By Naseem Bazargan
From PHN Issue 15, Winter 2013
What is YASP all about?
We are a youth-led organization working to repeal the laws that allow young people to be tried as adults [in Pennsylvania]. The current law is if you are tried for anything that can be considered a violent crime, you will automatically be charged as an adult, and you will be held in an adult prison pretrial.Before 1996, you could only be automatically charged as an adult for murder, and all other cases the DA had to petition to get you charged as an adult. [Act 33] made it so that the crimes you could be charged for varies; it could be anything considered violent, and the DA has the discretion on what’s violent and what’s not. We don’t think young people should be charged as adults at all. We want them to repeal the amendment so it could be like it was before 1996. We have facts that show that since 1996, charging young people as adults, it never reduced crime.
And how did you get involved in the work?
I was locked up in adult jail for 18 months at the age of 16, and then my case was dismissed. Me and a couple other people who were locked up and charged as adults came home around ’07. We all sat down and came up with a way to challenge the law that let young people be tried as adults.
What advice do you have for our readers?
People should be informed about what’s going on as far as the law in our neighborhoods and the laws like Act 33, what the sentencing guidelines are, what their rights are. If we sit down and talk to most of these young people about the school-to-prison pipeline and how many black people and poor people are incarcerated, how many young people are criminalized, harassed—if we talk about all the facts like stop and frisk, we talk about how schools are designed and how much they spend on suburban public schools versus urban, when we talk about all of those things, young people, it really makes them think, “Wow, there’s a bigger system out there that is here for me to fail, and I don’t want to go do that.” We tell young people what’s going on, and then we empower them to fight back.
How should we deal with juveniles who break the law?
Young people need education, they need mentors, and they need guidance. In these urban, low-income neighborhoods, a lot of young people don’t even have family support or people in their household helping them deal with their problems. And when they go to school, they don’t have counselors or the proper learning they need. They got overcrowded classrooms. The only time they really get attention is when they go out into the neighborhoods and they’re around people that do wrong. We need to invest in education and our communities. And when young people do crime, you have to give them training and help when they come out to make a good transition and get jobs. Young people don’t have reentry programs at all. There is no reentry program for somebody that was 15 and did 2 years and has an adult record. They need to know about the resources that are out there, like the different community-based programs that help ex-offenders.
What is it that helps you continue to be inspired and work toward these goals?
I just think about the urgency of how young black kids are being criminalized. I know it’s possible—we just have to reach out to a lot of young people and give them the knowledge and then tell them our personal stories. It’s just wrong, and as long as we allow it, it’s just gonna be in place. We have the facts. We have a movement challenging it. I just know it’s possible that we can change it.