constructively and in good faith with experts in the field, service providers, academics, community members and most importantly young offenders and their families, to develop an agreed vision for our youth justice system, its purpose and what can collectively be agreed as the outcomes we must achieve.

Staff from the Annie E Casey Foundation spoke of the importance of a cohesive and strategic vision to drive innovation, change and reform which has resulted in the closure of youth prisons, while promoting new operating models for youth justice practice.

In order to achieve this shared vision, our colleagues at the Annie E Casey Foundation encouraged the use of young people and their families as advocates to express their lived experience, challenges and aspirations.

Josh Rovner from The Sentencing Project in Washington DC, reinforced these messages saying, “the most effective advocacy is through the kids themselves”.

Some may label our young people as “the worst of the worst”, “thugs” and criminals, yet I believe we must take the time to hear their voices, and the voices of their families, to truly understand what’s driving their behaviour and make sure we are doing our best to address those issues and, at the same time, creating a safer community for all.

It is only then that we will design a truly effective youth justice system that celebrates resocialisation rather than punishment and is focused on keeping young people out of prison rather than building bigger, high security institutions.