[GUEST POST] Into the Deep and Back: Never Losing Hope in Our Youth, Pt. 1
The stories of youth who have come into contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems speak to the lack of proper assistance offered by the various systems coming into contact with youth in the United States. It is important to recognize that entering the justice system is a process, which starts not at the point of arrest but at the moment when a system fails to properly address the particular needs of a young person in the community. If systems (i.e. the education, employment, mental health, and justice systems) were to work together to assist youth at a very early age, then perhaps fewer young people would come into contact with the criminal justice system and more would be successful law abiding citizens. I speak from personal experience.
By the time I had turned 8, I began to drink my father’s beers at family parties to prevent my father from getting drunk and beating on my mother. Although young, I understood that when my dad was not under the influence he was a good person. Yet I also knew that my mother never called the police on my dad because she could not speak English and she feared both of them would get deported to Mexico if she did so. As a result, I grew up around violence and developed the same fear of law enforcement that my parents had. I had heard of and seen plenty of stories of immigrant families that had been torn apart by police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. How could I trust or speak to anyone about the problems in my family with the fear that I may lose them in the process?
Some may say that I could have taken a different path in life than resorting to violence, drugs, and gangs, but try telling that to someone who grew up fearing and distrusting the very systems that were supposed to help him…
My parents never managed to complete high school and my father did not even make it past the 6th grade. However, not once while in school did someone ask me why I lacked interest in my education. If someone had ever asked, I would have responded, “Why take an interest in school when my parents cannot even speak English and never even made it past high school?” Did the school ever try to help my parents navigate through those challenges? No, they did not. Instead they labeled them “bad parents” and labeled me “a troubled youth.”
Some may say that I could have taken a different path in life than resorting to violence, drugs, and gangs, but try telling that to someone who grew up fearing and distrusting the very systems that were supposed to help him and his family. By the time I was 13 years old, I had already joined a gang and performed several illegal activities such as selling drugs, forging ID’s, and robbing people. Given that I had a poor relationship with my family, the gang life became an attractive alternative to me because it offered two things I lacked: a family and people I could trust. Several times the police picked me up but, given that I was a small 13-year-old boy, they never really took me seriously. However, several times I did get thrown into a fence or two for bad-mouthing a police officer. One thing I always wonder is, why didn’t the police ever take the time to talk to me or get to know me, rather than treating me like a delinquent because of the way I dressed and talked?
You may ask where my parents were while I was out of school, dealing drugs, and with a gang. The answer is simple: they were hard at work trying to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. Unfortunately, as immigrants from Mexico with little education, job options were more or less limited to minimum wage jobs in restaurants, sweat shops, and other hard labor jobs. Now some may say that my problems started because of lack of parental attention, but regardless of how poor my relationship with my parents was, I can now see that they tried their best. The difficulties they faced came not only from the alcohol and lack of money but also because they lacked hope. How could they ever have hope when it seemed like the education system, the law, and the all other systems were against them?
With little education, a lack of hope, and complete distrust of all state systems, I made many immature, impulsive, and irrational decisions. Two days shy of my 16th birthday, I made the most irrational decision of my life by shooting a rival gang member three times with the intent of taking away his life. A month after having committed the act, I was arrested at school and charged with second-degree attempted murder. During my time in the precinct I was beaten, chocked up, and denied the right to speak with my parents until I either confessed the names of my accomplices or took full responsibility for the crime. In the end, I chose to go for the latter and ended up writing a statement against myself. When my mother arrived at the precinct she unknowingly signed my statement along with a Miranda Rights Waiver. The officers told her that she had to sign both of these documents in order to be able to see me. Can anyone say that the system carried out its functions well in this case? My mother did not even understand the words that she was reading.
….Check back with us next Monday for Part 2 of Into the Deep and Back: Never Losing Hope in Our Youth.
[GUEST POST] Into the Deep and Back: Never Losing Hope in Our Youth, Pt. 2
Once again we are hearing from Hernan Carvente, who is sharing Part 2 of his remarkable story of resilience with us.
If you missed Part 1, get caught up here.
…Within a day of having been arrested I was being processed through the adult criminal court with the possibility of being sentenced to 10 years in prison. For four months I was held in a juvenile detention facility while I fought my case in court. I eventually ended up being sentenced to 2 to 6 years at a secure juvenile detention facility 2 hours away from my family and soon-to-be-born daughter. During my time in placement I saw a lot of violence—both from my peers and the staff in the facility. At first, it was hard to avoid not being mixed up in all the problems in the facility when the mentality of the system was residents versus staff. Although I viewed many of the staff as being authoritarian and punitive, I was fortunate to meet a few good staff that looked at me not as a criminal but as young man who was in need of guidance and support. These staff looked past my crime and tried to understand what had led me to become the person that I was.
The encouragement that I received from these staff allowed me to begin trusting people for the first time and I finally began to see myself as being capable of doing something more. This change in mindset drove me to obtain my GED and soon after I enrolled in a college program led by the man to whom I now attribute most of my success to. The director of that program became a teacher, a friend, a father figure, and a mentor to me all at the same time. He taught the true value of a good education and made me realize how much I could do by just believing in myself. He also helped me overcome the anger that I had bottled up from my past, which helped me get closer to my family. However, the biggest lesson that he taught me was that it only takes one person to make a difference in the world or the lives of others. This man, along with a few good staff, and other outside individuals went against the system status quo to assist me. These people listened to me, believed in me, worked with my parents and, by doing so, addressed the very problems that all other systems had failed to address. Thanks to all of their support I managed to walk out of the facility in June 2012 with 54 college credits and a new outlook on life.
The transition back into the community for me, like many others who exit the system, was not an easy one. I had no money, my relationship with my family and the mother of my child was unstable, and a B-class felony conviction on my record made it almost impossible to find a job. When it came to college, a few universities made the enrollment process very difficult for me. I felt like I was walking around with a sign on my chest that read: “Beware Ex-Felon.” Although there were several times in the first six months when I felt like giving up, I continued to persevere and slowly managed to find opportunities thanks to people who were willing to take a chance with me. What I realized in the transition process was that most systems, if not all, did not respond very well to someone who possessed a criminal record. Having felt this similar lack of support on behalf of the various systems from a young age, I wanted to be in position where I would be able to make changes in these systems. I decided to enroll at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and began to advocate on behalf of youth in New York and on national scale.
These people listened to me, believed in me, worked with my parents and, by doing so, addressed the very problems that all other systems had failed to address.
Through my advocacy work, I learned that my past experiences afford me the ability to speak on the various problems (lack of school and family support, legal processes, etc.) that make it difficult for some youth to be successful law abiding citizens. In the past year and half, I have spoken several times before officials, communities, and youth with the purpose of pointing out deficiencies in the various systems as well as to encourage people to treat youth as youth, and not as adults. I continue to use my story as a driving force to impact change within the system and to alter the perceptions that people have of youth who end up in the criminal justice system.
Today, I am a Research Assistant/Program Analyst at the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice whose aim is to assist government and civil society to improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety. I was also appointed by the governor to serve as member of the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group (JJAG) as well as the Citizens Policy and Complaint Review Council (CPCRC). I am also the Northeast Regional Representative for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s (CJJ) National Youth Committee and the Founder and President of the Youth Justice Club at John Jay College. Although all of these are important accomplishments in my life, I never forget that the reason I am part of all of this work is to help policymakers develop better responses for youth in our communities. And luckily, although its only been two years since I was released, I have already made progress in changing the way that systems perceive youth who commit serious crimes by sharing the story that you have just read.
What I hope people take away from my story is that you should never lose hope on a young person just because of his past, the way he dresses or talks, or because he commits a very serious crime. With better responses, the right support, and more resources, all youth regardless of the crimes they commit, the way they behave, or the labels they carry (“delinquent,” “criminal,” “at-risk,” “troubled”), have the capacity to change. I also want policymakers, politicians, and other system stakeholders to understand that all systems must work together to address the problems youth face in our communities. If a small group of people were able to make a difference in my life, can you imagine what we could accomplish if entire systems worked together to help youth? It would mean the end of Mass Incarceration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hernan is a senior at the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is pursuing his Bachelors in Criminal Justice. He is a Research Assistant at the Vera Institute of Justice and is a member of the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. Hernan spent four years in New York’s juvenile justice system.