New Orleans, LA – Natalia Ventsko is a youth advocate with the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. She visits juvenile detention centers around the state to hear directly from young people about the issues they're coping with inside these facilities. She also uses some of this time to engage them one-on-one, perhaps giving these teens some special assignment to complete or devising a mental exercise to help them consider their problems in a different light. These are simple steps, but Ventsko says she can see the impact they make on young offenders who otherwise don't get much personal attention and motivation like this while in custody.
"I'm not going to say it's an overnight, oh, they don't ever do anything again, but you can start see them critically think about their actions and it doesn't take much," Ventsko says. "If you just made those small adjustments, how much more effective would the programming be?"
The mission of the Juvenile Justice Project is to be a voice for incarcerated youth and to push for more effective policies and a system that improves overall public safety. The group works across the state, helping reform a juvenile justice system once regarded as America's most abusive, a system that previously did not promise incarcerated children much hope of true rehabilitation. Here's executive director Dana Kaplan:
"When we first opened our doors in 1998 it was common for us to hear stories and visit children who had been raped, ah, who had shattered eardrums, broken jaws, just a litany of abuses, all of which really only served not only to destroy their lives but channel them even further into the justice system upon their release."
Through class action lawsuits, its work with the U.S. Justice Department and its lobbying in state government, the Juvenile Justice Project has made significant progress, and in 2003, Louisiana passed a sweeping reform act to downsize its juvenile detention facilities.
"We have certainly seen a significant reduction in the number of youth incarcerated for non-violent offenses, we still have a ways to go," says Kaplan. "Fifty percent of youth who are in there are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. We know that studies demonstrate that those youth would probably be most effectively served in a community-based program where there was court supervision and wrap-around services."
"What we want to see more of is funding for alternatives to incarceration, like in New Orleans the Youth Empowerment Project or the Youth Advocate Program, programs that judges and district attorneys and defenders can feel comfortable sending a kid to and knowing that that's going to ensure that there's a place they can stay in their community where they're actually going to get the services and support that they need," Kaplan says.
The group takes a holistic approach to the issue, working with school systems to revise disciplinary codes and reduce mandatory expulsions, a common precursor to youth incarceration. It also forms peer support groups and hosts youth summits for concerned young people. Meanwhile, it also continues its work inside the secure detention facilities. Again, youth advocate Natalia Ventsko.
"You talk to the kids over and over again and a lot of times it's like, I didn't even mean to do that. They weren't critically thinking, which most kids do, and they find themselves in these predicaments. So, it could be your kid. I would never say that it couldn't. It could be your little cousin, your little brother."