Q&A: Legal Perspectives on Juvenile Justice and Abolition

I have a tool box that not everybody has and so I can lament and complain about how this tool box is messed up in its privilege, or I can say let me open this up and let's figure out how I can wrench this thing to work for the people that I care about.

Ashley Sawyer, Esq is a staff attorney at Youth Represent, an organization whose aim is to provide holistic legal representation to young people ages 16-24 who have had contact with the criminal legal system. Ms. Sawyer collaborates with Dr. Shabnam Javdani and the NYU RISE team through their work on the Task Force with the Vera Institute of Justice focused on Reducing Reliance on Girls’ Incarceration. Ms. Sawyer recently presented to the NYU RISE team on core issues in working with young people with a focus on  the intersection of race, gender, and legal system involvement.

The idea of Youth Represent is that we try to address many of the collateral consequences that come along with being arrested. Right now, I work primarily with young female-identified people, or femmes and I also do some work with some of the 18 to 21-year old boys, who are incarcerated on Rikers or attending New York City schools. But I’m not speaking on behalf of my organization. Just as a black woman and as lawyer who cares about justice.

When I do presentations or talk to people, one of the main questions is “why girls?” I’m going to use the term girls, but I intend to encompass cis and trans girls. People always say “Black boys are the majority of people in the justice system.” Which is true, if I go on Rikers, when you think in just sheer raw numbers, you will see primarily Black and LatinX boys and men in jail and prison in New York, but the percentage of women, female identified people, and girls is rapidly growing. Sometimes, people in policy spaces don’t want to devote their time and attention to girls because they are “doing just fine, they don’t need these resources.” However, girls have unique risks and needs that should be addressed.

Schools are a unique entry point into the system. Every so often the federal government is supposed to collect data from schools all over the country about suspensions, expulsion, and school-based arrests. In the most recent data you’ll see that suspensions are disproportionate based on race certainly, but when you look at Black girls’ suspension rates, the disparity is so much greater, and we’re finding that they’re suspended for things related to attitude or other very subjective offenses.

This long-held trope about Black women and Black girls having an attitude — some may perceive it to be leadership while others may perceive it to be insubordination. That’s a huge part. Fighting is definitely another huge part.

A main reason why girls of color get kicked out of school is dress code. In Philadelphia that was a big thing; people were getting pushed out for skirts that were too short, dresses that were too short, or blouses that were too low. And so one of the biggest accomplishments that we had through organizing, was getting the School District of Philadelphia to eliminate dress code violations as a basis for in-school suspension. What was happening was students were being removed from education; losing math, science, writing time, because someone didn’t like the way they presented themselves.

Megan Granski: From a legal perspective, what can we do to address the sexual abuse to prison pipeline?

Full disclosure: I am becoming an abolitionist. I don’t believe in investing any more resources in our punitive criminal system. It’s complex and messy, and it’s not a comfortable subject to talk about because I have so many young people that I’ve worked with who have been victimized or survived horrible things happening to them.

But I think that we have to sit with the thought that our current criminal system is inhumane, it is immoral, and it’s just not practical. Besides the practicality financially, it is immoral. No one should suffer this kind of abuse or degradation. Period.

That said, there has to be accountability, and when I think about the people who have pimped my young people out, there have to be some level of accountability, and we have to think as a society what that should look like.

I think we have to talk about foster care and the young people who are in child welfare systems, because child welfare systems have often been the funnel into Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). None of the girls that I’ve worked with woke up one day, and were like, “You know what? I want to be exploited.” They don’t hook up with guys who they think are going to be pimps. Usually it’s, “I had nowhere to sleep at night. I had no food to eat and this person has been providing food and shelter.”

Leah Sobel: What kind of mental health resources are provided to the girls on you work with on Rikers Island?

To my knowledge, very little is being provided by psychologists or mental health therapists. It is medicine, medicine, medicine.

Through my program, I work in the housing units, which is different from the normal attorney visit, where I would be in a separate area designated for meetings, I have the ability to see where my young people sleep, eat, shower. And during my intakes, during my workshops, all the time there is someone coming in like “hey you, come out for medicine.”

And these are young people who I know need therapy, who I know need counseling — I’m not a clinician — but I know that there are some things that they could be getting and maybe medicine is a part of it. Maybe psychotropic drugs are part of their healing, but they’re certainly not getting robust, holistic, mental health responses at all. The culture of the adult facility is not rehabilitative, so counseling is not even an integral part of the programming.

While not always done well, mental health services were a core part of juvenile justice programs in most states that I have been to, but in New York, because youth at the age of 16 or 17 are in adult facilities that’s not the case. And so it’s just like “here, take some meds” and then that’s it. Then my youth are out in the street and they haven’t been working through whatever they need to work through.

Mckenzie Berezin: How do you navigate the tension between working as a lawyer and identifying as an abolitionist?

Being a lawyer, there are all these strict rules that we are expected to follow. We take an oath to swear to uphold the law. But what if I think the law is doing violence to people? And what do I do if I think that a law is inherently corrupt? I have to grapple with that on the day-to-day basis.

The way I deal with those struggles is to think creatively, about who we can collaborate with that doesn’t have to follow the sort of strict rules that I have to follow, how can they use their role to help our clients? I have a tool box that not everybody has and so I can lament and complain about how this tool box is messed up in its privilege, or I can say let me open this up and let’s figure out how I can wrench this thing to work for the people that I care about. But it is not easy.

But I think I’ve been really fortunate to be around people who are constantly trying to push those boundaries and redefine what being a lawyer means. The law in this country was founded by old white men and they decided what is important. In this country at one point it was a crime to have a partner who was of a different race. So when you tell me something is a crime or is a law, that doesn’t persuade me. Criminality is a social construct. We can redefine what justice looks like.

Corianna Sichel: As an abolitionist I also spend a lot of time thinking about, if we do away with all of these things, if we had a blank slate, what would we create right?

I’ll defer to Mariame Kaba because I think she speaks so well about this. I’ve heard leaders in abolition say something to the effect it is not our job to come up with a solution because we were not the ones putting people in prison. The state was doing this violence and so you can critique something and not always have a substitute for it. I think often people ask “what’s the alternative?” That’s their way of saying, “what you’re saying is not possible.”

There is this group called Southerners On New Ground (SONG) and they’re based out of Raleigh, North Carolina. They are trying to do restorative justice in a little neighborhood in one community, and they are really committed to trying this out, and they are a Black queer lead organization. I would also recommend people learn about Generation Five’s work.

They’re really trying out what it could look like to hold one another accountable in that neighborhood without involving law enforcement. It’s a try. What it would look like on a broader scale I don’t know. But I think that there are people who are smart enough, committed enough to make that happen if we are willing to be uncomfortable and really willing to think about like the most horrible things. I definitely don’t have the answers, but I appreciate that we’re thinking through this and we’re struggling together.