Advancing Economic Justice for Youth Justice Action Month

By Duy Pham

During Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM) in October, advocates raise awareness and inspire action on behalf of young people impacted by the criminal justice system.  This year, the YJAM challenge is to A.C.T. (Awaken, Confront, Transform) to end racism. However, we can’t address structural racism in the criminal justice system without addressing how it blocks economic opportunities for youth and young adults of color. 

For us to truly realize youth justice, we must advance economic justice for those affected by the justice system. We can develop a comprehensive vision for community investment that doesn’t rely on an oppressive criminal justice system by using a range of anti-poverty and equity levers, such as wages and income, workforce development and employment, education and training pathways, healing, mental health, and wellbeing.

The criminal justice system reflects a gross failure in making meaningful investments in public education, workforce development, behavioral and mental health, and the general quality of life for people living in under-resourced communities. Thirty percent of incarcerated individuals lack a high-school credential, and only 6 percent have a postsecondary credential.  The median wages before people are incarcerated are 41 percent less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.  Furthermore, people with a mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than those without one, which likely points to a lack of access to mental health care and the stigma of mental illness. These stark statistics underscore that individuals who come in contact with the justice system often lack educational, employment, and health/mental health opportunities prior to incarceration.

Earlier this summer, CLASP brought together over 60 national, state, and local advocates, systems leaders, policymakers, and other partners from the workforce, youth development, education and corrections fields to discuss economic justice for individuals and communities affected by the criminal justice system. We centered our discussion with the voices of people whose lives have been impacted to reimagine an action agenda that prioritizes economic justice. The conversations we held during that roundtable reminded us that incremental reform—while necessary—isn’t a long-term solution. We must ultimately reimagine what the system should look like, how it functions, and what its purpose is. In addition, we must work toward a society that prioritizes vital community systems—such as quality education, employment and health care—that ensure incarceration isn’t a response to underinvestment.

Because racism is the key driver of mass incarceration, we must ensure that economic reforms intentionally target youth and young adults of color alongside efforts to reduce racial bias in the justice system.  We must begin to repair and rebuild communities most harmed by mass incarceration through systemic investments in employment, education, and health and wellbeing of youth and young adults of color. In addition, we must continue to advance traditional criminal justice reforms, such as police and sentencing reform. Some initial steps to advancing economic justice include:

  • Reinvesting revenues from decarceration, closing prisons, and legalizing cannabis in communities most harmed by the justice system. Redirect these funds to support workforce development, entrepreneurship, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. These targeted investments can prevent young people from entering the justice system and help them successfully return to their communities following incarceration.
  • Creating education and workforce training pathways from incarceration to reentry. We should invest in high-quality career pathways, including paid Registered Apprenticeships, that prepare students for high-paying jobs. We must also reverse the ban on federal financial aid for incarcerated individuals so they can access postsecondary education.
  • Eliminating collateral consequences. We must ensure education and workforce opportunities are subsidized and accessible to returning community members. We can accomplish this by connecting education and workforce training opportunities during incarceration to careers upon reentry, banning the box on higher education and job applications, lifting state occupational licensing bans, and automatically expunging records for people unfairly targeted by the War on Drugs.  We must also eliminate the use of fines and fees in the justice system that impair the economic viability of returning community members. Finally, we must remove the barriers to public benefit programs for people affected by the justice system.

This month—and all year—CLASP is committed to partnering with young people, government officials, and advocates in fighting against racism and promoting economic justice for youth and young adults of color to transform and reimagine an equitable justice system.