Last month, the National Juvenile Defender Center hosted our 20th Annual Juvenile Defender Leadership Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. We brought together nearly 500 juvenile defenders — our largest group yet! — for three days of training, networking, and inspiration around our work to promote justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense.
Acting Executive Director Mary Ann Scali opened Summit with a call to action for attendees from nearly all 50 states and Puerto Rico: defenders must use their collective voice on the front lines of juvenile court to confront the dual injustices of civil and due process rights violations against children. That means building partnerships in the communities where our clients live, calling out racism where we see it, and working to ensure every state agenda addresses the inequality and lack of protections in juvenile court.
We kicked off our opening session with remarks from Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who commended the great strides made in the juvenile defense community to uphold children’s rights, but cautioned that “the promise of justice still rings hollow for many young people in courtrooms across America.” Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason and Assistant to the President and Chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce Broderick Johnson joined us for a plenary discussion to echo Ms. Lynch’s call to make the guarantees of due process rights for children a reality.
Our faculty of 120 experts hosted over 50 workshops on issues from trauma-informed care to building cultures of policy reform in defender offices to trial and appellate strategies. We highlighted innovative programs taking root across the country, including Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) which empowers defenders to understand and embrace their role in the civil rights movement, to support racial justice activism, and to show up in their community—at marches and at neighborhood meetings. Our Spotlight also featured Monique Morris and her new book, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” about the policies, practices, and people that degrade and demean young Black girls. Ms. Morris’ work celebrates their resiliency and spirit in a society that seems hell-bent on locking them up.
Other special moments included a keynote by Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, during which he implored the audience to read the In re Gault decision and “feel the majesty of the law.” He also said, “Mercy is the highest attribute of human kind.” And we were honored to welcome James Bell, Founder and Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, for the following day’s keynote address. He spoke about racism and its pervasive presence in our courts, saying, “Deprivation of liberty should not be a 21st century American caste system,” and, “Our problem is not implicit bias, rather it is explicit racism hiding under the guise of safety and order.”
The Robert E. Shepherd Jr. Leadership Award, presented by NJDC Board President Bridgett Ortega, was given to Patti Lee, Manager of the Juvenile Unit at the San Francisco Public Defender, who has spent decades fighting fiercely for youth—for their dignity, their rights, and their futures. We also hosted a reception at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, where we recognized Randee Waldman, Director of the Juvenile Defender Clinic at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, for her service as a stalwart defender and champion of children’s justice.
The Summit closed out with a panel of young people who shared their experiences in the court system and offered advice to attendees about how to provide supportive, effective, and compassionate representation for children.
The National Juvenile Defender Center’s materials and publications shared at Summit, as well as faculty presentations, are available on our website. Thanks to our Board of Directors, National Advisory Board, staff, and entire juvenile defense community for making the 20th Annual Summit our best yet.