Doing Family Justice in Louisville, KY

A Special Project Art Leader demonstrates how to make a Wish Doll during a community meeting.

By Judi Jennings, Director of The Special Project

Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a “new” coalition, yet it is more than two years in the making. And 10 years before that, The Special Project, a lead partner in the coalition, originated weekly artmaking sessions with families in the Visitors Lobby of the Metro Louisville Jail beginning in 2008.

Now, across the country and in our own community, more people are waking up to the devastating impact of mass incarceration.  According to the Sentencing Project, incarceration in the US increased 500% over the last 40 years. There are now 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails.  An estimated 5,749,000 children have had a parent in jail during their childhood.

Kentucky is the second highest in the nation—15%–of children who have had an incarcerated parent, nearly twice the national rate of 8%. Kentucky also has the second highest rate of female incarceration in the US. Almost 71% of females in state custody are mothers with minor children. Parental incarceration is now known to be an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can be traumatic and have lasting negative effects, such as toxic stress, on children’s health and wellbeing.

Doing social justice work on the scale and pervasiveness of mass incarceration and its impact on children can be overwhelming and may seem impossible to address.  Especially now, when communities at the local, state and national levels are polarized to the point of contesting whose realities are real.  AND when print, visual and social media outlets portray different versions of what is news and what is true.    

In the midst of this chaos and division, Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a newly emerging coalition dedicated to more fair and equitable policies and practices for families with incarcerated loved ones in Jefferson County.  Purposefully grassroots, LFJA starts with criminal justice reform from the community up, where we work face to face to reduce mass incarceration.  As a community-based coalition, we are innovating, evolving and out-right borrowing social justice principles and democratic practices to help us reclaim civic equity, empathy and reality. 

Here are four principles and practices for doing social justice we are using in these trying times:

“Nothing about us without us”

Wikipedia traces this phrase to Poland in the 1500s. Who ever used it first, it is critical for criminal justice reform today. JustLeadership USA, which includes national Fellows from Louisville, rightly stresses that people with direct experience of incarceration must lead criminal justice reform because they understand the current system first hand.

Focus on creating knowledge & solutions

With the breakdown and profiteering of news sources today, social justice organizations can help fill the gap by creating new knowledge and solutions that work at the grassroots level.

Over the last two years, the Special Project expanded its weekly artmaking activities to working for more fair and equitable policies and practices for children and families with incarcerated loved ones.  In 2018, the Special Project partnered with Metro Louisville Center for Health Equity to produce a Health Impact Assessment showing how parental incarceration harms children’s health, especially children of color, in our community. Combining research and solutions, the report recommends corrective local actions to address this urgent public health concern.

Develop & maintain a strong equity analysis

According to Nation Public Radio, the “word of the year” for 2018 was “social justice.”  Based on my personal experience, there are about as many definitions of social justice as there are people talking about it, pro and con. Social justice is a great concept, yet meaningful change requires a strong equity analysis linking individual behavior, social, economic and cultural root causes, and the systems of power that feed root causes and behavior. 

An equity framework enables comparative analysis and reveals disproportionate impacts. For example, all children may be harmed by parental incarceration. Yet, an equity lens reveals that children of color in Jefferson County are disproportionately affected because of the racial disparities in incarceration.

Practice collective impact, alignment and artmaking

Coalition is another word that carries lots of different meanings.  Clearly, a coalition involves more than one group or organization, yet often how and why of coalition work is not readily apparent. Collective impact is a strong component that requires taking time for careful alignment of goals and actions. Artmaking is a valuable tool for inspiring new ways of thinking, social connections and energetic engagement, although way too seldom taken seriously in doing justice. 

Focusing on our local criminal justice system, LFJA is working on two positive actions to directly improve the health of children with incarcerated parents: 1) a pilot program for District Court judges to consider Family Responsibility Statements when a defendant is a custodial parent: 2) making the case for improving conditions for family video visitations and consider alternative technologies and practices.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates welcomes all participants. You can get involved by emailing 

Doing justice amid chaos and division requires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to address mass incarceration and other pressing social injustices.  The more we share strategies and develop mutual support, the more hope there is for substantive social change now.

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