When we receive emails from parents of kids in the system, the most common element of their messages is disbelief. They’ve been to court hearings, navigated mandatory minimums and plea deals, demanded answers to what is happening to their child behind the barbed wire. With no answers in sight, they seek help and find they are not alone in trying to find sanity in the system—but that gives a parent little comfort when it comes to the wellbeing of their child. They wonder: how can the juvenile justice system exist as it is, so habitually ineffective, if not destructive? Receiving Ticey Hopton’s e-mail, we noticed the same disbelief as she told us her story: “…I thought the juvenile justice system was supposed to rehabilitate them, not make them worse. I am just a concerned parent trying to do what I can because he no longer has a voice in there.”
Ticey primarily raised her son, Miguel, on her own, with his father going in and out of jail on drug charges. Beyond this fractured father-son bond, though, Miguel is your typical teenager. He grew up playing on baseball, football, and basketball teams since he was four years old. His family attended every game, supporting him whether it was on the court or on the field. Miguel liked to dance and write hip-hop, rock, and R&B music in his free time. School came easy to him, but when high school started the pull of a social life led to less focus on academics—a common trend for that age, to say the least. Ticey never would have expected her son to spend his 18th birthday in detention, now seven hours away from her at a DJJ facility.
This is Ticey’s story:
The police called me at work on December 12th of last year. They told me to come home—they had a search warrant and needed access to my house. Everything was completely destroyed looking for evidence to convict my son. They took cell phones which I had purchased for him and other things belonging to my husband. It was horrible. I learned that my son and four of his friends from school had been charged with two counts of armed robbery, using a replica gun. They stole a cell phone and did not harm the victim. We obtained a lawyer for my son and were told that one of the charges would be dropped if my son took a plea deal for a two-year sentence and one strike.
But that is only what we were told. The plea was originally for two years, but the day of the sentencing the judge called the lawyer and the DA into his chambers. The judge said he had to give Miguel a 5-year maximum because that’s what the DJJ matrix requires him to do. It was the worst day of my life. My son broke down and so did I. It rocked our whole family. The probation officer recommended nine months camp, but the judge felt my son had to pay a price for his crime and basically threw the book at him. During my son’s time in juvenile hall he has come to know that this same judge sentenced several boys to the DJJ facility for similar or even less serious offenses. The probation officer told me that her whole department was in shock by the sentencing of my son. He had no previous arrests. Even compared to his codefendants, Miguel’s sentence was the harshest.
The probation officer told me that her whole department was in shock by the sentencing of my son. He had no previous arrests.
The whole process was very confusing—not one person would give us a straight answer or clear information. We agreed to the plea deal solely due to the fact we were told by our lawyer that he would do no more than 16 months and he already had four months time served at Los Padrinos in Downey, California. When he finally got processed into DJJ, he had already done another 3 months waiting to get transferred at the Sylmar Juvenile Hall. He was told upon arriving that his first chance at parole would be January 2016, and that this would only happen if the DJJ feels that he has been rehabilitated.
The more time that goes by he seems different, not the same boy that went in 8 months ago. Last month my son was transferred to the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correction Facility in Stockton. He knows things about gangs that he would have never known before and he is subjected to riots at the facility. He always tells me he is afraid. He has also been locked in his cell for 20 hours a day since arriving to the facility. They’re fed in their cells and only let out for a couple of hours. Each time I speak with him he sounds more depressed.
My biggest concern is how is his rehabilitation determined if he is in a room 20 hours a day? Where is the rehabilitation? How does he have a chance at proving that he has changed?
During the time he spent in the juvenile hall my son witnessed youth giving money to corrections officers who would then reward them with “special favors:” body wash, deodorant, chips, soda, etc. The parents would come to visit and stick 20-dollar bills under their watches and slip it to the incarcerated youth. This happened on a regular basis at Los Padrinos where my son served 4 months. The system is so corrupt with this kind of behavior. Again—where is the rehabilitation when the staff is in on the criminal behavior?
It’s very much like being tortured. I don’t understand how these youth prisons are still running.
I was able to visit him every weekend when he was at Los Padrinos and then Sylmar; now he is seven hours away from all of us. It’s very much like being tortured. I don’t understand how these youth prisons are still running. I pray that he comes home without too much mental damage. I believe in my son and I know that he can change his life and be a productive human being. He so desperately wants to attend college and graduated with his high school diploma in May 2014. I have searched out help from the Ombudsman, the Ella Baker Institute, and Justice for Families to try and get as much information as I can. The more I learn the more heartbreaking it is for me to know my child is now a part of this horrific juvenile justice system.
If you are a family with a child in the system and you are seeking advice or assistance, please contact Justice For Families, They can be reached via email at email@example.com or via phone at (856) 535 1924. Justice For Families is a national alliance of local organizations that can provide emotional and logistical support for court hearings, advocacy support to enable families to obtain the best services for their loved ones, and engage families in policy campaigns to change systemic failures in the juvenile justice system. Another excellent resource is the Campaign for Youth Justice’s Family Resource Center, which offers guidance, valuable information, and opportunities for advocacy.
If you are a family that would like to share your story on the blog, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org