Lived Experience: The Heartbeat of Juvenile Justice Reform

Marcus Jarvis,
Marcus with Telly Award

I write this today as a voice that has emerged from the depths of the juvenile justice and foster care systems. For over a decade, I have been part of Juvenile Law Center, advocating for change as a youth advocate. My journey began in the city of Philadelphia, where I grew up entangled in the very systems I now work tirelessly to transform. Over the last three years, I have been a pivotal part of a national campaign to end the practice of charging young people for their involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Having lived through the juvenile justice and foster care systems, I possess a perspective that textbooks cannot teach. My own experiences have been the driving force behind my advocacy. They have given me an intimate knowledge of the struggles faced by young individuals and their families, from the inside of courtrooms to the confines of foster homes. These experiences have shaped not just my understanding but also my passion for change.

My journey with Juvenile Law Center began as a participant in the Advocates for Youth Justice program, formerly known as Juveniles for Justice. Through this transformative experience, I found my voice and discovered the power of advocacy. Armed with the dual strength of my lived experience and the advocacy skills honed through the program, I have been at the forefront of our national campaign to end fees and fines in the justice system: The Debt Free Justice Campaign. My goal  with the campaign was clear: to challenge the system that once held me captive and to ensure that no young person would have to endure what I did.

In our quest for change, storytelling has been our most potent weapon. Together with Juvenile Law Center and Debt Free Justice campaign staff, I have been involved in creating compelling documentaries that shed light on the devastating impact of juvenile fees and fines. Two of these documentaries, focusing on the struggles faced by young people and families, were honored with prestigious Telly Awards. The recognition, while humbling, served a greater purpose – to amplify the voices of those who have suffered due to these unjust practices.

The recognition bestowed upon our documentaries was not just my triumph but a collective victory. I shared this honor with the incredible organizers from Kansas, particularly the Progeny group . Their dedication and passion mirrored my own, and together, we showcased the stories of resilience, bravery, and hope. These accolades were not just about films; they were about acknowledging the strength of the human spirit and the power of collective action.  

My involvement in the national campaign has reinforced the belief that lived experience is a transformative force in advocacy. When I, as someone who has walked the same path, speak about the impact of juvenile fees and fines, policymakers and the public listen differently. They hear the authenticity in my voice, the echoes of countless unheard voices, and the urgency of the change we demand.

As I reflect on my journey from a young person entangled in the juvenile justice system to an advocate for change, I am reminded of the resilience of the human spirit. Through my work with the Juvenile Law Center and the national campaign, I have witnessed the transformative power of lived experience. It has not only shaped policies and won awards but, more importantly, it has ignited a spark of hope in the hearts of young people and their families.

Our campaign, fueled by the authenticity of lived experience, stands as a testament to the change that is possible when the voices of those who have endured injustice are amplified. As we continue our fight, I am hopeful that the stories we share, the advocacy we champion, and the lived experiences that guide us will pave the way for a more just, compassionate, and equitable future for all young people in the juvenile justice system.

About the Expert

Marcus Jarvis is the Outreach and Communications Associate, Debt Free Justice Campaign for Juvenile Law Center, and an alumnus of their Youth Advocacy Program. He was taken into the child welfare system as a baby and had his first juvenile justice system involvement at age 15. At age 19, he joined Juveniles for Justice to share his experiences and further his advocacy work. In J4J, he worked on many projects, including a video and card on the process for getting a juvenile record expungement in Philadelphia as well as other youth guides to navigate the juvenile justice system.