Eastern University’s School for Social Change will from now on be placing specific emphasis on one issue of social justice each year. This year, juvenile justice issues are the main focus. Criminalization of urban youth is the first topic that will be addressed. A discussion panel held at the School for Social Change on Sept. 26 marked the beginning of efforts to educate our community.
Director of the Center for Urban Youth Development Dr. Kimberlee Johnson’s passion for informing people of the unjust practices in our juvenile justice system is what has brought the topic to our community. According to Dr. Johnson, Americans are unaware of the circumstances surrounding the 80 percent of youth being tried as adults.
“We assume that cold-blooded killers are the only ones being tried as adults, and that’s not true,” Johnson said.
After teaching a course called Urban Youth Culture to students in Eastern’s dual credit program for high school students, Cross-Boundaries, Dr. Johnson was appalled at how little youth know about justice issues facing their peers.
Through the privatization of prisons, people are making money off of a system meant to rehabilitate youth who instead are used for low-wage labor and economic stimulus. Only three years ago, it was ruled unconstitutional for a juvenile to be sentenced to death. These are the injustices Dr. Johnson is seeking to unveil.
One of the largest issues, according to Dr. Johnson, is Disproportionate Minority Contact in the juvenile justice system. This is the overrepresentation of minorities at each level of the juvenile justice system. According to the Juvenile Defense Network, DMC is the result of several different factors including lack of knowledge of rights and the access to competent legal representation.
“There is also an economic injustice. If I have money, I get two years; if I don’t have money, I get ten. If I have money, I’m tried as a juvenile; if I don’t have money, it’s likely I’m going to be tried as an adult,” Dr. Johnson said. “If you’re poor you don’t have access to the same type or the same quality of representation as someone that has the financial means to get that.”
This is just one of the injustices that Dr. Johnson said should be included in our radar at Eastern. “As Christians we need to be concerned about justice in all shapes and forms. It needs to be punitive, it needs to be restorative, and it needs to be redemptive,” she said.
This is why she hopes the forum has been a catalyst for action within our community. Actions against these injustices do not just have to come from Justice and Mercy Inc. or the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as advocates partnering against these unjust practices.
Dr. Johnson said that there are several ways that Eastern University students can get involved in the efforts to advocate for the youth who have been unjustly treated by the justice system in Philadelphia. At the very least, she said, they need to become educated about the issues. Upon receiving the knowledge, it is as easy as writing letters and making it an area of conversation for others.
This is an ongoing conversation that Dr. Johnson said she has a desire to keep going for much longer than just this year. She hopes that she and Eastern graduate students from the Masters of Urban Studies program will be invited to speak to the students in core classes such as INST150 and INST270.
“While we want to see justice for the victims, we also need to have justice even for people who committed offenses as well,” she said. “I think as Christians our mind should always be toward how people can be redeemed.”
For more information on issues of juvenile justice: