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YJLI Feature Joi Owens

June 20, 2017

NJJN Fellow Joi Owens Develops Comprehensive Educational Reentry Policy for MS Detention Facilities

Recently, we spoke with Joi Owens, who is a 2016-2017 fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

Joi L. Owens is the managing attorney and legislative liaison for Disability Rights Mississippi. Joi focuses on systemic reform related to people with disabilities in facilities and institutions across the state of Mississippi. Joi advocates for juvenile justice reform, education reform, and criminal justice reform, and represents incarcerated children and adults to address unconstitutional and abusive conditions in jails and juvenile detention centers. Joi also monitors conditions in psychiatric residential treatment facilities. She received her B.A. in Speech Communication from Jackson State University and her law degree from Mississippi College School of Law. Joi is the proud mother to her son, Legend.

Tell us about your advocacy project? What are its goals?

My goal is to end the use of psychotropic drugs, chemical restraints,  on youth in facilities in the state of Mississippi. Since starting this project, we have achieved success and defeats. We are in the process of working with stakeholders and officials to create a meaningful policy change. Currently, we are doing an education piece to equip people who work in facilities with understanding ways to de-escalate situations involving youth without the use of restraints or seclusion.

What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

As a young lawyer, I have spent the majority of both my law school and legal career advocating for social justice. As a single mother to a young man of color, I am personally aware of the challenges people of color face in the criminal justice system. It is my desire to be part of the team who changes this system for my son and all youth in the juvenile justice system.

While in law school, I was sworn into limited practice for youth court. In this capacity, I represented alleged delinquent minors at their adjudication and disposition hearings. I have volunteered/worked for many social justice organizations doing a variety of work organizing campaigns and legal clinics geared towards social justice reform.

Previously, I worked for the ACLU as a staff attorney and the legislative director. In that capacity, I drafted legislation, lobbied, and assisted with passage of legislation addressing issues such as criminal justice reform, youth justice reform, school to prison pipeline, and training of school resource officers.

Currently, I am the managing attorney for the Protection and Advocacy agency for the state of Mississippi, Disability Rights Mississippi (DRMS). DRMS is a statewide non-profit organization that provides free legal services to people with disabilities in Mississippi. DRMS operates under a Federal mandate by Congress, and DRMS has a broad range of Federal access authority which allows the agency to go into any places that service people with disabilities to monitor conditions and conduct abuse and neglect investigations. In my current role, I manage the DRMS’s facilities team. In this capacity, I am directly involved with people in the jails, prisons, psychiatric residential treatment facilities, and juvenile detention centers. I regularly visit the facilities to represent clients, monitor conditions and do abuse and neglect investigation. Also, I serve as the agency’s lobbyist. I lobby issues related to social justice reform.

What has your experience in the Institute been like?  Why do you think the Institute is relevant?

The Institute has been instrumental in helping me grow professionally,  as an advocate, and most importantly as a person. I have evolved in understanding the importance of sustainability of this movement and myself, so I can continue to do this work. At times, it is hard to stay in this movement building work long term because of compassion fatigue and burnout. In being part of this dynamic group, I have a greater ability to see the bigger picture and an even more significant commitment to this work as well as myself.

In 2014, I attended the NJJN’s annual forum. I was able to connect with like-minded people and develop strategies to tackle some of the issues we come into contact with in the course of the juvenile justice work. The Fellowship will give me the opportunity to develop a greater support system, network, and further our work in Mississippi.

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here

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