We were honored to be joined this year by keynote speakers James Bell, founder, executive director & board president of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and Bart Lubow, consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former director of their Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, who provided insights and reflections about how we got to the point of imposing extreme sentences upon children, and disproportionately on children of color.

Lubow noted in his comments during the opening plenary that life without parole is the most egregious example of the ways that our justice system fails the “my child” test. The “my child” test calls upon system leaders and policymakers to ask themselves whether they would want our current policies to apply to their own children if they came into conflict with the law. Where our policies and practices fail this test, there is a clear need for reform.

Lubow drew from his decades of experience with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, also known as JDAI, which focuses on diverting children from detention and improving outcomes for our most vulnerable youth.

Bell was the keynote speaker for the session on the role and history of race in our juvenile sentencing practices. His remarks were consistent with Lubow’s in that he noted that there are no easy answers to dealing with the long-term problem of disparate prosecution and sentencing of children.

Bell said life without parole for children is the most extreme example of the way that our country has implemented polices that have negated childhood for black youth, insisted on harsh punishment, and focused on retribution rather than rehabilitation. As a result, structural racism is one of the challenges that we must face head on in our effort to bring meaningful and lasting reforms.

Lubow encouraged people who seek change to prepare to work for the long haul. Change will come, he said, but stamina is necessary because these complicated and entrenched issues won’t be resolved quickly but will require sustained, dedicated work.