As a few Kentucky Youth Advocates staff gathered for a convening in Chattanooga, TN, we were incredibly animated by the work those across the U.S. are doing and have been doing to make the justice system more just. Organizations from 19 states gathered to share ideas, stories, and work already being done to end mass incarceration. 

Since 1983, Kentucky has seen a 287% increase in the amount of individuals locked up. We’ve been seeing incarceration rates grow for decades, but we should be utilizing ways to keep communities safe, minimize the impact on individuals, their children, and their families.

The convening was hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice, a group who started the In Our Backyards (IOB) initiative. They aim to advance local, state, and federal policy changes that decriminalize poverty, improve pretrial justice, and reinvest in communities.

Joining us on the trip were several young adult leaders from YouthBuild Louisville who have been working collaboratively with us to develop a youth-led justice action plan in Louisville. We are developing strategies to bring experienced perspectives to criminal justice work and policies from those in the community. Vera’s IOB convention truly highlighted the importance of intentionally creating seats at the table for people with lived experience. This youth-led team does just that, creates seats at the table for those who have experience with the justice system and for those who want to make positive changes in their community.

YouthBuild’s Justice Leadership Team hopes to work towards a more effective justice system by:

  • Providing positive opportunities for children 
  • Seeking early interventions when children first get in trouble. 
  • Working to reduce the number of children who get caught up in the juvenile justice system or are impacted by their parents’ incarceration
  • Empowering individuals in their communities and showing them how important their voices are.

Some solutions and takeaways from this weekend’s IOB convention:

  • Always have individuals from the community in which your policies or programs will impact at the table with you. This is their community – their voices, experiences, and their goals for their community matter and should shape the work that we do. “Nothing about us, without us” is an excellent toolkit to dive into if you are looking for how to better engage in community led research. 
  • Utilizing other states ideas and passions to see where there may be gaps in services or data in Kentucky. 
  • The need to address the criminalization of poverty and how that ties into mass incarceration. Those who do not have money are more impacted by the justice system than those who do. For example, some people have the means to pay their bail while others do not. Individuals that can pay their bail are released faster, while individuals who can’t are incarcerated longer – impacting their ability to provide and care for their family at home.
  • Remind others about the importance of making sure our state and city leaders are better at meeting community needs and using practices that ensure a just and fair system.
  • Create localized solutions. As every community is different, they may have different needs, again emphasizing why it is so important to have the community at the table as you’re making decisions that will impact them. 

The power truly lies within the people and this weekend was a great reminder of the importance of advocating for our communities’ wants and needs.

Check out Vera’s IOB initiative to learn more about their work to end mass incarceration. See who your state legislators are and reach out to them, use your voice to tell them what needs and wants that your community has, because your voice matters.