How do we reimagine how we treat our young people and make our juvenile justice system healing and transformative?

September 15, 2019

Several years ago I worked as a court designated worker (CDW) for the Kentucky Court of Justice.  My job was to manage the processing of certain cases involving youth under the age of 18 and to negotiate a diversion agreement with the young person that would keep them from having to go through a formal court proceeding with the possibility of a conviction and a record.  We had a problem:  a lot of young people were failing to appear in our office for their diversion conference, and when that happened, they were being automatically sent to court.  We had a staff meeting and because I had the lowest number of failures to appear, I was asked what I did to get people in.  It turned out that I was the only CDW that called the family as soon as I got a new case and rescheduled appointments if necessary.  At that moment, I literally changed the policy for the court administration statewide, and now there is a formal policy that when CDWs get a new case, they have to call the family.  That was my introduction to policy advocacy, and that is what I do today.

Today I work as a Field Organizer for the ACLU of Kentucky where I focus on juvenile justice reform.    One of the big issues I’m tackling is the age of criminal responsibility.  Right now in Kentucky, a child of any age can be charged with a crime and tried.  When I worked in a juvenile detention center I once had a nine-year-old who was brought in because of a fight in the neighborhood.  So I want to establish fourteen as the age of criminal responsibility which is very ambitious for Kentucky.  To build support, I’ve just wrapped up a series of six juvenile justice community conversations around the state.  I invited folks from the community to help organize each event, and we talked about the history and structure of the court system, detention and probation, school resources, and policy and legislation.  We identified about 140 folks who care about these issues and now I have the beginning of my base- building for the policy work ahead.

In my outreach and education work I always make sure that we include black and brown youth, LGBTQ youth, and youth with disabilities.  That’s where we see the disparities in the state’s juvenile justice system.  One of the reasons there are so many young people in the system is because Kentucky incarcerates women at twice the national average, and ranks #1 for having young children with one or both parents incarcerated.  How do we reimagine how we treat our young people and how do we make our juvenile justice system more transformative, more healing, and more trauma- informed?   I know that our black and brown youth are dying and that they need to be healed and people aren’t listening to them.  My life’s purpose is to be a voice for them.

JustLeadership has been transformative for me.  The training allows me to look deep inside myself and it’s taught me to contextualize how I move in the world.  It’s given me a broader understanding of how to work with people with different viewpoints.  We are building a huge network of not only family, but of work, that includes people I don’t even know yet.  I do know that if there’s something going down here in Kentucky I can pick up the phone and say I need fifty bodies and fifty bodies are going to come down here and make things happen.

Keturah Herron is a graduate of the University of Louisville and holds a Masters in Juvenile Justice from Eastern Kentucky University.

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