In 2011, Georgia resident Jennifer DeWeese knew very little about the juvenile justice system in her state. She had never heard of a Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC), nor did she have reason to believe that she would one day end up being an influential voice of personal experience in Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
But then her teenage son stole their neighbor’s car and served more than a month in an RYDC—a term that is now a regular part of DeWeese’s vocabulary.
“I had preconceived notions [about the system], like so many people do, and they were wrong … about what the reality was for the youth in our system who are incarcerated,” she said. “[At the RYDC] there was this incredible group of committed, kind, compassionate people who wanted to see each and every youth be the best that they could be.”
While DeWeese’s son was in custody, RYDC staff were diligent in obtaining his school work so that he could complete the ninth grade. Her son’s RYDC counselor made sure that any questions DeWeese had were answered, and detention center guards were always respectful when she visited her son.
DeWeese told the RYDC staff that she wanted to play a more active role in the system. Six months after her son’s release, she was invited to join the advisory board for the DeKalb RYDC where her son was incarcerated, and was later asked to participate in the Georgia DJJ’s first Citizens’ Academy, which was designed to raise public awareness about the functions of the juvenile justice system and to promote government transparency.
DeWeese’s involvement with the Georgia DJJ coincided with a wave of statewide reforms to the adult and juvenile justice systems. Governor Nathan Deal appointed Avery D. Niles, a former warden with nearly three decades of experience in law enforcement and criminal justice, as commissioner of the Georgia DJJ in 2012. Upon assuming that title, Commissioner Niles made reentry one of his top priorities. When the Georgia DJJ received a Second Chance Act grant in 2014, the department established a Youth Reentry Task Force to initiate and oversee reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system.
“Our goal was not just to build a reentry task force, but to build one that was sustainable,” said B. Keith Jones, one of the task force’s leaders and director of Reentry Services within the DJJ.
The task force—which began with 21 member organizations—now has more than 60 member organizations and more than 100 individual members who represent a diverse group of youth-serving agencies and community stakeholders. DeWeese was invited to serve on the task force as a parent representative.
“Most of us have not experienced having a child in detention,” Jones said. “[DeWeese is] a subject-matter expert on that… She has devoted her time to helping us think through some of the things that we need to do with our youth in custody… Her statements add a lot of value to the discussion.”
Members of the task force are divided into six subgroups based on evidence-based domains of aftercare—key areas for youth to focus on when reintegrating into society after incarceration. Those six subgroups address family and living arrangements, parenthood, peer groups and friends, behavioral and physical health, vocational training and employment, leisure and recreation, and education and schooling. The task force has also engaged other state agencies to advance its goal of improving reentry outcomes for youth, including the Department of Driver Services, which helps newly released youth obtain the identification that is often needed to secure employment and access necessary services.
“We’re unique … because we have governor support, and we have commissioner support,” Jones said. “And when you’ve got that, it just makes things a lot easier—especially when you’re dealing with state agencies, who facilitate a lot of the work that we’re trying to accomplish.”
DeWeese participates in two of the task force’s subgroups: family and living arrangements, and parenthood. She uses her own experience to offer a 360-degree view of these youth. And the DJJ listens.
“So many government entities are perceived to be insular and not willing to accept information from the outside,” DeWeese said. “I found DJJ [to be] just the opposite.”
Based on her own journey with the DJJ, DeWeese recommends that other states follow Georgia’s example and involve parents of incarcerated youth in juvenile justice reform efforts.
“I certainly don’t think [involvement with DJJ] needs to be seen as a normal way of life, but I think it needs to be destigmatized,” DeWeese said. “It gives [youth] a chance to reflect … and maybe make some changes in their lives.”
As for DeWeese’s son, he is now an Eagle Scout, has started his own painting business, and is a sophomore in college studying criminal justice.
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