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California Law Should Protect Youth in Juvenile Justice Systems

When youth are detained, we need to do our best to keep them safe.

Credit: Youth Voice

I was placed in the juvenile justice system by my legal guardian. After they explained to the courts how she simply “couldn’t keep me safe,” I was detained at 13 years old. I was shocked and scared, and felt betrayed by my family. Upon my arrival at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, I quickly began to realize it’s nothing like the TV show Beyond Scared Straight, which immediately eased my emotions. I was the youngest girl in the unit, so I was shown what my peers considered “favoritism,” when, actually, the staff were just trying to help me through my program. 

After being appointed the staff assistant position at the juvenile detention center, I became more comfortable, had more time out of my cell, and got extra phone calls. I was able to build relationships with the staff, who gave me multiple motivational speeches. They saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. That positivity has stuck with me to this day. 

During recreation time, the most anticipated hour of the day, I got to socialize with others. Youth spoke highly about their life on “the outs” during recreation time, glorifying pimps,  gangbanging, and prostitution. Although I personally never saw it, I definitely heard about detention center staff having inappropriate encounters with minors. LA County should greatly consider installing more cameras in these dorms, not to invade the privacy of youth but to guarantee their safety and well-being. 

California law can protect youth who enter these juvenile justice systems. For example, California law prohibits discrimination in juvenile justice systems based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Because of this law, youth are housed in units based on what they identify as. For the LGBTQIA+ community, this is amazing. Personally, I’m all for it. I would never want a youth to be looked at as less than a person because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. But this can show that it’s not difficult for a youth to play a role in order to work the system. LA County should keep that in mind when making laws like this. 

When I came home, I had no job, no family support, and no clothes. With circumstances like these, youth can sometimes feel obligated to turn to survival mode without even considering that they may be sent back to the juvenile detention center. What other options do youth honestly have?

As years passed, I turned being detained into a recurring event. I was promised a release date if I received my high school diploma. Obtaining my credits for my high school diploma became more of an incentive for an early release rather than the actual educational gain it’s intended for. I cheated my way through with the motive to quickly earn credits so I could obtain my diploma through AB-216. 

Now, as I attend college, I struggle tremendously with my courses because I’m still lacking plenty of knowledge I’m certain I would have obtained if I had attended a regular high school. On the bright side, at least I graduated and have my high school diploma. But I can’t help but think that, if my legal guardian hadn’t denied my return home from the juvenile detention center, I would have remained focused in my classes and still graduated. 

The juvenile justice system has both a positive and negative impact on our youth. As a youth commissioner, my goal is to voice my opinions and the opinions of my peers loud and clear. When we were going through the system ourselves, our opinions weren’t considered valid, as people in positions of power tend not to listen to us. I strongly believe that, at this rate, LA County will be seeing some extraordinary adjustments in the juvenile justice system to better serve our youth and community. Nothing will come to us overnight. So, we must remain focused, dedicated, and determined as we fight as a team for a greater Los Angeles.

This article is published in partnership with the Youth Voice program, which provides writing opportunities to young people across the country with experience in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

CORRECTION – 9/6/22: An earlier version of this article included a hypothetical situation regarding a trans youth entering the juvenile justice system. This hypothetical situation has been removed at the request of the writer.