This Op-Ed originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange on March 31, 2015. Click here to view.
by Alton Pitre
I felt like a young politician last week during my four-day visit to Washington, D.C., with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition on our policy trip. From meetings with members of Congress to a meeting with a deputy assistant to the president in the White House, I got a taste of what I hope my future career will consist of.
The coalition (ARC) includes about 150 formerly incarcerated individuals who are now pursuing productive lives. Part of the Coalition’s mission is to provide services and opportunities for former prisoners, plus advocate for fair and just policies in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
ARC members played a huge role in 2012 and 2013 in Sacramento lobbying for the successful passage of two California Senate bills that provided second chances for juvenile offenders. So where’s a better place to champion our cause than the nation’s capitol?
Our first meeting was at the Church of the Pilgrims on a Sunday evening with Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. This is a D.C.-based organization founded in 1996 that uses books, creative writing and peer support to awaken youths, who were sentenced to adult facilities, to their own potential.
We paired off with a member from Free Minds and interviewed each other. My partner and I actually had a lot in common. We both were locked up as kids for a crime we did not commit that led to us ultimately changing our lives for the better. At the end, we shared with the group what we learned from our partners. Interestingly, many people learned that we were alike.
The next morning we visited New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a juvenile facility in Laurel, Md., that uses the Missouri model. The center is run by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The minors are called scholars of Maya Angelou Academy, a network of alternative schools in D.C. We sat in on some of their classes, then were able to speak personally as a group with four scholars in their auditorium.
From what I saw, the academy is instrumental in changing the lives of the scholars. Every class I sat in on, the teachers were very caring and the kids for the most part were interested and participating.
The next morning we met with the Crime Prevention and Youth Development Caucus founded by U.S. Reps. Tony Cárdenas and David Reichert. The caucus was developed to encourage Congress to work toward smart justice reform for at-risk youth, violence prevention and youth opportunity. We shared a table with Reps. Cárdenas, Bobby Scott, Danny Davis and Karen Bass.
We were given great advice on how to pursue our advocacy, especially when dealing with members of Congress. They told us not to focus on policing or speak negatively on certain issues. Cárdenas, in fact, told us to focus on just telling our positive stories.
That afternoon, we went to the White House for a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where we met with Roy Austin, deputy assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity, and Myesha Braden, senior policy advisor to the president. Every ARC member was given the chance to talk about their experiences and issues in the justice system.
I vented my feelings about my juvenile case being sent to adult court despite an alibi and the court's insufficient evidence and now having a criminal arrest on my record. In general, we were able to share some rare insights that could potentially be used to reform our criminal system on a federal level.
In the evening, ARC's founder and president Scott Budnick took five of us to meet with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J) at the Hart Senate Office Building to talk about our stories and what policies and programming we found helpful during and after our incarceration. Booker was a very down-to-earth guy who was deeply concerned about our lives and passionately wants to change the nation’s broken criminal justice system.
Our last day began with an early morning breakfast at theCongressional Black Caucus Foundation Reversing the School to Prison Pipeline roundtable inside the Rayburn House Office Building. Budnick and ARC member Esché Jackson shared a panel with staff from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the White House.
CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee were among many speakers. Butterfield broke down the system's intricate processes, failures and cycle, from a juvenile's initial contact with police on the street to police discretion to inmates accepting plea bargains from district attorneys to the juvenile offenders later being released with a record and no help from the government.
The highlight of the morning for me was sitting at a table with Reps. Scott, Davis, Lee and Charles Rangel at one point.
Next was a 1 p.m. lunch with delegates from the CBCF and DOJ at the Courtyard Marriott Washington Embassy Row, where we encountered the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., about to have lunch with a few people in the hotel's restaurant. For a quick second we all got star-struck. When I told him I went to Morehouse and about Dr. King Jr. graduating from there, he threw salt at me! We then took a group photo and one of his staff invited us to Rainbow PUSH’s international conference in June. To conclude our policy trip, we were granted the opportunity of a lifetime by U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who gave us an exclusive late-night tour of the U.S. Capitol building.
I will forever cherish this trip because it is motivating and pleasing to know that there are lawmakers who care about juvenile and criminal justice reform as much as we do. This trip assured me that America is aware of our justice problem and is slowly but certainly hopping more on board to work toward mending the system and making the world a better place.