James Bell: Real Justice for Youth

More than 70 percent of incarcerated kids are minorities. This advocate wanted to find out why.
James Bell

James Bell knows there is something wrong with the juvenile justice system. During 23 years as a lawyer representing young defendants, Bell saw the manifestation of a disturbing statistic: More than 70 percent of incarcerated youth are ethnic minorities.

“There’s just no way that teenagers of color are so much more criminogenic than white teenagers,” says Bell, “so there’s got to be something else going on.”

Bell decided to focus on reforming the system, and emerged as a compelling public advocate for poor youth and youth of color. In 2001, he founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute, named for the famed civil rights lawyer. The institute collects data and works with local courts, probation, and community groups to develop policies to reduce rates of youth detention. The solutions vary from court procedures to family counseling.

“These kids have strengths, and we have to find them,” says Bell, “not just process them.”


  • Instead of prison, New Zealand chooses restorative justice and community problem-solving.

  • In California, the headlines about prisons always seem to be the same: out-of-control costs, inhumane living conditions. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

  • Why real justice means fewer prisons.
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