For more than a decade, Josh Glenn has worked to reform the criminal justice system. Josh is a poet, a mentor, and co-founder of Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project. On May 24, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Greater Philadelphia Chapter will honor Josh with its Torchbearer Award for his work defending civil liberties at its annual meeting.

What is the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project?

The Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project is a youth-led organization that is fighting to end the practice of youth being charged as adults in Philadelphia. YASP also trains and employs youth that are directly impacted by the system to be organizers. For 12 years, YASP has been holding weekly art and poetry workshops in the Philly county jails with youth who are charged as adults & held pretrial. YASP also goes into different schools and community spaces and does school-to-prison pipeline workshops and organizer training workshops. YASP’s goal is to end youth incarceration while also preventing youth from going to prison in the first place. Our bigger goal is ending mass incarceration.

What’s a typical day like at YASP?

A typical day at YASP for me is contacting schools and community centers to set up educational workshops about the school to prison pipeline, Act 33 & youth being charged as adults. We also are currently setting up meetings with different legislators to see what is their stance on youth incarceration & repealing or amending Act 33. (Editor’s note: Act 33 is the Pennsylvania law that automatically certifies children charged with specified felonies to be tried in adult court. They are also housed in adult jails pre-trial.) We also are developing a resource guide so that we can help youth access resources once they are released. We believe that it is very important that we develop a relationship with the places that we will be sending our youth. So we call every resource we can find to introduce ourselves and ask them about all resources they provide for youth that are charged as adults.

YASP is a partner in the #No215Jail Coalition. What is the mission of that coalition?

The No215Jail coalition is a coalition working to end cash bail in Philadelphia. The mission of the coalition is to get Philadelphia to switch from using a cash bail system to a system sort of like Washington, D.C.’s system, where most defendants get released to fight their cases from home.

How did you get involved in this work?

I got involved in ending cash bail work because at the age of 16 I was locked up and held for 18 months because I couldn’t afford to pay a $2,000 bail. I also witnessed so many other defendants take plea deals for cases they couldn’t afford to fight. I also noticed that if you could afford to buy your freedom then you had a better chance of your case working out in your favor. These are the reasons why the No215Jail coalition chose to work on ending cash bail.

You’ve had personal experience with the criminal justice system. How did that shape your views and the work you do?

I think that being incarcerated helped me understand how racially biased the system is, and it also inspired me to fight to dismantle the system with more urgency. I think that it is a part of my life that I shouldn’t of had to experience. I also feel like I am the victim of a crime, and my accuser was set free with impunity. I spent a year and a half of my life in a county jail for a crime I didn’t commit. I didn’t even receive an apology or any support to help me get back on my feet when I got released.

But that’s not even the worst part about the whole ordeal. The worst part is I am not the only one that this has happened to. All of these factors plus the history of inequality and oppression that my people are going through now and have always been going through since they were kidnapped from Africa is the reason I do this work.

What do you consider the most pressing issues facing Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the effort to end mass incarceration?

I think that there are so many issues with our criminal justice system that I could be here all night writing about them if I wrote them all down. A few of the issues that are obvious are racial bias, illegal use of detainers , and racial profiling.

If we want to reduce the prison population and make communities safer, we need to come up with better solutions to crime and violence. We need to create a system that heals both the victim and the offender.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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