The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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My Peers in Prison
A story of injustice shocked me into action
Olivia Rosenthal

When I was 14, a close family friend told me about a boy around my age who had been charged with breaking and entering and stealing an iPod. This boy was barely a teenager, but was facing time in an adult prison.

Our family friend was mentoring this boy and believed he had been framed by another teen. But what really shocked me was how over-the-top this punishment seemed, even if he was guilty. How could a boy who could have been my own classmate be sentenced to an adult prison for a nonviolent crime?

Although I’ve always had a keen interest in politics and social justice issues, I hadn’t known much about the juvenile justice system until hearing this boy’s story. The story sparked my desire to understand how the system worked. I began researching, reading reports, and talking to people who worked at an alternative-to-incarceration program near my apartment. (For more on these programs, see p. 20.)

A Flawed System

image by Froylan Garcia

The more I learned, the more confused I became. For one thing, it quickly became clear that New York was spending millions annually to keep juvenile prisons open, despite numerous reports that said these facilities didn’t get kids to stop committing crimes.

I also discovered there weren’t many good programs to help released youth avoid getting into trouble again. As a result, in some years the rate of recidivism (that’s the percentage of prisoners who are re-arrested within a short period after release) topped 60%. With these rates so high, it became clear to me that lives all around me were being wasted and destroyed in prison.

In a stroke of luck, I was already volunteering at State Senator Eric Schneiderman’s office in Washington Heights, and I took the opportunity to start researching laws that could improve the state’s juvenile justice system.

Letting Teens Know

image by Froylan Garcia

My research showed me that this issue was receiving too little public attention. This became clear as I explained my research to family and friends, many of whom were extremely politically active, and they were surprised by my findings. I felt a responsibility to inform others about what was happening to my peers.

I decided to create a pamphlet aimed at fellow teenagers. In it I corrected common misunderstandings about the juvenile justice system. For example, I pointed out that in spite of the perception that juvenile crime is high in New York state, it’s actually dropped in recent years. Despite this drop, however, the state continues to operate juvenile prisons with many empty beds. I also used the pamphlet to advocate for alternative-to-incarceration programs that provide things like counseling and job training.

Once my pamphlet was completed, I tried to find a way to distribute it at public schools or at nonprofit organizations. I realized that if the statistics I’d uncovered shocked me, they would likely shock my peers across the state. I hoped that by informing others, I’d inspire them to advocate for change.

A Real Impact

image by Froylan Garcia

I e-mailed hundreds of organizations, politicians, lawyers, and others I felt were in a position to help the cause. At first, I was reluctant to attach my pamphlet to the e-mails. I was only 16 and I worried that these professionals, who’d spent so much more time working on this issue than I had, would dismiss or poke holes in my research.

However, it turned out just the opposite way. After countless e-mails went unanswered, I decided to go ahead and send people my pamphlet. Once I had a legitimate project to show them, I started to get some responses. Before I knew it, I was talking with administrators at New Visions public schools about writing my own lesson plan to teach their students about the juvenile justice system, and speaking with a congressman from Virginia about how to adapt federal legislation to my own neighborhood.

With the support of Senator Schneiderman, I also began working on a state version of the federal Youth Promise Act, an effort to support youth and prevent juvenile crime (see p. 21). Although it’s a lengthy project and I’m still working on completing the bill, I’m hopeful it’ll be ready to be submitted to legislative committees by early next year. I’m still somewhat in shock that from a few years’ work, I might actually be able to impact state policy.

Pushy for a Cause

My experience with youth justice has taught me that you are never too young to effect change. If you trust your own opinions and then get the facts to back those opinions up and set goals, you’ll find that there are ways to impact the world around you. Now when I walk into the juvenile crime prevention program in my neighborhood and hear stories of arrests, I can actually understand the teens’ dilemmas and sometimes even offer possible solutions.

If you see a problem in the world beyond your school walls you can—with hard work, dedication, and I guess you could say pushiness—make a difference. Ultimately, I think most of my work has come from the belief that other teenagers will be moved to join the struggle for change, if only they’re properly informed about what’s really happening.

So whether you are interested in youth justice or another issue, I urge you to not assume that adults will take care of it. Take matters into your own hands, because something this important is everybody’s business.

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