We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the finalist essay for the “justice system impact” category.
On September 20, 2017, I was arrested, put into custody and introduced to the correctional system. Not once did it ever cross my mind that I would be in this position, but believe me, mistakes happen and we live and we learn. I was 18 at the time, 18 and 10 days to be exact, and in a women’s jail with a felony. I knew as a felon and with burglary charge on my record, my life would not be easy, but I grew strong because I had to. I was released on a bail bond three days later, and I came home to a nice stack of letters and mail from lawyers and attorneys. Yet, I was still clueless and did not realize the gravity of my situation and what I had gotten myself into. But I had faith that regardless of what happened, I would be OK.
The most important dates to me were no longer birthdays or holidays, they were court dates. At my first court appearance, I was relieved to have gotten my fat felony dropped to a minor misdemeanor, but I was still fearful of my consequences. A part of me knew for a fact I could not sit back in jail because it was not who I was. Deep down, I was not a criminal, and I could never be because I could not let myself be in custody another day of my life. I was young and I was naive, but I should have known better and done better. Time passed and my court dates continued; they were extended, pushed back, and until finally, trial came.
I sat in the coldest courtroom alongside my public attorney and held onto my last bit of faith. This was show time, and every move I made and everything I said was watched and heard and held against me. A jury was chosen, opening statements were made, witness testimonies were given and cross-examination occurred, closing arguments were said, and jury instruction was given all in a matter of four days. It was on the fourth day that my stress level reached its peak and I tried my hardest to remain faithful and hopeful. I sat outside this courtroom, in the emptiest and quietest hallway, praying and awaiting the verdict. I was strong until this point; now I was scared and I was vulnerable and I was so sorry for what I had done. I waited for one of the longest and saddest moments of life until my public attorney came out to tell me I would have to come back tomorrow for the verdict. I arrived home more worried than ever, and by the time it was time to sleep, I could not. I was anxious, I panicked and my mind would not stop roaming wild.
When I came back after a sleepless night, I was found guilty and sentenced to five days of community labor with Caltrans and three years of formal probation. Court dates were no longer my worry, Caltrans and monthly meetings with my probation officer (PO) were. My PO was awful and had no understanding of who I really am. This became my deepest frustration — trying to get along with a man who saw me as a criminal, a felon and a burglar. Each meeting was humiliating and one day, he issued a bench warrant against me. He claimed I was non-compliant with court orders and wanted to put me back in custody. “Just great,” I thought. However, I presented myself to court and put myself on calendar to have my warrant recalled.
Luckily, I shared my side of the story with one of the greatest judges and represented by a public attorney who entirely understood my situation and solely wanted better for me. He argued that I was being set up for failure being on probation and he did not know how I can possibly be successful under rules and regulations of something I did not need. In somewhat disbelief, I was taken off formal probation and placed on informal probation, which was a big blessing. The judge was able to perceive I am smart, responsible and independent, and I am not a criminal, a felon or a burglar. She insisted that I would be successful because I am doing everything I had to do and I did not need to be supervised. By God’s grace, court dates and Caltrans and meetings with my probation officer were disregarded and no longer part of my worries.
In entire relief, I was finally OK. I was finally able to focus on the things that actually mattered to my success. I was finally able to spend birthdays and holidays with the people that mattered most to me. However, I thank the criminal justice and correctional system for this process, from the arrest, to trial, to probation. I knew that corruption existed, but this situation confirmed it. This entire situation was detrimental. I never had to be escorted from my vehicle with guns aimed, I never needed to be in custody, I never needed court dates, I never needed to be placed on probation, and I never needed that bench warrant. But because of this warrant, my outcome was better. I never needed to experience the worst to know I wanted the best. But that’s what I got. And for that, I appreciate the correctional system for having dragged me through hell and bringing me back to the light where my accomplishments await. I received the greatest and most slight insight of what comes along with crime.
Life is not easy, and sometimes it is harder than it should be, but I am now wiser and stronger. I know that no situation could ever break me because I, at 18, was fighting one of the hardest battles I ever had to. This put to test everything I had in me: my strength, my wisdom, my confidence, my intelligence, my patience and my faith. It allowed me to get closer to my family, to be honest with them and trust that they will always remain with me. My family knew of the consequences I had to face, but they also did not want to see me in jail. They were supportive and never tried to wash their hands of me.
I am sorry that this happened, but I am more than blessed that it did. So, to my family: my success is your success, too. And once again, to the criminal justice and correctional system, thank you for the impact you have made upon me; my past, my present and my future. In all honesty, I would not be who I am or where I am without this. I have been put to test and have become more eager to get the most out of this life, because we only have one, and this taught me the importance of working to make it a better one.
Priscilla Olguin is currently in her second year at Compton College as a full-time student studying nursing; she hopes to receive an associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year university.
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