I am the Equity and Justice Advocate for the King County Superior Court’s Juvenile Court Services Department in Seattle, WA. In that capacity I’m responsible for a number of programs, including the Zero Youth Detention Initiative which embraces a public health approach to youth crime and violence. One of my main focuses today is running the Credible Messenger Initiative which is building a mentorship support system for youth and young adults. My job is to support other leaders; there aren’t a lot of people who support leaders involved in criminal justice reform. So far we’ve trained more than 100 previously incarcerated leaders who we then connect to justice-involved young people. We also provide capacity-building resources to help our leaders start their own businesses and nonprofit organizations because many of them face barriers in the traditional job market. And we do a huge piece on policy advocacy and prepare them to speak on panels and join task forces and boards around the county. It’s a transformative process for both the leaders and the young people we connect them with as mentors.
Through the Credible Messenger Initiative we also work on politicizing our youth. We encourage their civic engagement and get them onto panels to speak about youth violence prevention and to share their stories about overcoming adversity and becoming peer leaders. We supported the passage of Bill 6160 which was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee last year. The new law will reduce the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who have been charged with certain violent offenses from entering the adult criminal-justice system. It also extends juvenile jurisdiction to age 25, up from age 21, for those convicted of certain crimes. As a result, many fewer juveniles will be sent to adult court and we have made a series of recommendations for transitioning young people back into their communities. Some of our previously incarcerated leaders will be directly involved in providing reentry services.
Mentorship is one of those recurring themes throughout my story. I had a mentor when I was in prison—an older man named Tim—who invested in me and gave me positive encouragement. One day when we were sitting together in the day room I told Tim I was tired of being what I was and wanted to change. He hooked me up with a local organization’s mindfulness curriculum and I ended up writing my own mindfulness and meditation curriculum. That was the beginning of my own transformation. When I got out of prison I had a number of jobs with community-based organizations, went back to school, and also started small carpet cleaning and handyman businesses that hired people coming out of prison. But I also felt the sting of having a criminal record and got turned down for several jobs that I was very qualified for. That just strengthened my commitment to criminal justice reform. Luckily, I’m resilient and used to navigating the system. My sister once told me, “You’re like a cat; you always land on your feet.”
For me, Leading with Conviction is underscoring the importance of collective leadership, and I’ve already shared lessons learned with my team at work. At a recent professional development day with previously incarcerated and youth leaders I incorporated what I learned about the importance of creating stories that appeal to multiple audiences in our advocacy work. I look forward to continuing the journey with JLUSA.
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