At 13, I was incarcerated for a few weeks for stealing clothes from the mall. In the eyes of the justice system, I was just a shoplifter who needed to be taught a lesson. But in reality, I was a runaway dealing with the trauma of sexual assault, my family was struggling with addiction, and my older sister was dying of AIDS.
What could have been a point of intervention with support services for myself and my family turned into five years of incarceration and more pain. I was locked-up more than 16 times and sent to four out-of-home placements and group homes where I was assaulted and re-traumatized.
If there had been funding for something other than prison, I wouldn’t have spent five years in and out of incarceration, I wouldn’t have had to experience my sister’s death while I was alone and locked up, and I wouldn’t have been assaulted by staff responsible for my care.
Arresting and incarcerating youth does nothing to get to the root of their behavior and can have consequences that last a lifetime. It is time for a new approach, grounded in community-based support and healing. After decades of formerly incarcerated people calling for alternatives to harsh punishment, elected officials are finally listening.
Legislators are now considering a proposal from Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer for a $100 million Youth Reinvestment Fund, the first-ever state fund specifically dedicated to keeping young people out of the justice system and in the care of community organizations that are best able to provide guidance and support. The type of programs proposed in the fund are already working across California and are especially important for youth of color, who are more likely to be arrested and punished more harshly than white youth for similar offenses.
Looking back at my five-year journey in the youth justice system, I understand each arrest and incarceration was a missed opportunity for investment in my healing and care. If there had been funding for something other than prison, I wouldn’t have spent five years in and out of incarceration, I wouldn’t have had to experience my sister’s death while I was alone and locked up, and I wouldn’t have been assaulted by staff responsible for my care.
At 17, I was able to stop the revolving door. I came to the Young Women’s Freedom Center, an organization that has worked with justice-involved girls for 25 years. The center has long been an alternative to incarceration for young women and girls in San Francisco. Today I serve as its executive director, and every day I am reminded of the harm we cause when we arrest and put children in youth prisons.
Our organization provides opportunities for girls to heal from trauma through culturally-rooted programs that allow them to bring their full selves, find their voice, and build personal and collective power to transform their lives and communities.
Over the years, I have witnessed countless young women come to the center hopeless and frustrated by a system that has failed them, but with the support of other women with similar experiences, quickly develop into leaders in their community. At the hearings for the Youth Reinvestment Fund more than 50 youth, including members of Young Women’s Freedom Center, advocated for more mentors, community centers, jobs, health care and more in their communities.
Many of these youth leaders have been told for much of their lives, as I was, that they were the problem. But we were never the problem – it was how adults responded to us that was the problem. The next generation of leaders, those closest to the pain, are giving us the solutions. It is time we listened.
Jessica Nowlan is Executive Director of Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco. She came to YWFC at 17, when she was hired out of Juvenile Hall as a Community Health Outreach Worker and helped to build the organization's model. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.