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Criminal Justice Conversations with David Onek: Gena Castro Rodriguez, Youth Justice Institute

David Onek and Gena Castro Rodriguez
David Onek and Gena Castro Rodriguez

In Episode #26, Gena Castro Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Youth Justice Institute, discusses the unique needs of girls in the juvenile justice system, using her direct service experience to inform policy debates, partnering effectively with probation departments, using data to improve programming, and more.

Gena Castro Rodriguez Interview Highlights

Castro Rodriguez on Building Trust with Youth:

“We’re very honest with young people. We work with them where they are. We’re very respectful. We talk about what we can and can’t do. We don’t commit to things we can’t follow through on. We’re very consistent with them. Our plans for young people have to be adopted by the young person. They have to have input into it, they have to agree to it, this has to be what they want to do. We’re really working with and for them, not because of them.”

Castro Rodriguez on the Importance of Having a Direct Service Perspective in Policy Discussions:

“We do the direct service work, and when we are sitting at policy tables, we’re speaking from what’s happening right now with young people.I’m often the only service provider at many tables that I sit at. I think those tables being separated is a big problem. There are decisions that are made, there’s policies that are implemented, there’s funding decisions -- and if it’s disconnected from what’s actually happening, that causes a lot of problems. And that’s actually why I started getting into the policy work. I felt like those two things were disconnected and we had so much knowledge and experience working with young people, we needed to get that out to the broader community.”

Castro Rodriguez on Using Data to Improve Programming:

“The reason I made [data] a priority in the beginning is that I just couldn’t believe how big the lack of data was. We didn’t keep data on these young people. We didn’t really understand why they were in the system. So we built this original database. We look at our own data, and what it’s most helpful with is to help us shape our program. It’s really helpful for us to understand the young people that we’re working with, and what’s working and what’s not working. We’re really trying to respond to the needs of the kids that we’re serving. And so we re-evaluate what we’re doing all the time. We have to constantly look at who we’re serving, what we’re doing and what are our outcomes and then change our program to respond to that.”


The Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek features in-depth, thirty-minute interviews with a wide range of criminal justice leaders: law enforcement officials, policymakers, advocates, service providers, academics and others.

The Podcast gets behind the sound bites that far too often dominate the public dialogue about criminal justice, to have detailed, nuanced conversations about criminal justice policy.

Podcast host David Onek is a Senior Fellow at Berkeley Law School and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.

You can find more information on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and listen to all past episodes on the Podcast web site.

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