Taking on the Criminal Justice System After Spending 18 Months In Jail for a Crime He Didn't Commit

Victoria Law
September 6, 2017

Josh Glenn presents a workshopJoshua Glenn was 16 years old when police officers arrested and charged him with aggravated assault with a weapon. “They tried to say I shot a guy,” said Glenn.

It was 2005. Nine years earlier, in 1996, Pennsylvania passed Act 33, requiring teenagers as young as 15 who are charged with certain violent crimes, such as aggravated assault, to be automatically prosecuted as adults. Glenn was charged as an adult; his bail was set at $20,000. His mother, a widow raising seven children on her own, would have had to pay ten percent (or $2,000) to secure her son’s freedom. She didn’t have $2,000, so Glenn was sent to Philadelphia’s House of Correction to await his day in court. He ended up spending 18 months behind bars before the charges were dismissed.

Glenn’s story isn’t exceptional. In Philadelphia alone, 80 percent of the nearly 7,000 people in jail are awaiting trial; in other words, they haven’t been found guilty. Seventy-two percent of those awaiting their day in court are people of color; 70 percent are charged with non-violent crimes. In 2010, 15 percent of the city’s court cases waited more than 120 days for trial.

Each year, 250 to 300 teenagers under the age of 18 are charged as adults. Approximately half continue to adult courts for trial. The average bail assigned for youth held as adults is $248,000, a practice that ensures that many languish behind bars awaiting trial.

The practice isn’t limited to Philadelphia or even Pennsylvania. Nationally, police make 12 million arrests each year. Three-quarters (or nine million) are for misdemeanors. Of the three million arrested for felonies, nearly half are assigned bail amounts that are financially out of reach. This means that, like Glenn, they languish in jail as they await trial. Among those three million, twenty-five percent (or 750,000 people) are ultimately found not guilty. That last number includes people who were able to post bail. Those who could not afford bail will never get back the months, or years, spent behind bars.

Under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, jails and prisons must separate teenagers under the age of 18 from older teens and adults by both “sight and sound.” This meant that Glenn, and the handful of other teens awaiting trial, were housed in two units apart from their adult counterparts. Any time they were transported to another part of the jail, the adults had to be placed on lockdown. The hassle of stopping all activity in the rest of the jail meant that Glenn and his peers very rarely left their unit.

By law, jails are required to provide educational classes for children in custody, but, Glenn remembers, there was only one classroom with no separation or distinction between ages or grades. “Everybody was learning the same thing on the same level,” he recalled. “The stuff I was learning, I learned in fifth grade.”    

Glenn spent his seventeenth birthday in jail. When his eighteenth birthday rolled around, he was still awaiting his day in court for the shooting he didn’t commit. But once he turned 18, he was moved to an adult unit. Jails are under no obligation to provide high school classes for adults in custody. Glenn was unable to get the last two credits he needed to earn his high school diploma.  

Eighteen months after police first slapped handcuffs on him and hauled him to jail, Glenn went to court. His court-appointed attorney told him that the district attorney was offering a plea deal—time served plus five years of probation. Glenn refused. “Would you take a deal for something you didn’t do?”

When he appeared before the judge that day, his case was dismissed for lack of evidence. After 18 months behind bars, Glenn was free to go. “I was shocked,” he said. “That just made me skeptical of the system even more.”

Being jailed pre-trial increases the chances that a person will plead guilty. “I know hundreds of people go through the same things I did when I was locked up, and many young people do give in to the pressure and accept guilty pleas whether they are guilty or not because they have been held for so long and they just want a way out,” Glenn later told the City Council. “I didn’t take the deal, but I know how [plea bargaining after months behind bars] affects my community,” he said.

Even with freedom, the arrest—and the missing year and a half—continued to haunt him. He missed his last years of high school. He missed getting his high school diploma. Glenn had been working three part-time jobs before his arrest and giving some of his earnings to his mother to help support the family. During his incarceration, his mother lost custody of his siblings; they were sent to foster care. If he had been home, Glenn reflected, he might have been able to help her avoid that.

Once out of jail, Glenn began the job search again. Each time, his arrest record popped up. The fact that the charges had ultimately been dismissed was listed at the bottom of his record. “Who knows whether they [potential employers] even read that far down,” mused Glenn. They probably didn’t because Glenn was never offered a job.

Ultimately, Glenn created his own employment, co-founding the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) with other formerly incarcerated youth and Sarah Morris, a volunteer who had facilitated art and poetry workshops for teens stuck at the House of Corrections. They bring programming to teens in jail facing adult charges. They also work with them upon release not only to help them stay out of the system, but to help change the forces that continue to entrap youth of color. “Some people don’t want to be activists and organizers,” acknowledged Glenn. “The ones that do, we work with them and help them build their skills.”

They’ve already had the opportunity to use these skills in a fight to stop the building of a new jail. In 2015, the City Council was considering a bill that would authorize the city to spend $7.2 million to buy land on which to build a new jail. YASP members joined the #No215Jail coalition to stop the process, holding protests and rallies in which they shared their experiences. Some even met with the mayor to explain why they were against the new jail. The coalition succeeded, the bill did not pass and, for now, no new jail is slated for Philadelphia.

Now, YASP members are using those skills—and their stories—to ensure that no one else in Philadelphia wastes away in existing jails simply for lack of money.

Across the country, states and jurisdictions are beginning to reexamine bail policies. Washington, DC, relies on risk assessment rather than cash bail, releasing 85 percent of pre-trial defendants. While New Jersey’s Bail Reform and Speed Trial Act, which went into effect in 2017, doesn’t prohibit bail, it does require courts to use a risk assessment tool to determine whether to release a person pre-trial rather than simply set a bail amount. Connecticut and Illinois have also passed bail reform bills for people facing low-level charges. Both states also passed laws that now allow teenagers younger than 18 to be tried in juvenile rather than automatically be transferred to adult court. California lawmakers are currently considering overhauling its bail system as well.  

In 2016, Philadelphia received a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge to reduce its pre-trial population by 34 percent over three years. YASP organizers are utilizing the opportunity to press city officials to recognize that ending the practices of both cash bail and charging youth as adults are key to that goal. They’ve testified before the City Council, highlighting the devastating impact that incarceration has had on not only themselves, but also their families and communities.

There’s already been some progress. The city has instituted an early bail review system for those facing nonviolent charges. Within the first year, early bail review resulted in the release of 309 people who couldn’t otherwise afford the price of freedom. Nearly 93 percent appeared in court for their first hearing. But, noted Glenn, focusing exclusively on people with nonviolent charges isn’t going to end the problem. It wouldn’t have helped him avoid 18 months behind bars or devastated his and his family’s lives. “Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty,” he pointed out. “We want to end cash bail for everyone.”  

They’re also getting the community involved. Philadelphia’s upcoming race for prosecutor is providing an opportunity for widespread education coupled with immediate action. YASP members, the majority of whom are volunteers, have canvassed door to door to talk with their neighbors about the race. “You have communities that meet the DA more than they meet any other elected official,” explained Glenn. “Most of them had been through the [arrest and court] process.” Yet few knew that the district attorney, who decides prosecuting priorities and bail amounts, was an elected official.

They didn’t tell community members who to vote for, but made sure voters were well-informed. YASP members compiled a report card on where each candidate stood on criminal justice issues, such as eliminating cash bail or stopping the practice of charging youth as adults. They urged people to turn out to vote, even phoning to remind them the night before the primary.

Their efforts worked and voters turned out in droves to vote for criminal justice reform. Larry Krasner, the underdog candidate best known for defending activists pro-bono and suing law enforcement, won the Democratic primary by 20,000 votes. YASP members plan to continue their community education and canvassing efforts during the summer and fall months to get out the vote on Election Day.

While YASP continues to work with teens behind bars, members are also reaching out to teens outside of jails and prisons. Members have visited schools to facilitate workshops on youth organizing to disrupt and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, or the increasing criminalization within schools that often lead to school pushout and/or arrest.

“There are a lot of barriers that come up for young people charged as adults,” reflected Glenn, noting that many people who have been hit hardest by the criminal justice system don’t believe they can change anything. But he and YASP are demonstrating that these same young people aren’t helpless. “We know they have the power to change these things and they should take the lead.”


Victoria LawVictoria Law is a freelance journalist focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women and co-author of the upcoming Your Home is Your Prison, which examines ways in which proposed alternatives to incarceration expand the carceral net. She is also the proud parent of a NYC high school student. 

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