Young People Spearhead Movement to Address Unjust Juvenile System

April 15, 2016
Other-Edna-Photo-bWritten by Edna Iriarte, Program Officer

In recent years, many of our grantees have turned to participatory action research to shed light on issues that impact community members. Participatory action research differs from other research because it is conducted by community members and draws from people’s lived experiences. About a month ago, Community Connections for Youth and United Playaz of New York released Support Not Punish, a participatory action report about the experiences of young people who come in contact with the harsh juvenile system in New York.

The report tells a story of young people’s experiences in the Bronx juvenile justice system, beginning with arrest and continuing through their contact with the court, detention, probation, and placement. In the report, the youth offer a set of recommendations on how to improve the juvenile justice system so that it is responsive to the needs of youth and families.

“Support Not Punish” report release, The Bronx. Photo courtesy of Renea Burke.


Ninety-two young people, 15 years old or younger and who had been arrested, were surveyed.

Twenty-seven percent of surveyed youth said that they were arrested in school; 56 percent were arrested in their neighborhoods; and 17 percent were arrested in their homes. About 60 percent of the participants were not only arrested, but also suspended from school. Only 42 percent of those arrested said that their parents were notified at the time of the arrest. New York State Law requires police to notify guardians immediately after a juvenile’s arrest.

“Support Not Punish” report release, The Bronx. Photo courtesy of Renea Burke.

Overwhelming facts point to a criminal justice system that directly targets and unfairly punishes Black and Brown people in much higher numbers compared to White people. We know it’s no different among our youth. New York State is one of only two states in the United States where the age of criminal responsibility is 16 years old. This means, any young person arrested at age 16 or 17 is automatically tried in the adult criminal justice system.

In the report, the youth recommend that youth who are arrested not be questioned by police prior to parent or guardian notification; youth in probation have access to vocational training and employment; in the court process youth have an opportunity to speak under conditions where what they say cannot be used against them; and teachers receive training to deal with the needs of students who are returning to schools from detention and/or placement.

For anyone interested in uprooting the systemic institutionalized racism that batters our Black and Brown youth, the report is worth a read. According to Reverend Ruben Austria, founder and executive director of Community Connections for Youth, the report offers an opportunity “to listen to the experiences the young people have shared.” This report has the power to propel us to reconsider how we choose to invest in their success and in creating a more just society.