Social Work symposium tackles youth policy in criminal justice

by | Mar 16, 2020

The School of Social Work’s 2020 Critical Issues Symposium featured a panel with professionals across disciplines, discussing criminal justice reform and the challenges they face.

Mikel Whittier (left), Wesley Bell, John-Paul Voss and Laura Berry discuss their work on criminal justice reform and the challenges they face during a panel at the School of Social Work’s 2020 Critical Issues Symposium: Reforming 4 Justice: Youth Engaged Policy and Practice. (Photo by Burk Krohe)

Laura Berry was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17 after being convicted as an accomplice to a murder for hiding the weapon.

Berry was told she would die behind bars, but there she stood March 6, delivering a keynote address in the JC Penney Conference Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her speech opened the School of Social Work’s 2020 Critical Issues Symposium: Reforming 4 Justice: Youth Engaged Policy and Practice.

The crowd ­– a mix of UMSL students, social work professionals and high school students – listened intently as Berry explained how she went from incarcerated youth in Arkansas to prison reform advocate.

“I want to change how people who commit crimes as children are held accountable – age appropriate accountability – not being placed in an adult facility where they have to fight to survive,” she said.

That’s exactly what Berry had to do when she was sentenced as a teenager. After 32 years of incarceration, she received a second chance at life via Arkansas’ Fair Sentencing of Minors Act. She went before the parole board in December 2017 and was released the same month.

Since then, Berry has worked tirelessly to help others adjust to life outside prison and to enact criminal justice and prison reform through advocacy, education and legislation. She was spurred to start a support group called 539 after experiencing how difficult it was to adjust to everyday life.

“I started looking for people to support other people coming out,” she said. “Attorneys, social workers, whoever wanted to get involved to give them help to take those steps they needed through the process to survive and make it.”

Her efforts have also included work with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network and decARcerate. Berry now co-chairs the latter, an Arkansas nonprofit dedicated to fighting mass incarceration. Though separate organizations, each works to meet with legislators and shed light on the realities juveniles and other vulnerable people face in prison.

That work produced results in 2019 when Arkansas passed two prison reform bills. The first ended the shackling of pregnant women actively in labor, and the second altered parole requirements, allowing people to be discharged from the program after five years without any violations.

The symposium continued with a panel and a breakout session for the high school students in attendance. In a change from previous years, the students worked mostly amongst themselves in the session to provide feedback on the policy discussions being had. School of Social Work Dean Sharon Johnson said that insight was indispensable for the professionals in attendance.

“We can change the narrative if we listen,” she said. “Then we move to make changes in our own spaces where we have the opportunity to do that.”

The panelists shared what they were doing to that end. They included Berry; St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell; Michael-John Voss, co-founder of Arch City Defenders; and Mikel Whittier, justice and health equity strategist for the St. Louis Integrated Health Network.

Bell lamented that a majority of jail inmates in the St. Louis area meet the criteria for drug dependency and that a large portion also need mental health care. Yet many are not getting treatment, which is something Bell is working to fix.

“We made a point to focus on expanding our diversion programs so that we can offer individualized treatment programs,” he said.

It has entailed reaching out to community organizations such as health care providers, mental health providers, job and job training programs and housing programs. Bell and St. Louis County are now working with more than 40 partners to provide support to those in the criminal justice system.

“The data is clear, when people get the resources that they need, they are significantly less likely to reoffend,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

Voss echoed Bell’s thoughts and said Arch City Defenders is trying to redefine public safety.

“We know that policing – although part of our culture in our country – doesn’t actually prevent crime,” he said. “What ends crime, what prevents crime is education, housing, a sense of community, mental health, physical health and wellbeing. Those are the things that we need in our community.”

One key action the organization has been undertaking is a campaign to shut down the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, commonly known at the Workhouse.

“Right now, over 450,000 people are sitting in America’s jails because they can’t afford bond,” Voss said. “They are presumed innocent under the law, but they’re held because of their poverty.”

Since 2017, the campaign has contributed to reducing the city’s jail population from about 1,000 to fewer than 200 inmates.

The panel then moved on to discussing obstacles to reform and advice for those looking to make change. Bell noted that education has a more significant link to public safety than many people realize and equal access to it is a consistent challenge. Whittier followed Bell’s comments by highlighting the role systemic prejudices play.

“The biggest challenge that exists in the United States is overcoming the fabric in which this country was founded, and that is slavery, systemic racism and controlling minority populations,” Whittier said. “For me, I firmly believe that if we want to undo anything, we need to go back to the document that governs this country. To that point, we have to make sure that our young people are getting quality education, so that they can be viable leaders in our communities and in these systems to be disruptors.”

Despite those challenges, Berry left attendees with a hopeful message.

“Stay true to yourself, stay grounded and focus on what your goal is,” she said.

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe