October 13 2016

On January 16, 1994 my family received a knock at the door that forever changed our lives. Five days later, I walked down the aisle of St. Anthony’s Church and saw a birthday cake that read, “Happy Birthday Patricia and Carmen” right next to my sister Patricia’s casket. That day was both the day we laid my sister to rest and my 17th birthday.

I grew up in Oxnard, in a community plagued by gangs and violence. My home life wasn’t easy, but, there was a lot of love. Patricia was a day and two years older than me. She was my confidant and my closest friend. I think of the day my sister died as the day my old life ended, and my purpose was awakened. It was also the day my father unknowingly changed the way I viewed the criminal justice system. When asked if he wanted to press charges against the person responsible for my sister’s death, my father replied, “I cannot take another mother’s child away.”

Shortly after my sister’s death, I went to UC Santa Cruz where I found mentors who took me under their wings and taught me I had the power to effect change. I spent the past 20 years working for young people impacted by the criminal justice system, both as an advocate and as a probation officer.

When we give young people the opportunity to succeed, they thrive and our communities become safer. California spends about $264,000 a year to lockup up one young person. What if we invested that money in our young people? What if families had the money to sign their children up for sports leagues and afterschool programs?

Many of our young people have suffered from traumatic experiences in their homes and neighborhoods. They feel like their world is out of control. When we look at these young people, we need to see our own loved ones and think about what we would want for our own brother or sister. My brother was in and out of the criminal justice system for years. If he had a good probation officer or someone who could have provided him with the support he needed, he wouldn’t have been caught up in a system that didn’t serve him.

I’m happy that Ventura County has become a leader in rethinking its approach to criminal justice. About a decade ago, the County realized locking up young people wasn’t good for youth or the community. It began connecting young people with community-based organizations and services, rather than incarcerating them. As a result, Ventura County went from keeping about 250 youth in custody on any given day to keeping 80 to 100 youth incarcerated. We have a lot to teach the rest of California.

Despite this progress, we still have work to do. That is why I support the #SchoolsNotPrisons Arts & Music tour, which came to Oxnard this past Saturday. The statewide tour calls on our communities, and especially our youth, to get loud and vote. It brings together artists, youth and community leaders to show they have a powerful voice, and they can use that voice to call for less spending on punishment and more investment in what really keeps us safe: education, health and support for young people.

The #SchoolsNotPrisons tour stop was also the kickoff event for the Growing Up Locked Down Juvenile Justice conference taking place today through Saturday at Oxnard College. The conference brings together both local and national juvenile justice advocates and thought leaders to discuss how everyone can be a part of reforming the juvenile justice system. We will look at how we can reform the criminal justice system and how everyone can take an active role in making that change.

Too many of our young people are still falling victim to the circumstances they were born into, but we have the power and resources to help them. It shouldn’t take a devastating knock at the door to make that happen.

To learn more about the #SchoolsNotPrisons tour, please visit http://schoolsnotprisons.vote/.

The Gathering for Justice is a national social justice organization whose newest initiative is the creation of a three-day conference, Growing Up Locked Down, which will produce a blueprint for juvenile justice, criminal justice and police reform in Ventura County and throughout California.  To register for the free Growing Up Locked Down conference, please visit http://www.gatheringforjustice.org/guld2016.