"Individual leadership will always have a role in social-justice movements, but if the changes we seek are to be made long-term and sustainable, it is necessary that we as 'leaders' develop models for progressive reform that remain community-driven rather than personality-driven."
Join Leadership for a Changing World on Friday, January 27 at 1 pm ET, for a live, online interview with David Utter, Director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, and a 2005 Leadership for a Changing World award recipient. In addition to answering your questions, David will discuss his challenges and successes of working in Louisiana's juvenile justice system.
Adding to the problem is endemic racism. "I represented a 13-year-old African-American child who received a juvenile life sentence for the same purse-snatching charge for which his white co-defendant was sentenced to probation," says David Utter, who directs the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in New Orleans. "Race is the indelible factor in my work."
Utter says he became a lawyer to take on the legal troubles of those who could not afford representation. In Utter's first job after law school in the early 1990s, he sued prison systems in Alabama and Louisiana to compel them "to treat prisoners with basic dignity," as he puts it. Those experiences were one reason Utter and two colleagues founded the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) in 1997. When the JJPL began, Louisiana incarcerated more children than any other state in America. Since then, Louisiana's juvenile prison population has dropped from 1,900 to fewer than 500. That change is due in large part to the efforts of Utter and the JJPL.
In 2000, the JJPL filed and won a class-action lawsuit against the privately run Jena Juvenile Justice Center, citing poor management and abysmal conditions. As a result, the state took control of the facility and soon closed it. The JJPL also filed suit against the privately run Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, another facility that had become notorious for its poor treatment of young offenders. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the legal action, and the settlement of the case in 2000 ultimately closed Tallulah.
Early on, Utter recognized that the families of incarcerated youth often feel as isolated as their sons and daughters. In response, the JJPL began meeting with parents, other relatives, guardians, and friends of incarcerated youth. In time, this group became Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC). In the next few years, the JJPL and the parent-led FFLIC will collaborate to "drive the reform debate based on the best interests of at-risk and delinquent children and their families," Utter says.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Utter was instrumental in a Call for Action to help support New Orleans, where JJPL is located. Through this he was influential in organizing the Survivors Assembly for Reconstruction, an effort to bring together former residents of New Orleans, build unity and create a vision for New Orleans moving forward. The Survivors Assembly for Reconstruction was followed by a rally in New Orleans demanding self-determination, rights to reparation for Hurricane Katrina survivors and the right for survivors and New Orleans' residents to be an integral voice in the creation of a new New Orleans.
For more information
Copyright © 2013 Institute for Sustainable Communities
Site by NetCampaign