If someone offered you $100,000 and two years to think deeply about how to solve a big problem, what problem would you tackle? As a recipient of the 2018 Stanton Fellowship, I have just that opportunity. For me, that big question is how we create a youth development system that gives our kids a chance to lead productive lives, and to be the brothers, the fathers, the friends, the leaders they were meant to be.
This is a piece of Liberty Hill’s new Agenda for a Just Future. We are tackling three of L.A.’s most entrenched barriers to justice for low income communities of color, and as part of that plan, we will fight to end youth incarceration as we know it in Los Angeles County.
Officials in the juvenile justice system know just as well as you and I that locking up young people pushes them deeper into the criminal justice system, rather than toward the rehabilitative services they need. So, why does L.A. County have more youth incarcerated or under law enforcement supervision than any jurisdiction in the nation? The repercussions of an unfair youth detention system hurt our young peoples’ futures, destabilize their families and take away so much untapped potential from our communities. We are all affected by a justice system that fails our kids. I know from personal experience.
My passion for youth justice comes from my own family’s struggle with the criminal justice system, and the devastating toll it took. That is why this Stanton Fellowship is so meaningful to me. This is the story I told during my acceptance speech:
I remember like it was yesterday. I was sitting in this cold L.A. court room with bright florescent lights, swearing on a bible to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I was 20 years old. The judge seemed omnipotent to me. He held the power to determine whether my 17 year-old baby brother was tried as a juvenile or as an adult. This would determine whether my brother had a chance at a decent life or not.
And he was counting on me. Our parents had both died, so I was all he had and he was all I had. It was my job to convince the judge that my brother was, in fact, a child. A 17-year-old boy who had grown up very poor, who had lost both of his parents too young, and was trying to make it on his own. That his poetry could move even the coldest heart, that his humor could lighten the darkest moments, that his friendship could ease the greatest pain. The world needed him. I needed him.
The judge stared right through me. The gavel came down. He had decided: my baby brother would be tried as an adult.
There were many more moments like that, when I pleaded for mercy for my brother. To public defenders, prosecutors, juries, service providers, the officers at the jails. And I pleaded with my brother to make better choices, to get help, to believe in himself.
I remember the day my brother was first sentenced to five years in prison. I was nauseous. I cried for hours. I had failed him. And there was nothing more I could do.
I was powerless.
But then I realized something. There were tens of thousands of other kids like him, mostly Black and Latino boys, ending up in jail, their lives ruined, the lives of their families ruined. If I couldn’t save my brother, I was going to fight like hell for everyone else.
And I knew in my gut that the fight had to be led by people like my brother. The people whose lives hang in the balance, who have the most to lose and the most to gain. The people who have experienced the injustice first hand are the ones who should be leading the fight for justice. And I wanted to do everything I could to support those leaders.
That journey has brought me here, today. We know it’s going to be tough. We’re going up against mammoth institutions, trying to change the largest juvenile justice system in the country. But I know I cannot hold my head up high as an an Angeleno or as a Goldsmith unless I’m doing everything I can to create a system that is truly just and fair for all of our kids.
We hope you will join Liberty Hill in this effort. To learn more, please visit our Agenda for a Just Future webpage, where we detail our goals for our policy efforts around youth, environmental and housing justice.
President and CEO, Liberty Hill Foundation