Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: An interview with Sarah Bryer

by Liz Wu

In conjunction with the release of Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, we sat down with Sarah Bryer to discuss the report and the future of juvenile justice reform. Sarah is the director of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and has worked in the juvenile and criminal justice fields for more than 20 years.

RECLAIMING FUTURES: Your organization, the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), has just released a great report on recent work to reform the juvenile justice system in states across the country. Tell us about it — what spurred you to put it together?

SARAH BRYER: It’s called, Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011, and it’s actually the fourth in a series of similar publications that we’ve done since 2006. It was a lot of work — after all, it’s 63-pages of capsule summaries of reforms from 47 states in 24 categories. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s still fairly representative. But we put it together — thanks to support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative — because we wanted to document that jurisdictions all over the country are finding ways to roll back punitive, ineffective approaches to youth in trouble with the law, and redirect resources to cost-effective, community-based alternatives, including treatment services.

RF: Who is Advances for? What audiences did you have in mind?

SB: It’s meant for advocates, system players, policymakers, journalists … you name it. Anyone who’s working on juvenile justice issues should find it valuable.
For example, let’s say you’re working on the school-to-prison pipeline. You may not know what folks in other states are doing about it — of even if you do, you may not know whom to talk to. With Advances, you can tell at a glance what various states have done on the issue in the past few years. (You can even go on our website to drill down to see the legislation, policies, or other documents related to specific reforms.) In most cases, you can find an NJJN member organization you can reach out to if you want to learn more.

But you can also use the document to generate and share ideas, educate policymakers, journalists, and other members of the public. Organizations can even use it to show that they’re part of a national movement, and to promote juvenile justice reform generally

RF: Is there any material in it that Reclaiming Futures sites would be especially interested in?

SB: Absolutely. As I said, we cover reforms in 24 different categories. While the section on mental health and substance abuse is shorter than one would like, there’s a larger one devoted to screening and assessment, one on confidentiality, and one on organizational and large-scale change, to pick a few at random. But there’s material of interest throughout. In the section on probation, parole, and reentry, for example, there’s an Indiana law that was passed to ensure that youth don’t lose their Medicaid coverage when they’re detained, and there’s a Texas law designed to streamline re-enrolling committed youth in Medicaid once they leave a secure facility. Meanwhile, in 2010, Sedgwick County, KS implemented graduated sanctions and rewards for youth on probation. So there’s a lot for Reclaiming Futures folks to sink their teeth into.

RF: Looking at this document, it looks like juvenile justice reformers have been really successful. What’s still left to do?

SB: We’re so excited that the field has been able to do so much to reform the system, and proud to be a part of it. Yet, the changes listed in Advances just scratch the surface of what we need to accomplish. Every day, we as a society make huge mistakes with youth in trouble with the law — mistakes that will have serious ramifications for the rest of their lives and which can contribute to new crimes and new victims. So, while Advances shows how much we have to celebrate, the need to make sure that the youth and families who are caught up in the system are not harmed by the experience and can contribute positively to society … that need remains as urgent as ever.

Advances in Juvenile Justice Reform: 2009-2011 can be downloaded from Hard copies may be requested by emailing

The National Juvenile Justice Network is made up of 43 juvenile justice coalitions and organizations in 33 states that advocate for state and federal laws, policies and practices that are fair, equitable and developmentally appropriate for all children, youth and families involved in—or at risk of becoming involved in—the justice system.

Liz Wu is a Digital Accounts Manager at Prichard Communications, where she oversees digital outreach for Reclaiming Futures and edits Reclaiming Futures Every Day. Before joining the Prichard team, Liz established the West Coast communications presence for the New America Foundation, where she managed all media relations, event planning and social media outreach for their 6 domestic policy programs. Liz received a B.A. in both Peace and Conflict Studies and German from the University of California at Berkeley. She tweets from @LizSF.