Restoring Hope in the Juvenile Justice System

Emphasizing the significant barriers confronting women and men returning to their communities from incarceration, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch designated this week, April 24 through 30, as National Reentry Week. She asked the Department of Justice and its partners to focus on recommitting themselves to coordinating services and strategies that ensure returning citizens are in the best position possible to succeed. We focus every day on the reentry needs of young people returning to our communities from the justice system through the work of Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative, a project of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and RFK Children's Action Corps, two organizations honoring my father's legacy by working to improve justice and human rights worldwide. We applaud Attorney General Lynch and the Department of Justice for concentrating on reentry, and we urge them to keep the reentry needs of young people at the forefront of this critical effort.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights supports youth reentry projects because my father cared deeply about children and young people involved in the juvenile justice system, part of his focus while serving as attorney general. My father said, "Justice, dignity, equality--these are words which are often used loosely, with little appreciation of their meaning. I think that their meaning can be distilled into one goal: that every child in this country live as we would want our own children to live." Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative was formed in 2009 to improve federal youth reentry policy through advocacy, coalition building, and giving voice to youth who are directly impacted by the justice system. The collaborative includes a special emphasis on access to education because it is such a key indicator for successful youth reentry and for overall success in life. Approximately two out of three young people returning from the juvenile justice system do not enter an appropriate educational endeavor. Barriers to getting an education include everything from principals and school boards intentionally barring reentering students because of their previous justice system involvement to frustrating administrative barriers such as slow records transfers between the often-disconnected justice and education systems.

To help begin increasing access to education for young people returning from the justice system, Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative co-led a coalition of advocates that succeeded in getting the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to adopt a range of recommendations that became part of the Correctional and Reentry Education Guidance Package jointly released by the departments in December 2014. This guidance was the first major step by the Obama administration to improve correctional and reentry education for thousands of young people in the juvenile justice system nationwide. Other federal initiatives and congressional actions have followed suit, and the RFK Juvenile Justice Collaborative continues urging decision makers to guarantee access to education and reentry support efforts for young people both while incarcerated and upon reentry to the community.

Fortunately, some young people impacted by the justice system have been able to overcome reentry barriers and succeed. Last year, Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative featured some of these young people at the Congressional Black Caucus's Annual Legislative Conference with honorary host Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri on a panel where young women and men detailed perspectives and best practices. These panelists, leaders in their respective communities, identified key aspects of youth reentry, including access to education and financial aid; medical care, including behavioral healthcare; and opportunities for job training and employment in a diverse range of careers. In addition to these more obvious reentry resources, the young panelists also described the importance of having caring adults involved in their lives upon reentry. Fostering such connections are crucial as we continue improving reentry prospects for young people across the country.

During National Reentry Week and all year round, all of us should work to restore hope for young people involved in the justice system by improving access to education and employment, and by strengthening the reentry programs that helps them achieve these milestones. We should also recommit ourselves to preventing further discrimination and disenfranchisement by helping youth stay out of the justice system in the first place by reducing incarceration and promoting effective alternatives. My father believed young people are among our nation's most valuable resources, and so we should ensure that every child--including children and youth returning from the justice system--have access to the opportunities we would want for our own children.