Inside heads and cells of juvenile offenders: New Philly art exhibit showcases and helps youth

In conjunction with the art exhibition, InLiquid will sponsor and host what they're calling the state's first ever youth expungement clinic. Over 150 juvenile offenders will begin the process of having their records expunged.

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A 12 year old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Photo courtesy Richard Ross)

What was originally conceived as a locally-staged art exhibition highlighting the need for reforms to the nation's juvenile justice system has snowballed into something much more.

At nonprofit arts organization and studio space InLiquid, housed inside Kensington's Crane Arts building, hundreds of youths will this month receive the opportunity to have their juvenile records expunged, while hundreds more will be provided with resources about diversionary programming that could potentially save them from having to face the issue, in the first place.

"Juvenile in Justice," slated to open Friday, first drew its inspiration from the hauntingly beautiful images of detention centers, courtrooms and group homes taken by documentary photographer Richard Ross. Local artists Roberto Lugo and Mat Tomezko were tapped to respond to Ross' work with their own interpretations of how arts education can help shape the experience of kids who are either at risk or already behind bars.

"I think people need to see the fact there is a real social component to art," event organizer and InLiquid founder Rachel Zimmerman said. "Art is always seen as the Band-Aid after the fact, after these kids get into trouble. I think we'd like to see art more as a preventative thing, more diversionary -- not just a thing that comes in and fixes all the problems, but also helps before the problems even exist."

As the "Juvenile in Justice" project grew, organizers strove to ensure it enveloped the entire community -- both the activists and scholars viewing the justice system from the outside, as well as those whose lives it directly affected.

"We began bringing together groups of young people we're calling 'youth ambassadors,' who are from communities that are challenged and who are also involved in creative activities," curator Julien Robson said. "These kids will be a voice in their own communities about the show to bring audiences to the exhibition."

"We're also creating an opportunity for them to respond to the exhibition in their own creative way, whether by writing or creating pictures," Robson continued. "On Dec. 12, we will actually open an exhibition within the exhibition with the work of these young people -- another addition to an exhibition that keeps growing and growing."

Zimmerman said she hopes the micro-exhibition will evolve into its own traveling art show with a life extending beyond that of "Juvenile in Justice."

Show organizers said they also realized in the planning phase they wanted the exhibition to incorporate practical components in a bid to effect real change. In addition to showcasing compelling artworks, InLiquid will provide attendees with resources about available youth art programs and how families can connect to them.

"There's a really tactile experience with art that gets missed if you just have an exhibition," Zimmerman said. "For us, it was really important we engage people -- not just an art audience. An art audience is looking at it just from an art factor, but maybe not the fact they have a greater responsibility. We're getting people into the space who we potentially have the means of helping or getting engaged. The idea is to use the space as means of conveying information, but also convening people and realizing all the stuff crosses boundaries. It's not just art for art's sake, but art has a lot more meaning."

In conjunction with the exhibition, InLiquid will on Dec. 3 sponsor and host what they're calling the state's first ever youth expungement clinic. Over 150 juvenile offenders will begin the process of having their records expunged. The event was borne from a partnership with the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity's Criminal Expungement Project.

"What's unique about expungement clinics is that they really put a face on the expungement process and you see all the collateral damage that's caused by a criminal record," Philadelphia Laywers for Social Equity board member Ryan Hancock said.

The organization has for two years been organizing adult expungement clinics and recently expanded to serve juveniles.

In Pennsylvania, those who have been adjudicated delinquent can obtain a court order to have their records expunged six months after they complete consent decrees, five years after they undergo probation, or, with the consent of the Commonwealth, once they reach the age of 18. But the process can take six months to a year and, if using a private attorney, clients can expect to pay anywhere from $900 to $2,500 for representation -- on top of court costs. In addition, many people who would benefit most from an expungement don't even know it's an option.

"We see [sponsoring the expungements] as a way of actively helping these young people to move forward, because very often, when you have this kind of record, you can't find a job," Robson said. "What we're really trying to do is make it possible for them to have another chance."

"Juvenile in Justice" will also incorporate a panel discussion about the juvenile justice system featuring speakers with a variety of perspectives, from those who have been incarcerated to those who work in the judicial system and in youth trauma treatment.

"We want to raise a national discussion about the need for reform of the juvenile justice system in the country," Robson said. "We want to raise that in Philadelphia with a number of different communities. We want to make it a discussion we participate in as a city, because it's a very relevant discussion in our city. At the same time, we want to incorporate into that discussion an understanding that if we reinvest in creative education, it can become part of that reform -- an effective part of that reform."

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