Empowerment Award Honoree Citizens for Juvenile Justice Advocates for Equitable Youth JusticeArticle
“We’ve come a long way in acknowledging that children are not ‘little adults,’” Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CFJJ) co-founder and current Interim Executive Director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC) Judge Jay Blitzman said in a recent interview. “But one of the challenges has become walking the walk and applying that philosophy in a wider context.”
In the nearly 30 years since Blitzman helped found the organization in 1994, CFJJ has backed up its talk with plenty of walking, making the organization a perfect recipient for the Boston Bar Association’s (BBA) Beacon Award for Empowerment.
“Deepening our community engagement and being able to be there and impact the community, to provide research, and provide analysis to push the cause on the municipal level as well as state level—that means a lot to me,” said Leon Smith, Executive Director of CFJJ. Smith describes himself as a career youth advocate and began his career as a juvenile court public defender. “It shows that we’re not a statewide organization just because we lobby at the statehouse; we’re a statewide organization because we meaningfully connect with people across the state.”
Over the course of nearly three decades, CFJJ has worked diligently to uphold what it considers the key principles of the juvenile justice system: That children are not “little adults” and should therefore be treated differently than adults throughout the criminal justice system, and that treatment for children accused of crimes should focus on rehabilitation above all. The organization has worked to address a range of systemic juvenile justice issues, including what Judge Blitzman referred to as the “criminalization of children.”
“The Boston Bar Association and CFJJ are united by a shared vision of a commonwealth that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and that is the reason we are celebrating them at the Beacon Awards on January 19th,” shared Lili Palacios-Baldwin, Beacon Award Committee Co-Chair. The BBA’s Children and the Law Section focuses on issues surrounding the juvenile justice system and hosts various pro bono trainings and educational programming. Additionally, the Boston Bar Foundation supports several organizations working on protecting vulnerable youth in Massachusetts, including MAC.
“If children are not little adults, that should have ramifications in terms of being more thoughtful about zero tolerance in schools, mandatory transfers, mandatory sentencing, sex offender registration, and other areas,” Blitzman said. “We should be incorporating more of that into the actual way we deal with youth in a much wider array. Instead, we’ve seen in this state and others, policies and practices which continue to threaten the criminalization of children and adolescents.”
That criminalization has led directly to what has been referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which—much like similar practices regarding adults accused of crimes—has disproportionately affected minority children and those with disabilities. In 2018, the BBA established the Service Innovation Project, a new model that engaged lawyers in service to find innovative solutions for addressing systemic injustices, including the school-to-prison pipeline.
“For our 25th anniversary, we tweaked our mission statement,” Smith said. “We now say we are ‘advocating for statewide systemic reform that achieves equitable youth justice.’ Inserting equity was so important because you can say there’s fewer kids in the system than before, but if the harm of system involvement is disproportionately falling on poor, young, Black and brown people, we have to address that inequity. If you look at our materials, you see that we use ‘legal system’ and ‘juvenile legal system;’ we don’t use ‘justice system’ because our system isn’t just until we have that equity.”
CFJJ has been committed to not just ensuring the fair treatment of children entering the juvenile legal system, but to eliminating the inherent racial biases that continue to exist in every facet of it. According to CFJJ research, while youth of color make up roughly 33% of the youth population in Massachusetts, they are just under 40% of those arrested, 60% of those arraigned, 66% of those detained pre-trial or because of a probation violation, and 68% of those committed to the Department of Youth Services. Organizations like CFJJ, which will dig for the data and thoughtfully engage with practitioners, policymakers, judges, and mental health specialists to help understand the consequences of policies—intended or not—are vital.
“I think one of the big challenges is really understanding these systemic issues,” Blitzman said. “You need that aerial view—you’ve got to look at the forest as well as the trees—because otherwise when we talk about efforts to change, we’re confined to nibbling at the edges.”
Smith concurred, noting how often he found himself hearing the same stories during his time as a public defender.
“I felt like I was doing the same cases with different faces over and over again because kids kept getting pushed and churned up by the system,” Smith said. Alluding to the famous starfish-on-the-beach allegory, Smith asked, “Instead of walking down the beach and throwing one starfish back at a time, how do we stop them from washing up on the shore?”
While much work remains, CFJJ has committed to fixing the system, and has seen success in its mission.
“Since CFJJ’s founding, we have seen positive change,” Smith remarked. “The size of the juvenile system has greatly shrunk. We did a report called ‘Fiction’ about the media’s sensationalism around youth violence and showed trends are down because we’ve shrunk the size of the system and the number of kids in confinement. We have juvenile diversion that’s available.”
However, Smith is quick to remind, even as the system has shrunk, the young people who are in it are “more Black and brown than ever.” Smith says CFJJ, which he describes as an anti-racist organization, continues to fight to tackle that issue, and to find the resources needed to do so. The group pushes for data on those within the system to be more accurately recorded—including the race and ethnicity of those within it—to better understand where the system fails to operate equitably.
“We’ve been involved both behind the scenes pushing for more data, as well as by writing our own reports and really showing where young people of color, with disabilities, in the LGBTQ community, are treated inequitably and driving the conversation to the need for our decision-makers to address it,” Smith said. “We can’t allow some of the fearmongering that’s happening to roll that back, which isn’t going to make us safer but will hurt more kids.”
Blitzman, Smith, and others among CFJJ leadership met recently to discuss this very issue. Convening statewide juvenile justice advocates and community organizations, Judge Blitzman said the overall mission of the call was “to collectively look at what types of law reform initiatives we should be looking at in the best interest of teens and adolescents, issues which include expungement, greater racial and ethnic transparency, raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, and more. Not only will this enhance positive youth development outcomes for young people,” Blitzman continued, “but also better protect public safety. There’s a growing body of research showing if we connect youth to communities, if we support the critically important socially connective tissue of communities, we will reduce tension—and if you reduce the tension, most studies show you reduce recidivism.”
Perhaps no time in recent history brought more of that tension than the summer of 2020, which Smith described as “a moment” when people across Massachusetts and the country marched in the streets to demand racial justice following the high-profile murder of George Floyd and others at the hands of police. During that time, Smith says, CFJJ stepped in and recognized that for true change to happen within the justice system, “it cannot be exclusively with an adult lens.” During this “moment” of the summer of 2020, CFJJ was influential in removing the mandate calling for police in all Massachusetts schools. The organization also called for greater transparency regarding the intersection of schools and the juvenile system, including breakdowns of school-based arrests and funding for policing versus mental and behavioral health services, as well as calling out the violations of privacy that were resulting in young people being deported as information entered into the city’s gang database made its way to ICE and immigration court.
“We recognized a moment, we connected with our allies, and we were able to push through reform,” Smith proudly recalled.
CFJJ is always looking for more of those allies, Smith and Blitzman both indicated. Whether following CFJJ on social media or through their newsletter, keeping tabs on their website, or donating to the cause, the organization welcomes assistance from all who share in its mission.
“It’s great when someone writes a check, but we love it even more when people come out, and they fellowship with us, and they meaningfully connect with us,” Smith remarked. “It really means a lot to me and our staff when we get to know people who are supporting us.”