IllinoisHumanities

Mikva Challenge is a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering young people to be informed, active citizens for a more inclusive democracy. Through several citywide youth councils, the organization is constantly working to make sure youth voices are present at the table when public policy that significantly impacts them is discussed.

The Mikva Challenge Juvenile Justice Council was created five years ago in the summer of 2013 through a partnership with Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Judicial Advisory Council, which coordinates and implements Preckwinkle’s criminal and juvenile justice reform efforts. The Juvenile Justice Council (JJC) is made up of young advocates who act as a voice for youths who have been through the juvenile justice system and whose experiences may have been overlooked or ignored.

“The Council does research and implements policy recommendations that come from the youth that have been part of the system they are trying to improve. We focus on recidivism and deduction of incarceration for young people,” explains Juvenile Justice Council Manager Juleny Santa Cruz. “The whole point of the JJC is to augment the voices of the young people who have been through these practices and want something better for themselves and for the community.”

Aasiyah, a Council member, says there are many great programs for Chicago youth, but Mikva Challenge is the only one she is aware of that puts young people at the table where officials are making decisions. “A young person can say, ‘Stop, I don’t understand this. How will this impact me? This is not fair to me.’ You can learn a lot from young people’s experiences,” Aasiyah adds.

“Probation officers and state’s attorneys need to take people into consideration when they make decisions. It’s important to give us a voice,” says Kwiese, who was referred to the Council program by his attorney. “There are some good people in this system.”

The Council focuses its work on the juvenile justice system through a new “framing question” every year. In 2017, the question was “What does a juvenile justice system that is responsive to youth look like?” The Council’s research led to several recommendations presented to Preckwinkle, including a resource toolkit for youth, tracking and analyzing decisions made by court judges, and the use of social media as an alternative method of contacting youth.

“I went through a divergent program myself and some people didn’t even get that chance,” explains DJ, a Council member. “I feel like everyone should get that choice. Even though I was directly impacted by the juvenile justice system, I didn’t know what was going on and how it worked until I actually joined the Juvenile Justice Council and experienced what it’s like trying to make a change.”

Mikva Challenge Justice Council group photo
“The whole point of the JJC is to augment the voices of the young people who have been through these practices and want something better for themselves and for the community.”

Other past accomplishments include the creation of Expunge.io, an app created in collaboration with Smart Chicago exclusively to help youth find out if they are eligible to have their juvenile records expunged and initiate the process.

“This year we are focusing on trauma-informed practices, restorative justice, diversion programs and, generally, on things that will keep young people away from further incarceration,” says Santa-Cruz. “The fact that my young people are going to be able to present their own opinions to a wide audience about how their own experiences with diversion programs and restorative justice have helped them get their lives back on track is really amazing.”

Through the Envisioning Justice Community Grant for Stories and Public Opinion, the Council will expand its storytelling efforts through audio-visual content that will further highlight its policy-making efforts and uplift youth voices. The films will be a powerful tool to reach wider audiences and act as a platform for youths who have been through the juvenile justice system to voice actionable suggestions for reform. The Council members will select the topics, direct the films’ creation and organize potential public screenings of the films. The project’s development is set to begin in January of 2019 and will be completed later in the spring.

“We’re stronger as a community than as one person so if we can put our work out there to a wider variety of people, then more people would be interested in what we’re doing and more people will help take a stand with us,” adds DJ.

To read more about the Juvenile Justice Council’s work and view its past reports, visit its website.

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The Mikva Challenge Juvenile Justice Council