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What You Need to Know About Abolition and Transformative Justice

Althea is looking at the camera and smiling.

Althea Seloover is a poet, liberation-minded investigator, business owner, and criminal justice reform advocate. She owns Criminal Defense Support Services, LLC where she works full time, manages an all-female team of investigators, and runs the business day to day. She is also the Director of Investigation and Prisoner Support at the Youth Justice Project of Oregon Justice Resource Center. Althea lives in Eugene, Oregon with her three cats Mark James, One-Eyed-Cy, and Oliver, as well as a million houseplants. You can find her at and on Instagram.

Your Values and Dreams Matter Right now

As a teenager, adults were often impressed by my passion. Ultimately they dismissed my opinion because I was young and didn’t have “enough life experience.” 

As a young person who has been doing prison justice work for 10 years now, I can clearly trace my work, values, and vision for a different system back to my early teenage self. I can tell you with complete certainty that who you are today, your values, and your dreams matter, especially when it comes to justice. 

A values clarification exercise is a great way to name your values concretely; it can help you understand how aspects of your life are aligned with your values. You will have varying levels of control over these aspects. I like this one by the Barrett Values Centre. 

Criminal Justice is a Youth Issue

The United States imprisons more kids than any other country in the world. This is in addition to imprisoning more people overall than any other country in the world. In fact, the US is the only country in the world that imprisons kids for life. A lot of people don’t know these statistics.

Until 2005 we had the death penalty for kids – and we used it. For some of you, the last execution of a juvenile happened in your lifetime. 

Around the country there are more than 4,000 children locked up in adult prisons and jails, and more than 40,000 children locked up in juvenile detention facilities. 

Studies consistently show that it’s your peers with the least resources, the most trauma, and the most systemic oppression (racism, classism, etc.) that are most likely to be locked up. 

For decades adult decision-makers have pushed a narrative of kids being “super predators,” “rotten apples,” and basically either good or bad – completely ignoring the vulnerability of the developing brain, systemic oppression, and all of the other factors that kids don’t have any control or power over.

In fact, they’ve taken it so far that across the states we’ve seen disproportionate sentencing for kids. That means, an adult who commits the same crime often gets a lesser sentence than a teenager. 

Adults have systematically reinforced youth justice involvement by setting up the school to prison pipeline – a set of widespread policies and practices like zero-tolerance policies, cops in schools, and systemic bias against under-resourced, differently-abled, and BIPOC students – that feeds vulnerable youth into the criminal justice system. 

This is your issue and you should have a seat at the table. 

Prison Abolition is More Than No Prisons

So what is prison abolition anyway? 

Abolition is more than getting rid of prisons. Abolitionists believe that violence is a product of pain and unmet needs. If every one of us had our needs met, a supportive and supported community, and access to care, just how healthy would we be? Studies, even those that aren’t calling for prison abolition, tell us that crime arises from unhealthy communities and unhealthy people. 

Abolition asks us to think beyond “prescriptive approaches” to justice and instead consider what is needed to repair and prevent the harm in the first place. That is, instead of saying “when you steal something worth $100 or more, you should go to jail for 5 days,” prison abolition asks for a system that gets curious when harm happens. Why did you steal and what do you need for 1) your needs to be met and, 2) not cause more harm? 

A fantastic resource to learn more about prison abolition is Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Davis. It’s on the older side but Ms. Davis is one of our original prison abolitionists – and how cool is it that she’s gotten to see the concept of abolition hit the mainstream in her lifetime? It’s inspiring to witness Ms. Davis see her vision of abolition come to life in a big way. 

Also, Angela Davis is prolific – she continues to do talks, Instagram lives with all kinds of incredible activists, and write. You can find a huge body of work just by googling her. 

I also love this article from the New York Times about abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Is Prison Necessary?. My favorite part is when she tells the story of meeting with a group of teenagers at a climate crisis conference. 

What can I do right now?

Besides learning about criminal justice issues – or what you might start to call “criminal injustice” after learning more – and besides using your voice for change, you can treat justice as personal

I became an abolitionist somewhere around 10th grade but it wasn’t until college that I named it. Earlier this year I did a values clarification exercise with a group of people who went to prison as teenagers for violent crimes. We were doing the exercise to understand how we were all aligned as a group and also to explore a deeper understanding of our own motivations in our lives and choices. 

After doing the exercise, I asked myself, how long have these been your values? How long have you been so utterly yourself? I did some reflection and tracked it back to about 10th grade. I’m nearly 30 now, and the questions I’ve asked myself, the answers I’ve gone after, and the relationships I’ve built have only rooted me further in the values I had then. My values all support abolition because I believe in justice, community, accountability, risk taking, and continuous learning.

These ideas for advocating for social change may offer ideas for getting started, as well.

Justice is Personal

To embody that truth means committing to a sense of justice in your own life. Some questions to get you started: 

  • How do you like to be treated? 
  • When you make decisions that hurt other people, how do you want to be held accountable? When you cause harm, how do you repair? What does it take to feel good after doing something you didn’t feel good about? 
  • How do you like others to be accountable when they’ve hurt you? 
  • What is your vision of community? 
  • What do you want justice to look like? 
  • If you did the worst thing you can imagine, what do you think should happen to you? What would accountability look like in that case? 
  • What do you need to be healthy and well physically, mentally, and spiritually?
  • What do you need to be happy, fulfilled, and comfortable? 
  • What do you need to feel safe? 

Do you know what your best friend’s answers are to these questions? How about your closest family member? If not, think about starting a conversation.

These questions are at the root of transformative justice (TJ) philosophy. Like abolitionists, TJ practitioners believe that addressing individual and community needs is at the heart of real justice in our communities. Teen Vogue did this great article on transformative justice: Transformative Justice, Explained.

Finally, treating yourself well is justice. I wish I had known as a teenager just how valuable it is to treat yourself well and honor your “yes” and “no.” Self-care is community care because the healthier each of us are the better we are at showing up for one another. 

There’s Another Way, and It’s Not Just Reform 

But don’t take my word for it.

The way a society treats its children is a good measure of its overall health. In my mind, a society that decides children should be thrown away for the rest of their life is sick. In my mind, the system that allows us to treat human beings, let alone children, as simply “bad” and “trash” must be abolished. 

The more time I’ve spent working in and learning about the criminal justice system, the more I see that it’s harmful to the core. Like the school to prison pipeline, the whole criminal justice system is rooted in racism, ableism, classism, and white supremacy. A great place to learn more about the criminal justice system is The Marshall Project, an online non-partisan news organization that is devoted to raising awareness about all aspects of the criminal justice system. They have a ton of resources of all kinds, including writing and resources by incarcerated folks. 

Other resources about abolition and the criminal justice system: 

  • 13th, a documentary film by Ava DuVernay about the history of the criminal justice system and its roots of slavery.
  • Just Mercy, originally a book by Bryan Stevenson and now a film starring Michael B. Jordan, this story tracks the career of attorney and all-around justice badass Bryan Stevenson. While it is one man’s story, it’s a great overview of the justice system and how every stair is rotten. It also paints a picture of the experience of uncovering the harm the system creates as you work in it. Like most movies based on books, the movie is GREAT but also a super condensed version of the story. I highly recommend the book if you have the time.
  • The Marshall Project. As I mentioned above, the Marshall Project is a fantastic resource to learn more about basically anything in the criminal justice system you could want to know. They not only do incredible original reporting, they also pull articles from a ton of other publications so you can see a ton of different perspectives and sources on one topic for well rounded, critical learning. 
  • Google “documentaries about the criminal justice system” There are sooooo many really good documentaries about the prison system at this point, the list could go on forever. 
  • Abolitionist TikTokers like Mr. Capehart. There is so much thought-provoking and inspiring work coming through social media platforms by and for young people.
  • How to Get Police Out of Schools activist institute. This awesome event is happening Jan. 12-14, 2021 via Zoom; sign up ended last week, but we recommend following Advocates for Youth’s work!

More about the Author

In 7th grade she tried to skip a grade. While she was unsuccessful, her school principal instead appointed Althea to a school district committee as the sole representative of the student population. That appointment launched Althea onto a path of advocacy and visions of a different world. She has spent over 15 years volunteering, researching, working, speaking, organizing and advocating for criminal justice reform. Althea began volunteering at a juvenile detention facility in 2012 and has since spent thousands of volunteer hours working with Oregon’s incarcerated youth and adults. In 2013, she co-founded UO Criminal Justice Network at her alma mater, the University of Oregon. She has worked with dozens of juvenile and youthful offenders in the process of preparing for parole hearings and the clemency process. She believes that we all deserve to get free – from confinement, from oppression, and the limits of supremacy culture.  

*Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

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