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The Judge Who Believed
Having just one person on my side made all the difference
Valencia Boyce
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I was a good little girl when I was younger. But my grandmother put me down a lot. It hurt, and I got tired of it. I was so depressed. So I started doing things that I knew would hurt me, like getting into fights and hanging out with the wrong crowd. I got arrested and locked up several times for petty larceny, trespassing, and assault (because of a fight). Finally, when I was 15, I ended up in a juvenile detention center called Horizons for violating probation.

I’d been in Horizons for a couple of weeks when, one morning, the Juvenile Counselors (JCs) decided to have a group meeting with the girls in my hall. One JC pointed out that we were all there for a reason and asked us a question.

“What are you going to do when you get out of here?” she said. “I mean, you practically messed up your life so far. All of you sitting right here in a sky-blue uniform are criminals.”

I looked at her, shocked.

“Because some of you are here for murder, attempted murder, assault, robbery. I mean, look at it. If I was a judge I wouldn’t let any of you go back into the community,” said the JC.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

I got so mad. She didn’t know what we had been through to make us do things like that. I felt like she shouldn’t speak if she didn’t know what had happened to any of us. The blood started to boil in my head. Suddenly, I exploded.

“You don’t know me! You don’t know who I am, what I been through, what happened to me!” A teardrop slid down my face. I continued.

“You don’t know how it happened, why it happened, you don’t even know if I did it or not.” Then I started to calm down a little. “But you think because we’re here, you know our whole life story. You know nothing.

“All you know about us is we did something wrong. We’re in the system. Nothing can change that part of us. So now you’re saying there’s no changing us? That we’re bad, dangerous to our community? So we should be kept in a room with the windows covered or painted? So we should suffer? I understand. Yes, you’re saying we should suffer, because we won’t ever change. You judge a book by its cover.”

“No, we read the pages,” one of them responded sarcastically.

I felt like they shouldn’t go through our files and then start judging us. It was so wrong. At least they should show a little respect and ask us why we were there, or what made us do it.

Don’t Tell Me Who I Am

In that moment, I was thinking about all the things I had been through, like the verbal abuse I got from family, how much pain I was in, and what I had done to release it, like cutting myself and fighting.

I wondered, why do people have to see only negative? At the same time, I wished I had another way to release my stress.

“Alright, I know I made mistakes. I remember what I did. And I also suffered the consequences. So now you telling me who I am by reading a piece of paper? You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through. So don’t tell me who I am.”

I walked away and sat alone in a corner in my dorm. I couldn’t blame a JC for my actions, but she was wrong to assume I was a bad person incapable of change. That’s how the system thinks of teens. That’s all they see. They don’t care what happened.

But I couldn’t change that. I had no power in that place. However, I knew there was someone I could speak to who did have power: my judge. I wanted him to understand how I felt about the system.

He Knew I Could Make It

image by Ismaili Torres

His name was Judge Robert Reed. He had been my judge for two years, from the time I first got locked up until I was sentenced. I wanted to be heard by someone I knew who was in power.

Judge Reed had made a big impression on me. Every time I had a court appearance after I’d gotten in trouble, he would tell me I was going to make it and be someone in life.

When I first stood before Judge Reed, he let me go. Each time he told me I had potential, that I was a smart young woman, and that he knew I could make good choices. But, he’d add, it was up to me to decide when I was ready to make those good choices. That was significant to me because no one had told me that as often as he did. It told me that he really believed I’d make it and be someone special.

What Judge Reed expected of me was to change my friends, finish school, and focus on things that wouldn’t hurt me in the future. But for a long time, I didn’t. Instead I continued hanging out with the wrong friends, breaking the court’s rules, and doing everything else I wanted to do.

I was so used to hanging around negativity that it was hard to pull myself out. I’d been with my friends since I was 7, and they were the ones who gave me attention and support when the adults in my life didn’t. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t change.

The Letter

That night, I wrote Judge Reed a letter. I told him that I knew that getting locked up was my fault for getting into dumb stuff. But I also wrote that I didn’t like the fact that the system judged us because of what we did without finding out what had happened to us before.

I didn’t say exactly what the JC had said to the group, but I said I didn’t think it was right that staff judged us based only on our file. “You think that is right?” I asked him. “It hurts me when people look at me like that. But I guess it’s my fault. Don’t get locked up.”

About a week later I had a court date to decide whether they were going to sentence me or put me in another program. When it was my turn to go into the courtroom, I gave my lawyer the letter and explained why I wanted the judge to have it. My lawyer handed Judge Reed my letter.

Judge Reed and I sat across from one another at a table in the courtroom. He read my letter to himself in front of me and he felt what I was saying. Judge Reed wasn’t the cruel type of judge. He was cool, fair, and he had a good heart. He had always spoken softly, and asked me if I understood where he was coming from. I felt comfortable sharing my letter with him.

Prove Them Wrong

After he read it, he responded. He asked me to look him in the eyes so he knew I was listening. He spoke to me calmly. He was being very nice to me.

He told me that I, as a black woman, was supposed to do everything the opposite from what the white men say about us. I knew when he said “white men” he was really talking about anybody who’s in a position of power, the people who say that we are dangerous to the community, and that we are always doing something negative. Judge Reed wanted me to prove them wrong.

I had heard similar words plenty of times before from numerous people, like my grandma and teachers from school. But I knew Judge Reed wasn’t going to give me bad advice. I trusted him in a way that I didn’t trust most other adults, because Judge Reed had always told me he believed in me.

I finally decided to listen to him. He made me realize a lot of things I had never understood about the world and within myself. He made me realize I was getting older, not younger, and my life was getting shorter, not longer. I didn’t want to be a grown adult who was still getting in trouble. I wanted to finish high school, go to college, get a job, and accomplish my other goals. The path I’d been on wasn’t going to get me there. But Judge Reed had listened to me, and he believed I could change. From that day on I tried to change my ways.

Two Years of Struggle

I was sent to an RTC where I got counseling, made new friends, and met strong and smart adults who had also struggled but made it. It took the world to help me change, to become who I am now: a positive Valencia. These days, I hardly let anyone get to me. I go to school and I’m about to graduate. I’m staying out of trouble. That conversation with Judge Reed started two years of struggle. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was real hard. But the struggle was worth it.

Just one person, no matter who it is, can change your whole life around. If it wasn’t for Judge Reed, I don’t think I would have made it. I think I would’ve had to hit rock bottom for me to change. By then, it might have been too late. I guess I had to find the real me.

Today I’m happier. I feel proud of myself now that I walk away from problems. I’m more focused on myself instead of the negative people around me, and I believe in myself.

When I see other kids caught up in the things I used to be part of, like fighting someone because that person got them mad, I try to speak to them. I say, “Don’t let people get to you, because that’s what people like to see. You might have gotten your anger out, but there’s other ways to settle things.” And hopefully one day they will remember what I said and put my criticism to use—just as I did with the words of Judge Reed.

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(FCYU-2011-07-09)

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