In California, young people increasingly are being treated as adults by the justice system. I was one of them.
When I was 14, my friends and I got into a fight with a man in my hometown of Watsonville, California. The man died as a result of the beating, something I will regret forever. I was prosecuted as an adult, charged with assault and gang enhancements, and could have ended up in state prison for the rest of my life.
But I was given a rare second chance.
Growing up, I had to learn pretty early in life how to raise myself. Aside from growing up in a poor community with few resources and opportunities for youth, my home life was unstable. I was misguided and looking for love, attention and validation – things I wasn’t receiving at home. I got caught up with trying to impress the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
As a 14-year-old being tried in adult court, I had no idea what was going on or what was going to happen to me. While awaiting trial at a juvenile detention facility, I began to realize that I needed help and I needed to change. I got my high school diploma and started taking college classes – two things I never thought I would ever do.
Then, something miraculous happened. Due to my taking accountability, good behavior and pursuing rehabilitation, the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Probation Department intervened in my case, in an attempt to convince the judge to send my case back to juvenile court. A community of people — teachers, probation officials, mentors — vouched for me. The judge listened. I was given credit for the more than four years I had already served and was paroled at 19, instead of potentially spending 35 years to life inside a state prison.
The second chance I have been given has meant everything to me, and I do not take it for granted. Since being released, I have been able to continue my educational journey. In May, I received my associates’ degree in criminal justice and social behavior sciences. I was accepted to four California universities to continue my studies in sociology. This fall, I started at the University of California at Davis, the first person in my family to attend college.
In addition to school, I’ve been given the opportunity not only to share my story, but also my ideas on how to improve the juvenile justice system. I am an advisory board member for a national campaign that works to end the inhumane practice of solitary confinement for youth. I am also a founding youth advisory member for a national foundation dedicated toward reforming the juvenile justice system. I’ve attended national conferences, advocating against solitary confinement, shackling and other injustices, such as trying young people as adults.
It makes no sense to treat youth as adults. We know that adolescence is a time of rapid brain development, which affects young people’s judgment, decision-making, and behavior. We now know that young people are more impulsive, and less able to foresee the consequences of their actions or to resist peer pressure, than adults. We also know that young people are much more responsive to treatment and rehabilitation.
Instead of rehabilitating young people, and putting those savings into prevention and youth programs, we are wasting millions warehousing them in adult prisons. We are so reliant on incarceration that we forget what incarceration can do to a young person. It doesn’t help. It only hurts. What helps is a second chance.
Every day, I am reminded of the opportunity I was given, that people believed in me and knew that I could change, that I wasn’t born “bad.” Rehabilitation, a process I am deeply grateful for, helped me to focus on what I want in my life. That is what the juvenile justice system should be about.
Daniel Mendoza is a junior at University of California, Davis, where he is studying sociology.