Jessica Feierman, L’00, believes teenagers behind bars often have the clearest vision of how the juvenile justice system is failing them. The problem is, they don’t have the tools to fix it. Feierman is working to provide those tools.
To empower youths caught in the crosshairs of the system, Feierman is spearheading Juveniles for Justice (J4J) in collaboration with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a national nonprofit public interest law firm that advances the rights and well-being of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. J4J positions recently incarcerated youth to transform the juvenile justice system from the inside, one issue at a time, by connecting them to resources and strategic partnerships.
“People often write them off, but their ideas and energy give rise to constructive change and new opportunities,” said Feierman, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center who has been listening to incarcerated youths for over a decade and developing ways to base advocacy on their insights.
Feierman initiated J4J in response to the race and class discrimination she witnessed in the system. “The harsh punitive reaction is not good at promoting the well-being and re-entry of youth into society. More disturbingly, it is disproportionately confining youth of color,” she said.
To ensure that the system benefits rather than hurts youth, Feierman is recruiting ten recently incarcerated teenagers from “reintegration centers”— facilities they go to after their release from detention centers. These youths are close to the experience of incarceration, but are freer to speak out than those in correctional facilities who may face retaliation from staff members if they complain about conditions, said Feierman.
J4J members will set personal and community goals. She said they will also communicate with incarcerated teens and with other youths across the city in schools, student unions and art programs.
The youths will work with adult juvenile justice advocates in creating a network of juvenile justice advocates who will recognize the importance of youths in reform efforts.
One of the issues that might be addressed is the lack of engaging programs in detention centers. J4J could create art and videos to bring this and other issues to public attention, said Feierman.
Aiding them in their efforts will be partners like Mural Arts Project and allies in related fields like education. One of the main sources of support is the Case Foundation.
Feierman is grateful to the Class of 2000 for voting online and making J4J one of four recipients of the ‘Make It Your Own Award’ grant. The $35,000 grant will be used in part to provide stipends to youths and alleviate some of their economic hardship.