For Melissa Goemann, juvenile justice reform is about making the justice system work for — not against — kids.
A lawyer from Silver Spring, Goemann has worked on juvenile justice and civil rights issues for more than 15 years, currently as senior policy counsel for National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN). She researches and writes for publications and handles federal legislative work.
“Our mission,” Goemann said, “is to shrink the youth justice system and transform the remainder to assistance to youth and families, with dignity and humanity. We must recognize that redemption and rehabilitation are possible for all children.”
Most recently, Goemann was appointed to the Montgomery County Commission on Juvenile Justice.
Goemann advocates for an end to racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. Eighty percent of incarcerated youth in Maryland and Montgomery County are people of color.
“While juvenile arrests and incarceration have dramatically declined in the past decade, we feel that the youth justice system is inextricably bound with a systemic and structural racism in society.”
Goemann works to have police-free schools to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. “School-based officers do not make schools safer. They have been criticized for targeting students of color and using unnecessary force on students. Advocates and students have shown how removing school resource officers and investing in mental health can become a reality.”
Goemann wants to see an end to automatic waivers to adult court when certain offenses are committed. “It’s time to let judges decide what’s best for young people.”
A daughter of two educators, Goemann grew up in Skokie, Ill. Her family belonged to a Jewish Reconstructionist synagogue. “I like Reconstructionism because it utilizes a lot of traditional practices, but also allows us to bring that into present times.”
Through her membership at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Goemann became involved with Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). “I realized they were working on a lot of the issues that are important to me.”
She began testifying on proposed legislation at the Montgomery County Council and the Maryland General Assembly. She also works on behalf of JUJF, co-chairing the Racial Equity and Policing Team.
Goemann also works on a campaign to raise the minimum age that children can be prosecuted in court. “It’s not just theoretical. We see states prosecuting 6 and 7 year olds. The most common age internationally is 14.”
Across the country, legislators are considering bills and some states have enacted new laws. “This year, Connecticut raised the minimum age of arrest from 7 to 10 years old,” Goemann said. “We need to raise the age again to protect our youth.”
The United States is the only country in the world that permits a child to be sentenced to life without parole. “It’s time to abolish it and begin to create a federal juvenile justice system that respects children’s rights.”
A graduate of New York University School of Law, Goemann began her career clerking for Judge Emmet G. Sullivan who was then on the D.C. Superior Court. After that, she joined a firm doing public interest work and represented many children in the abuse and neglect system in D.C.
She switched careers to legislative advocacy. “I felt that helping one child at a time wasn’t meaningful enough and I wanted to have a more systemic impact.”
She became director of the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defenders Center housed at the University of Richmond School of Law. Then she worked for the ACLU of Maryland running their legislative program. In that role she testified at the Maryland legislature and Montgomery County Council, which she also did on behalf of Jews United for Justice.
Her commitment to juvenile justice system reform remains a constant. “There’s a lot of ways to handle kids. Sometimes it’s just a matter of working with parents. Sometimes the child welfare system might need to get involved. Sometimes the mental health system, but it wouldn’t be an issue that would be handled through the justice system.”
The campaign to reduce incarceration of children has been effective in the past 10 years, she said. “That’s a great sign. I think we are moving forward in treating children as children, everything from not prosecuting them in court to taking older kids charged with more serious offenses and trying them in juvenile court since they are minors. Not interrogating them without allowing them to consult a lawyer — that’s going to be in the Maryland General Assembly this year.”
Goemann’s avocation aligns with her Jewish values. “I see my work as helping to reform systems and change lives that help children and make this a better world. I feel that Judaism places a strong importance on children and great value on their welfare.”