For a contingent of juvenile and young adults incarcerated in Green Hill School and other juvenile detention facilities in Washington, some of their time behind bars is spent using their experiences to push for change in the world of juvenile justice
A panel of five young adults held at Green Hill School in Chehalis Thursday talked about their upbringing, brushes with the law and their motivation to ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated. Each of the panel members are involved in a group advocating for representation and improvement in the juvenile justice system, advocacy work that assisted in the passage of Senate Bill 6160, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March.
During the panel, facilitated by Evelyn Maddox, chair for Washington’s State Advisory Group’s youth committee, each of the five inmates divulged details on harsh upbringings, ones often littered with drugs and violence.
“All these things I needed to develop into a man, I never got it,” said Garrett Comer. “Only thing I got was rejection. Only thing I was told growing up is I’m a disappointment. I was told by my sixth grade teacher that I’m gonna be the kid that ends up dead or being in prison. I mean, I got one thing right. But I’m not gonna be the person that’s stepping out of prison as the same person I was when I came into prison. I can tell you that right now.”
Dubbed “Pursuit for Change,” a similar event was held last year for an audience of policy makers and people working in the full continuum of the justice system. A similar audience was present this year in a gymnasium at Green Hill School, a medium/maximum security facility for male juvenile offenders.
The event was kicked off by youth involved in the community, said Marybeth Queral, assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services.
“Where they could really speak to people about themselves, what they’ve learned, what they bring to the table and for the people such as legislators, policy makers, law enforcement, judges … to see them as more than just their crime, because they definitely are more than that,” said Queral.
Besides the panel, the audience also heard from Noah Schultz, an advocate for incarcerated people. In his brief talk, he discussed his own time in the system, where he was sentenced to 7 and a half years at the age of 17. Since then, he said, he works to humanize incarcerated people.
During the panel, which dominated most of the event, many spoke ill of Washington law ensuring certain crimes are automatically tried in adult court — the very issue Senate Bill 6160 addresses. The bill removes the requirement that kids between the ages of 16 and 17 must be tried in adult court for certain crimes, such as murder. Prosecutors may now opt to try those serious charges against a juvenile in juvenile court.
“This means Washington communities will be safer because these youths will have access to a system that is better equipped to meet the needs of these young adults,” reads a report from the Washington State Department of Social & Health Services.
SB 6160 also allows the person sentenced to remain in a youth facility until they’re 25, rather than 21. $250,000 was earmarked in the state’s 2018 supplemental capital budget to study facility requirements to house this new age population in juvenile facilities. The study is set to conclude in December.
There are still steps to be taken to divert youth in precarious environments — ones that tend to lead to the justice system, said Eric Trupin, a psychologist and director of Public Behavioral Health and Justice at the University of Washington.
“If there’s ever any evidence you want to know about what doesn’t work, listen to the lives of these young people, the experiences of these young people, and how what we’ve done as a country and as a society that has not really lifted them up and supported them and their parents. How we have failed when in fact we know that there are different pathways, different strategies that can actually improve outcomes,” Trupin said.
Rather than traditional forms of punishment and incarceration, Trupin advocated at Thursday’s event for young people to be diverted into programs geared toward their rehabilitation.
“There’s no reason, no evidence, no research, no science that supports these young people going into the adult system,” he said.
Brain development in later adolescence is a crucial time, he said, where a young person learns how to deal with stress and regulate emotion. It’s a developmental period just as valuable as when they were younger than 3, he said.
“Things are changing, connections are being made. … And to put them on a pathway where they’re not going to be able to practice in the real world, to put them into correctional institutions makes no sense. It makes no sense at all for them,” Trupin said.
He said there are needs in the justice system that were not being addressed, like “how being black and brown in this country is a risk factor, how being poor makes you more likely to get involved in the justice system, not because you’re bad, just because you’re trying to live a life and trying to survive.”
During the panel, Maddox asked what absent factors might have prevented the panelists’ incarceration. Jared High said people in his life withdrew their support of him too quickly.
“I feel like a lot of people give up on juveniles too quickly, you know what I’m saying? I stopped going to school and the school counselor was immediately like, ‘Oh, he’s not coming so I’m on to the next case,’ ” he said, adding that family members seemed to back away from him upon his second incarceration.
Comer said something similar, referencing that some of his early acting were warning signs that weren’t addressed.
Aaron Toleafoa, when answering who might have helped prevent his incarceration, pointed to the crowd, which consisted of numerous stakeholders in criminal justice. He referenced desire for plans of action to help young people and prevent incarceration.
For her last question, Maddox asked each panelist what encouraged them to seek positive change.
Guillermo Padilla said certain people in his life are his motivation. During court hearings, he said he hated to turn around and look at his family because he didn’t want to see them crying. Since being incarcerated, he’s said he’s had time to reflect — time to analyze past events and how easily they could have gone differently.
For an example, he told a story: He sat in a car at a stoplight with his friends. A second vehicle pulled up and someone inside opened fire. Everyone in Padilla’s vehicle ducked. When the shooting stopped and the second car sped away, the person sitting next to Padilla was bleeding out. Padilla took his shirt off and applied pressure.
Later, when his friend was recovering, Padilla would learn the bullet was about two centimeters from his heart. He would survive, but he was lucky. Perhaps more chilling was information he gleaned from detectives. They told him between 18 and 21 shots were fired, and the bullet that struck his friend was the only one not recovered from the seat Padilla was sitting.
He’s confident, he said, if he didn’t have the wits to duck as quickly as he did, he would have been killed.
Gustavo Guerrero Jr. and Toleafoa both said their children have motivated them to change. It’s been two years since Guerrero has seen his daughter, he said. It’s been eight months since Toleafoa has seen his son.
“But what’s crazy is the day they came to visit me, he still ran up and called me ‘Dad,’” Toleafoa said.
High said his incarceration has encouraged his personal change. That, and the desire to advocate for the younger juveniles who are incarcerated and don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves.
“We don’t want to see these kids — 15-year-old kids — getting 25 years, 30 years for mistakes they made when they were 15. I just want to change so I can come out and talk to you guys and help prevent that. … When kids are getting sent to juvenile facilities when they’re so young, they obviously have something going on in their personal lives or are on the outs with school, family; something’s going on. And that makes me want come up here and speak to you guys because some of these kids don’t have a voice,” High said.
Comer said he’s motivated to change after realizing what his life would have been if he doesn’t. Now, he said, he hopes to continue to spark positive change throughout the justice system.
“I picked up my best friend off the ground dying in my arms, so I know what it’s gonna be for me if I don’t change. It’s either going to be 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, life sentence or six feet underground.”