A Conversation with a Juvenile Justice Advocate

With Tips on Advocating For Yourself and Your Family

Tanya Washington is an advocate and former defense attorney that has fought for civil rights and justice for decades. Most recently, she has worked to reform the juvenile justice system by providing expertise assistance to state and local leaders and judges who are interested in promoting positive outcomes for at-risk youth.   Her work and influence has resulted in reductions in out-of-home placements in youth in several states. Her hope is that by creating awareness concerning the ongoing injustice prevalent in youth serving systems across the country that she can inspire communities to take up this issue and promote positive change.  One way Tanya does this is through her own blog, justicecorner.com.


How did you become involved in advocating for juvenile justice?

It seems as if juvenile justice was part of my inheritance; my mother worked at a state training school for youth when I was young, so I have had exposure to the juvenile justice system for most of my life. Through my mother’s positions as teacher, counselor and administrator, I have had a different view of the system, the youth and their families. I am keenly aware of how response to youth misbehavior has changed and become more punitive over the years. This awareness prompted me after graduating from law school to become a defense attorney at a boutique criminal defense organization in Harlem, New York. Because this organization was located in the community, we were aware everyday of some of the unique challenges of our young clients and were also in a position to advocate at a different level.

After seeing the film Kids for Cash, audiences are shocked at how vulnerable kids are in being arrested and jailed for minor offenses and how damaged they are as a result.  Yet, we’ve learned that this type of zero tolerance practices and resulting treatment of kids exists all across the U. S.  Why is what’s exposed in the film such a shock to parents, community leaders, police, school officials, lawyers, prosecutors and even judges and lawmakers?

Part of the reason this is shocking is that most people believe that juvenile facilities are filled with kids who are a threat to community safety, rather than kids who are engaged in normal adolescent misbehavior. Impressions of the juvenile justice system come from the media that primarily focus on violent crimes (such as school shootings). The reality, however, is that 75% of youth locked in juvenile facilities were placed for non-violent acts (even acts that would not have been crimes if they were adults such as truancy, or underage drinking). Most violent acts committed by young people are actually prosecuted in adult court, not juvenile court. When people become aware that zero tolerance policies have led to the criminalization of the kinds of misbehavior that they may have engaged in when they were young, they are surprised. More importantly, the film does a great job of illustrating the trauma caused by such practices as shackling and being locked in a cell. The awareness of the psychological harm of incarceration is illuminating for all who have never been a typical juvenile facility.

What advice would you give to a parent and child who are currently in the juvenile justice system and feel they are overwhelmed and unprepared?

I would advise parents to not be afraid to advocate for their child (ask for a lawyer, show up in court, and ask questions). Do not consent to anything that you do not understand (having a lawyer can help with this).  Additionally, if their child ends up on probation (as a high percentage of cases do) parent and child should be clear on the conditions listed in the probation contract. Be sure to understand the expectations and potential sanctions as well as the length of time involved, and requirements for completion. If youth or parent for any reason have a conflict, it is important to document that reason in advance (such as in a letter to the probation officer) and get appropriate authorization (make sure to keep copies). Probation violations are a large reason why youth are removed from home and placed in juvenile facilities, so adhering to the agreement is critical.

Positive change and outcomes is a theme throughout your work. What are some examples of the changes and their impact on society?

In recent years I have focused on juvenile system reform. That has involved analyzing juvenile system data, sharing best practices from research, and providing technical assistance to administrators and judges to implement reform strategies. Some jurisdictions have elected to utilize objective decision-making tools to inform use of detention, secure residential placements, and community alternatives. Available resources are then targeted towards those youth who may be engaged in riskier behavior, rather than those who may have made a more isolated mistake. The impact is that fiscal resources can be shifted towards evidence-based community options which are more rehabilitative and less expensive. As a result, recidivism decreases, the community is safer and youth are better off.

What should people say or do to urge their elected officials to work towards policy change, like restorative justice?

People first should encourage elected officials to pass policies requiring the collection of juvenile system data so that new policies can have an analytical basis. Knowing the demographics of youth being referred to juvenile court, the referral source (including schools), the level of offenses (including status offenses), risk scores, and outcomes (for example: diversions, prosecutions, detentions and secure confinement) is helpful to policy makers as well as community members. Additionally, research should be used to identify better options for youth – options that are more effective in addressing challenging behaviors. Restorative justice practices are a great way to hold youth accountable, involve victims, and teach empathy without having to subject youth to the shame and stigma of a locked facility. If we want young people to learn from their mistakes, but also have the opportunity for a bright future, communities need to evolve from a punishment mentality to one that focuses on accountability and restoration.