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Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ)'s Visual Map

  • Condemns state “transfer laws” that make it possible for prosecutors to try the cases of some juvenile offenders in adult criminal court
  • Maintains that teenagers who are tried and sentenced as adults subsequently face a host of severe consequences that will persist for a lifetime
  • Funded by George Soros's Open Society Institute


The Campaign For Youth Justice (CFYJ) was founded in 2005 by Liz Ryan, its current president and CEO, to reform the juvenile-justice system. Lamenting that on any given day in the U.S. approximately 11,000 young people (under age 18) are incarcerated in adult detention facilities which are “ill-equipped to address youth needs and promote rehabilitation,” CFYJ condemns state “transfer laws” that make it possible for prosecutors to try the cases of some juvenile offenders in adult criminal court. Such tranfers, the organization says, inflict “harmful and irreversible consequences” on young people, usually for nonviolent offenses. The practice of trying and sentencing juveniles as adults initially became more widespread in the 1980s, in response to a spate of particularly brutal, high-profile crimes committed by young, so-called "super-predators." Judges in juvenile cases are required by law to base their decisions to transfer cases to adult courts on several clearly defined considerations.

According to CFYJ
, a “vast body of evidence” shows that “transferring juveniles to the adult criminal-justice system leads to higher rates of recidivism, puts incarcerated and detained youth at unnecessary risk, has little deterrence value, and does not increase public safety.” The “harsh punishment in adult facilities,” the organization elaborates, “increases the probability of [a convict committing] future violent crimes.” CFYJ's recommended alternative to court transfer is the implementation of rehabilitative “programs for youth that provide systematic treatment” – including drug treatment and psychological counseling – “in community and family settings.” Such efforts, CFYJ maintains, are not only “less costly than detention or incarceration” but also “help youth stay out of trouble and ... not re-offend.”

In 2009 CFYJ collaborated with the National Council of La Raza to publish America’s Invisible Children: Latino Youth and the Failure of Justice, a report offering policy recommendations designed to reduce the large numbers of Hispanic teens not only in adult prisons but in the justice system generally. Other CFYJ policy briefs complain that black and American Indian youth are likewise “disproportionately affected by transfer laws.”

CFYJ contends that teenagers who are tried and sentenced as adults subsequently face a host of severe consequences that will persist for a lifetime. For example, many of these offenders are affected by “federal legislation barring access to federal programs (food stamps, public assistance, public housing, etc.) as well as state legislation over criminal history anonymity, employment barriers and other essentials to becoming a productive citizen.”

CFYJ vehemently objects to “Beyond Scared Straight,” an A&E television series featuring hardened convicts in maximum-security prisons who bluntly and menacingly warn “at-risk,” delinquent youngsters about the horrors of prison life. By CFYJ's reckoning, this “noxious program” has “serious, negative and life-threatening impacts on young people” who are “subjected” to it.

According to CFYJ president Liz Ryan
, punitive approaches to juvenile crime are ill-advised and inappropriate because “science shows that young people’s brains are not fully developed until their mid-20’s.” Moreover, she explains, teens and young adults are handicapped by the "profound effect" of peer pressure and by the fact that their “impulse control isn’t fully developed” yet – especially in “high-pressure situations.” Asserting that most youthful offenders who are sentenced as adults “are not a public safety risk to the community,” Ryan laments that “so much ... money is going to bricks and mortar -- a bigger prison system -- that there’s less available for other approaches even though they provide the outcome we want.”

Prior to joining CFYJ, Ryan spent five years as the advocacy director for the Youth Law Center’s Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, a project that seeks "to reduce the over-incarceration and disparate treatment of children of color in the juvenile justice system." She also served as a lobbyist for the Children’s Defense Fund and as a volunteer for Americorps/VISTA.

In 2007, George Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI) approved $1 million in grant payments to CFYJ. The following year, OSI approved another $600,000 for the organization.



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