As a person who have been through the justice system as a teenager, I’m proud to know that Congress is beginning to lend their ears and pay attention to our voices because we offer expertise that they don’t necessarily have when it comes to reforming America’s criminal justice system.

Yesterday, I attended a congressional  briefing, “Girls and Juvenile Justice,” sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), to support my friend Esché Jackson, fellow member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and University of Southern California graduate. She is a former foster youth who at one point was locked up for a crime that her boyfriend committed, but she was protecting him because he provided her a place to live.

[iframe width=”480″ height=”302″ src=”” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ style=”border: 0px none transparent;”]

The unique event consisted of a women’s panel of two judges and three youth, all of who came from abusive circumstances before entering the criminal justice system. As Rep. Bass explained, “The best policy is done when the people who are most immediately impacted are involved in telling the policymakers what the policy should be.”

All too often, the voices are not heard or validated. Haley Marie Caesar, a teen a part of the PACE Center for Girls organization, grew up in an abusive home, which eventually resulted in her being placed into the system. She only saw her lawyer in court and was never allowed to speak on her own behalf.  The only time she tried to talk to the judge, she was asked to be quiet because she was speaking out of turn.

“When I got put into the system everyone saw me as this big bad kid. But they didn’t know that I had been molested and that I did watch my mom in a bad relationship,” said Caesar.

Back home in California, I participated in a lobby effort along with ARC in Sacramento to help pass legislation that gave youthful offenders second chances. This bill was ultimately passed because we were able to talk to those politicians and share our stories.

Studies have shown that the majority of women in jail and prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse before their incarceration. Judge Joan Boyer, the Circuit Court Judge in the Family Division of Jefferson County, Kentucky says judges needs to focus more on the internal reasons of what led a child into their courtroom, instead of only looking at the report on their desk. She recalled when a counselor listed that his young client wanted to be a cosmetologist, instead of the lawyer she aspired to be, because the counselor didn’t believe she could actually become a lawyer.

“We can’t cut short her dreams simply for my perception that she can’t do it,” as Judge Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Child Protection Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, said.

“A lot of times [these girls] don’t see themselves out of their circumstance,” said my friend Esché. “We have to first let the girls know what opportunities are out there and then validate them.”

Youth voices making a difference in reforming the criminal justice system: via @First_Focus Voices for Kids blog
Tweet this now.

Tweet the author: @thejayalligator

Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on juvenile justice.

Want to get involved? You can support our work on juvenile justice by making a donation or joining our mailing list to receive updates and action alerts on this issue.