Amiyah Davis entered the juvenile justice system at age 10. When she transitioned from a residential facility to life in the community, she “knew very little” about managing on her own, she told attendees of a recent webinar, Raising the Bar on Juvenile Reentry: What Young People Say They Need.
“I didn’t know how to wash laundry, let alone cook a meal,” Ms. Davis said. She did not know how to apply for public assistance, nor the range of other services she could receive. Connecting with someone like herself—a young person who had experienced “the system” but already maneuvered the hurdles she faced—would have made all the difference, she said.
“What’s better than someone teaching someone how to transition from the system than someone that has actually been within the system?” Ms. Davis asked. Insights from other webinar participants echoed her reflections about reentry, one of the most critical stages in the lives of system-involved youth.
The Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS), an OJJDP grantee, held Raising the Bar on Juvenile Reentry: What Young People Say They Need in April, in conjunction with Second Chance Month. The webinar featured a panel of four young adults who shared their reentry experiences and offered suggestions for ways juvenile justice agencies and community-based providers can better prepare system-involved youth for life in their communities. The National Reentry Resource Center hosted the event; Kim Godfrey Lovett, Executive Director of PbS, and Melissa Sickmund, Director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, moderated.
Justice-involved youth must play a greater role in developing and delivering agency-based reentry practices, participants said. They know what works because they have lived it. Giving youth a say in what works improves services and reduces agencies’ reliance on cookie-cutter approaches, agreed Derrell Frazier, Policy and Community Engagement Manager for the Mental Health Association of Maryland.
“Some of the ways you can help a young person feel safe is through your actions, through love, and treating them as a human being … no matter what mistakes they have made, no matter what traumas they have experienced.”
—Derrell Frazier, Mental Health Association of Maryland
Panelists repeatedly underscored the value of mentoring when system-involved youth consider potential career paths. “Having someone to chat through these things is incredibly important,” said Stephen Kaplan, a PbS mentor who supports recipients of postsecondary scholarships from the PbS Education and Employment Foundation.
Youth reentering the community must be allowed to make mistakes, panelists said. Juvenile justice systems and others in the community often fail to recognize the trauma that many system-involved youth have endured. Like youth everywhere, they will make mistakes as they strive to lead productive lives.
Expecting seamless reentry from youth who have been confined is unreasonable, Ms. Davis said. “Transitioning is not normal. Starting a new life does not feel normal.” Mr. Frazier agreed, noting the pressure on these youth “to have it all together” even as they face new challenges and bear the stigma of prior involvement in the justice system. “You have to be able to give yourself some grace,” he said.
Many system-involved youth doubt “the system” will treat them fairly, participants stated. They lack confidence in both the juvenile justice system and in individual providers, such as case workers.
“I had to work harder than others to succeed,” said Miguel Garcia, Advocacy Coordinator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “I feel like I’m motivated to proving people wrong.” Ms. Davis found motivation in her desire to prove to herself that she could succeed—and could become a model for other youth.
“Listen, you don’t have to go back, that doesn’t have to be an option for you,” she said. “There’s a whole other world out there for you.”
OJJDP’s Youth Reentry and Family Engagement fact sheet provides an overview of the Office’s Second Chance Act programs. A recent OJJDP blog highlights OJJDP’s toolkit, Reentry Starts Here: A Guide for Youth in Long-Term Juvenile Corrections and Treatment Programs.