Home News Center YJLI Fellow Korynna Lopez Elevates the Voices of Youth in Custody

YJLI Fellow Korynna Lopez Elevates the Voices of Youth in Custody

June 27, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain



What got you into doing youth justice reform work? 

For me, it was a little two-fold. I started with an organization in Chicago called the Mikva Challenge, which works to engage young people in civic engagement and opportunities. I started as a member of the Juvenile Justice Council. I was interested in joining that organization because I had seen a similar youth council working on another issue area, and seeing young people like me, from areas like me, who were making decisions about what kind of real policy solutions they wanted to uplift was something I hadn't seen before and I wanted to be a part of it.  

The other side of it was growing up with my mom as a social worker; hearing and understanding the kind of discussions and care for children that she had, ingrained in me the importance of caring for youth and navigating systems that are supposed to support them. It was a natural connection to this work.

Can you tell us about your YJLI advocacy project? 

Pre-pandemic, I was going into the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center to co-direct a policy club, specifically for youth who were facing adult transfer cases. We were in there every other Monday breaking bread and talking about what kind of policy changes the youth wanted to see. 

It’s hard finding resources to have those conversations with youth in custody, and I think that's a very important population to engage in policy change discussions. When their case is resolved, those are the young people we want to engage in fixing the system, because they've been through it, but I think the earlier we can engage them the better. We use the policy club to talk about prevention and ask what resources or supports young people need in their community and to help the youth build self-advocacy tools. I’ve used my fellowship year with YJLI to focus on how to grow the program and have a guide and a curriculum toolkit to put those resources together and map out how to navigate these conversations with young people in custody, that is especially mindful of the characteristics of the place in which the conversations are happening (length of stay, the fact that it is a carceral setting, etc.).

What changes have the youth you’ve worked with identified?   

Getting rid of automatic transfer laws. And again, the population we’re talking about is young people facing adult transfer cases – so they are in a facility with other youth with juvenile cases and they see those being handled very differently. They want to know how the juvenile justice system came to be, where transfer laws came from and how they can be eliminated. And there’s a fine line because, even if legislation passed to end adult transfer, it’s unlikely that it would retroactively impact their cases. So, there’s a balance between discussing these changes and giving them false hope that their specific case would be impacted. That’s the elephant in the room that led to my advocacy project as a means to strike that balance and still make our time worthwhile. But still, they know how ludicrous those laws are. 

There are also things in their communities that they want to see – basic things like basketball courts, parks and schools, restaurants - obvious choices that would help with prevention and creating communities that support young people’s development.

What motivates you? 

The lens I crafted from my mom’s influence created a passion for people; through her I learned the importance of looking at someone and not just taking whatever action they've done or have been accused of at face value - but thinking about people holistically. What was going on in their life beforehand? What is the community or societal impact on them? That passion and lens combine to keep me in this work.

Additionally, I often go back to a conversation in a class where we discussed the inherent harms of systems that were human-made and how people just accept the flaws we identify when the answer to change and make new systems is so clear, though not easy.

How do you feel about the future? Does it look hopeful for you? 

Each year I notice more people on the right side of this and that gives me a lot of hope. Even in my own community here in Berwyn, just outside of Chicago. Four years ago, I thought I was alone in this kind of thinking. Then, I immediately met a lot of neighbors across the city and in my own ward showing me that I wasn't as I ran for alderperson. There are people that want to see change.  Seeing people in my neighborhood and across the state and country committing to changing these issues gives me a ton of motivation. We're getting stronger and we're moving more towards that vision.

What's your dream youth justice vision? 

My vision is that there's no need for a juvenile justice system - that we don’t even get to the point where we need these systems to punish or rehabilitate. We have an ecosystem of supports, services and empathy that says no one is deserving of the conditions of a prison or detention center, which doesn't do anything to constructively help anyone. And we have people who understand that and want to be in solidarity with their neighbors. 

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