Abrams Book Compiles Global Research on Child Imprisonment

A new book co-edited by Professor Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, seeks to educate students, scholars and policymakers about the role of incarceration in young people’s lives. “The Palgrave International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment” compiles research from dozens of scholars from around the world on cross-cutting themes including the conditions of confinement, gender/sexuality and identity, juvenile facility staff, young people’s experiences in adult prisons, and new models and perspectives on juvenile imprisonment. “Numerous children are imprisoned across the globe in deplorable conditions, despite international legal conventions which suggest that children should be detained only as a last resort,” write Abrams and co-editor Alexandra Cox of the University of Essex. In addition to facing lengthy terms of imprisonment, a substantial number of children are exposed to abuse and violence in custody, poor health and mental health care, and a lack of access to educational, vocational and training opportunities. Some nations, however, have instituted reforms that have greatly decreased the number of children held in confinement. The handbook offers far-flung criminal justice systems the opportunity to learn from one another: “In this volume, we bring together views from a wide variety of countries and contexts to present the most recent cutting-edge research on youth imprisonment that has the potential to shape how the field can create better systems of care for all young people in conflict with the law.”


 

Social Welfare Issues Update About Anti-Racism Efforts

The UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty, students and alumni who joined forces in summer 2020 to craft an Action Plan to Address Anti-Blackness and Racism recently issued a progress report and accompanying video explaining their efforts. The team came together following the killing of George Floyd to examine the curriculum and culture, developing a set of action items to address racial disparities within the department and across the education of social workers. Their new report details progress that has been made so far, including a series of virtual events during the 2020-21 academic year that focused on racial justice and the history of how white supremacy has impacted the practice of social work. The progress report also discusses areas where further progress is needed at UCLA Luskin, such as recruiting more Black faculty members and providing additional funding opportunities to students of color. Read more about the team and their efforts.

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Abrams on Harsh Effects of Entangling Children in the Justice System

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams co-authored two commentaries aimed at galvanizing support for establishing a national minimum age of juvenile justice jurisdiction — an age below which a child cannot be prosecuted in juvenile court. Writing in JAMA Pediatrics and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Abrams argued that “entangling children in the justice system is harsh and developmentally incongruent with children’s needs.” With co-authors Destiny G. Tolliver of the Yale School of Medicine, Eraka Bath of UCLA Psychiatry and Elizabeth S. Barnert of the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine, Abrams called for the establishment of a federal statute establishing a national minimum age of 12 years or higher for juvenile justice jurisdiction. “Child and adolescent psychiatrists should educate others on the psychosocial risks of early juvenile justice involvement, condemn its racist impact and drivers, and bolster family and community supports for youths with behavioral health and social needs,” the authors wrote.


 

‘Halfway Home’ Book Talk Explores the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration

Sociologist Reuben J. Miller shared highlights from his new book on the inequities of the U.S. criminal justice system during a virtual dialogue on March 11, part of the Transdisciplinary Speaker Series at UCLA Luskin. “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration” is the culmination of Miller’s years of research in Chicago and Detroit, including over 250 interviews with prisoners, former prisoners, and their friends and families. “It takes more than a few hours and a few cups of coffee to learn about a person,” said Miller, explaining that he wanted to move past the caricatures we have learned to embrace. In the second half of the event, Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams moderated a discussion about the repercussions of mass incarceration. Michael Mendoza, director of national advocacy for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said prison is like a ghost that follows you throughout your life. “The prison-industrial complex doesn’t just punish people physically but emotionally and mentally as people try to get their footing on the ground,” he said. Amada Armenta Ph.D. sociology ’11, associate professor of urban planning, noted the importance of producing research on criminal justice that is accessible for readers in order to facilitate a dialogue. Isaac Bryan MPP ’18, director of the Black Policy Project at UCLA, spoke about making a radical commitment to recognizing the full humanity of people and the role that policy can play in mitigating systems of harm. “This book uplifts voices that need to be heard,” Bryan said. “This book can propel us forward and was made for a moment like this.” — Zoe Day


Abrams Calls for End to Criminalizing Children

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams co-authored a Washington Post opinion piece on the consequences of criminalizing childhood misbehavior and mental health problems. “Arresting children is counterproductive and unethical,” wrote Abrams and co-author Elizabeth S. Barnert of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Appearing after the release of video footage showing police in Rochester, N.Y., using pepper spray and handcuffs on a 9-year-old girl, the op-ed called on the United States to set a national minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction of at least 12. Currently, they wrote, “47 states have the power to forcibly arrest elementary-school-age children and do so regularly.” Abrams and Barnert cited their research showing that child incarceration elevates the risk of trauma and abuse, behavioral and mental health problems, and future involvement in the criminal justice system. They also pointed to systemic racism, noting that, compared with white children, Black youths under 12 are 2.5 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court.

Images of Pepper-Sprayed Girl Underscore Urgency of Minimum-Age Laws

Video footage of a 9-year-old girl being handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police in Rochester, N.Y., has put a spotlight on a key question for policymakers: At what age should a child be shielded from detention, prosecution and incarceration in the criminal justice system? That question is the focus of scholarship by Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams and Elizabeth Barnert, assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Their collaborative research at the intersection of child health and juvenile justice has led to data-driven recommendations about the minimum age of criminal responsibility, factoring in brain development, competency and childhood experiences. Abrams and Barnert recently worked with the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) to form a broad coalition of advocates and health professionals working to raise the age at which children can be processed on criminal charges. Internationally, that age is most commonly set at 14; in the United States, more than half of states have no minimum age at all. “Processing and confining children in the juvenile justice system is traumatic and exposes them to damaging collateral consequences,” including disruptions to education, employment, and mental and physical development, argues NJJN, which released a policy platform and other resources on the issue in January. The incident in Rochester, captured on police body cameras and viewed widely, illustrates the urgency of this advocacy, Abrams said. “No child should ever be cuffed or arrested. Period,” she said. “Our work on minimum age laws shows that criminalizing childhood is racist and has adverse outcomes on children’s health.”


 

Abrams Leads Dialogue on Racism, Mental Health

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams led a dialogue about the links between structural racism and mental health in the inaugural installment of a new webinar series launched by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. “When we talk about poverty and homelessness and mental health and race, it’s all a larger conversation about what our profession can do at this juncture to move forward,” said Abrams, who was inducted into the national honor society this year. The webinar featured insights from scholars Sean Joe of Washington University in St. Louis, an authority on Black Americans and mental health, and David Takeuchi of the University of Washington, whose research focuses on health disparities among racial, ethnic and immigrant populations. The conversation was particularly valuable, Abrams said, because “sometimes we come into social work and people want to help and they want to change society, but they don’t always understand our history.”


 

Abrams Debunks Myths Surrounding Social Work

Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams co-authored an opinion piece in Witness LA debunking some of the myths surrounding the field of social work. Nationwide conversations about addressing police misconduct and racial discrimination have included a debate about the role of social workers. “Many people are talking and writing about social work with little understanding of what we actually do,” sometimes characterizing social workers as “callous and untrained child welfare investigators who are as racially insensitive as police officers,” wrote Abrams and co-author Kristen Brock-Petroshius, a Social Welfare doctoral student. Instead, they said, social work is “a profession that seeks to enhance human well-being through interventions with individuals, families, groups, organizations and policies.” They acknowledged social workers’ historical shortcomings, which have perpetuated racist policies and practices. Moving forward, they said, the profession must reshape training practices and heed its code of ethics to “forge a new vision of caring and safe communities.”


A Celebration of the Extraordinary Amid once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, UCLA Luskin honors the Class of 2020

By Les Dunseith

It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic. 

“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.

“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”

The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.

“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”

The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.

Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.

Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.

The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.

“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”

Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”

Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”

As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.

Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”

Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”

In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.

In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance. 

“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”