Youth Self-Empowerment Project participatory defense hub

By Matteo Macdermant

Young people should never serve time in adult prisons, period. 

The Youth Art and Self Empowerment Project (YASP) is a Philly-based organization led by formerly incarcerated youth. Since 2004, the organization has been supporting, educating, and empowering young people facing criminal charges, living in prison, or struggling with reentry. 

YASP’s highest priority is to end the trying and incarceration of minors as adults, but their work goes well beyond legal reform. They support young people and their families from initial arrest to reentry, providing refuge, resources, and lifelong opportunities to youth trapped in the system.

Solidarity, not charity

YASP embodies the motto: Solidarity, not charity. They are not just another nonprofit. They are a community rising against injustice together. Young people that have been through the system are working to forge a path forward for themselves while helping others who face the same injustices.  

YASP provides resources and support which helps those facing charges with their current predicament. They foster long-term relationships and mentorship so that those very people can become leaders in the movement against mass incarceration. 

I spoke with several YASP organizers about the projects they pursue and the injustice of locking up youth in the adult system.

Act 33 and the Cash Bail System

YASP is currently working to abolish Act 33 and the cash bail system.

Act 33 is a 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act that automatically charges minors accused of violent crimes as adults. This act all but guarantees that kids will serve time in an adult facility, even if they’re eventually found innocent, primarily because of cash bail, which in some cases can reach $250,000 or more. 

“This is not due process,” YASP co-founder Sarah Morris said. “Bail is supposed to be based on the ability to pay. Instead, there’s a two-minute hearing, no talking and no lawyer, then you’re locked up for months awaiting trial.” Cash bail is a “de-facto detention order.” Wealthier families can afford to pay the bond, hire lawyers, and keep their kids out of jail. Children from poor families get locked up.

Kids locked up in adult prisons experience deep trauma. According to YASP, kids in adult prison are:

  • more likely to be victims of violence;
  • 34% more likely to commit crimes and return to prison than if retained in the juvenile system;
  • given limited access to education, mental health facilities, and counseling;
  • stuck with an adult record and lifelong issues with employment and schooling;
  • at a much higher risk for depression and suicide.

A Call to Action for District Attorney Krasner

YASP is calling on the DA’s office to: 

  • stop trying kids as adults; 
  • release all minors from adult prisons;
  • reduce bail;
  • use house arrest in lieu of bail;
  • release young people without bail;
  • and pursue diversion programs to resolve cases without jail time.

YASP’s DA work, alongside court support, court watching, and the formation of a youth chapter of the participatory defense hub is paying off. The DA’s office is making some of these reforms. Bails have been reduced or diverted. Sentences have been reduced. The incarceration rate has fallen.

Participatory Defense and Community Support

The participatory defense fund is a nationwide organization aimed at supporting people through the legal process from arrest to reentry. YASP started the first youth chapter in April 2019 to build relationships with young people and their families as they move through a confusing and unjust legal system, helping them understand the process so that they can advocate for themselves and work through every stage confidently. 

The defense hubs are a resource for anyone who is going through the court process, anyone who has a family member or friend going through the court process, or anyone who wants to support members of the YASP community.

The hubs meet every Tuesday from 4:30-6:30, at 924 Cherry Street, 5th Floor. They serve three main purposes: 

  1. provide information on the system and all of the steps of the court process; 
  2. make social bio videos and packets to change the narrative of who someone is and show the judge the perspective of the person from their loved ones rather than just judging them by their charges; 
  3. And provide court support by filling the courtroom for anyone with court dates. 

“We try to get the whole community out,” YASP co-founder Josh Glenn said. “We pack the courtroom and create a narrative that the defense can use to show that these are whole people up there.” 

Young people looking at five to ten years in prison are under enormous pressure to reach a plea deal and not fight their charges. Yet, prosecutors often don’t even have a case. They count on cases not going to trial. They make deals sometimes without so much as reading the file. If this practice isn’t contested, people will continue to be convicted despite the prosecution having insufficient evidence. YASP helps people say no to this injustice and gives them the tools and support they need to overcome. 

The Great Bail Injustice

YASP raises bail funds for youth locked up and facing high bonds, which on a few occasions have exceeded $1 million. 

Sarah told a story about one campaign where a $250,000 bond was set despite the DA having such a flimsy case it was thrown out when his day in court finally came. 

“It’s great that the case was thrown out,” Sarah said, “but if we didn’t raise those funds, he would have sat in jail for five months and he was innocent.” 

So many young people are sitting in jail because they can’t afford the bail, punished without even a trial because they are poor.

All Eyes on the System

Maya, a YASP organizer, explained that “things started changing drastically when we began doing the weekly court watching. Suddenly there are more dismissals, reduced sentences, lower bails, better treatment.” 

Keeping eyes on the judges, the DA, and the cops alters the situation. The DA makes promises, but community eyes on the court and community bodies in the seats make the difference. The prosecution has a much harder time pushing flimsy cases through when they’re being watched.

An Artistic Transformation

YASP organizers have been supporting young people in prison through drawing, music, and poetry workshops for fifteen years.  

Every Saturday, the drudgery of prison life is broken up for a few hours when YASP comes to teach art lessons or simply give space for creativity by providing some paper, pencils, and music. Most come initially to get away from the grind and just listen to music, but soon after they are drawing, painting, writing, exploring, and creating. 

I was told that the experience of going from zoning out to a few songs to creative self-discovery was a transformative shift shared by so many. People move from hopelessness to radical optimism and realize that they are not alone or powerless. Will, a YASP organizer, summed up this experience.

“I felt free,” He said. “Working with YASP gave me the opportunity to change my situation. It gave me hope. I’ve been with them ever since.”

Every YASP organizer I met had a similar story of feeling free even in the most unfree of places. They spoke of a creative and political awakening. They were moved to help others find refuge with them while they shared the prison walls and they vowed to fight the prison-industrial complex upon release. Every organizer started out seeking the refuge of a little music on a Saturday, but years later, they sat across from me as leaders of a movement.

The day will come when the last person sits in a cell because they cannot afford the bail. The day will come when bail is no more. The day will come  when prison itself is no more. The people will rise against injustice, but it begins when they have a space to just be human in an inhumane world.

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