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Challenges, Changes, and New Beginnings: Don Carney

As we enter 2022, it marks Youth Transforming Justice’s (YTJ) eighteenth year as an organization. Many changes and milestones have occurred in the nearly two decades that has led YTJ to become the nationally recognized program it is today. The story of how a nonprofit that had less than ten cases the first year, grew to be recognized as a statewide restorative justice model is one of accolades, challenges, and everything in between. Founder and director, Don Carney, reflects on some of the highlights from the past eighteen years of YTJ evolving.

Launched in 2004 as the Marin Youth Court, a small program supported by the YMCA, it had little notoriety in the community. Restorative justice was not a universally understood concept at this time. There was hesitation by many involved in the criminal justice system, even those looking for ways to reform it. “Trust in the program built slowly, the first year (2004) we only had four referrals, in 2005 we had 8, in 2006 we had 16, in 2007 we had 32. In 2008 we received over 100 referrals for juvenile substance violations,” says Carney. In 2008 YTJ had a significant expansion of what they provided, adding the Drug and Alcohol Harm Reduction Training. Today, this Harm Reduction Training is an essential piece of every respondent’s restorative plan and helps teens understand the risks and science behind drug use.

After years of growth, during which YTJ showed consistently positive results and lower recidivism rates than traditional juvenile justice methods, YTJ began to be recognized on a larger scale for their work. In 2014, on their ten year anniversary, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye stated, “The Youth Court holds incredible promise, the lack of recidivism and the 95% success rate is unprecedented. This program should be replicated throughout all 58 counties of California.” The 2016 documentary highlighting the Youth Court program, Finding Justice: Ending the School to Prison Pipeline was played for a countywide audience at the Mill Valley Film Festival. In 2019, Constellation Behavioral Health, which honors professionals who have advocated for youth affected by addiction and mental health disorders, awarded Don with the Hope Tribute Award.

Due to the pandemic, in March of 2020 Youth Court was forced to go virtual. Since then, cases have been held exclusively on Zoom. This dramatic shift from in-person cases at the Civic Center to those facilitated through a small screen brought challenges but also positive realizations, “We experienced a loss of personal connection with the youth in the program, but we increased our reach throughout the state. We also learned that being on Zoom was less trauma-triggering than being in the courtroom.” Youth Court was the only restorative justice program still functioning in the state during this time. This led to youth from all over the state including Los Angeles, Mendocino, and San Mateo having the opportunity to see the YTJ model successfully going virtual.

During this transition, another significant change coincided. YTJ made the decision to leave the YMCA and become an independent nonprofit. “We outgrew the YMCA. Our non-adversarial restorative trauma-informed approach began to be recognized by Youth Courts and communities throughout the state and country as a positive approach to supporting youth who otherwise would be suspended from school or referred to the juvenile justice system.” They were confronted with many learning experiences as they adjusted to independence, especially on the business side of the program. Going independent has also given the program more freedom and the ability to make changes and adjustments in response to community or client changes. Independence has given YTJ the ability to help other growing Youth Courts including Nevada, Mendocino and San Mateo counties, evolve their programs in a more restorative direction. YTJ youth leaders were responsible for the new name Youth Transforming Justice, one saying, “isn’t that what we are doing, transforming justice so it can actually help people?”

“In the wake of going independent and the lessons YTJ has learned from the last two years of being virtual, we are optimistic for the future. Independence has given us the opportunity to more clearly market our programs and expand ventures beyond the walls of a courtroom.” Don and the rest of the team are also continuing to work on prior goals such as growing the number of BIPOC youth in leadership positions. “The name Youth Transforming Justice tells the story of what we believe and what we do,” Carney says.

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