Willi Rivera was 16 in 2005 when he was charged and incarcerated as an adult in a DC jail, and transferred to Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary, a Pennsylvania maximum-security prison. A first time juvenile offender, he wasn’t supposed to be there, but it happened. In fact, it happens often, particularly if you are a Latino or African American youth. A 2008 policy brief from the Campaign for Youth Justice entitled America’s Invisible Children, it reports that “Latino youth are treated more harshly by the justice system than white youth, for the same offenses, at all stages in the justice system including police stops, arrests, detention, waiver to the adult criminal justice system, and sentencing.” Why is this? These disparities don’t occur because of different juvenile crime rates. Self report surveys conducted by the Campaign for Youth Justice indicate that Latino youth and white youth commit roughly the same levels of crime. Yet the justice system responds in much more punitive ways to Latino youth than white youth. The most severe disparities occur in the adult system, where Latino children are 43% more likely than white youth to be waived to the adult system and 40% more likely to be admitted to adult prison.

So why has the system failed Latino children in this way? If we are to assume that the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to care and treat our children, then we should be alarmed that kids are being adjudicated into the adult system and that the justice system itself does not really meet those care and treatment functions; instead and seemingly by design, it is centered primarily on the punishment and correction of criminals. Furthermore there’s something to be said about perpetuating racial stereotypes and inappropriately categorizing typical adolescent behaviors as ‘gang’ activities. Consider this for a moment: young people, Latinos to be precise, are particularly vulnerable to prosecution under gang-related laws. “As police stop groups of youth and photograph them, and a youth doesn’t have to commit a crime to be entered into the [gang] database in California, for example, many youth could mistakenly be identified as gang members by mere association and with disastrous legal consequences if they were ever caught for unrelated misbehavior. This provides pause for reflection as Neelum Arya, Director for the Campaign For Youth Justice (CFYJ) Center, explains “…a significant majority of incarcerated youth are non-violent offenders who only become ‘chronic offenders’ after serving time behind bars…with one out of every four incarcerated Latino children held in an adult prison or jail even though youth in adult facilities are in significant danger of suicide and rape.” Latino youth are incarcerated with adults at four times the rate as other groups. Four times the rate. Are you shocked yet? Congress is currently considering legislation that could help correct this problem. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, S.678, is pending in the US Senate Judiciary Committee, and if passed, would provide federal funding to states that comply with a set of best practices aimed at avoiding the incarceration of young people in adult facilities.

Arya further explained that in the not-so-distant past, both California and Arizona experienced significant problems with housing youth in adult jails and prisons across those states. After multiple youth suicide attempts throughout California prisons, in 2004 officials at both state and county levels decided to drastically minimize the number of youth held in adult facilities by housing youth in juvenile facilities instead. But it’s not enough. What really needs to happen? The executive recommendations from the America’s Invisible Children policy brief fall into two major categories: (1) Stop the most harmful and dangerous laws, policies, and practices that affect Latino youth, and (2) Focus on building culturally competent services and programs to serve the needs of Latino youth and families. This way the objective becomes “reducing the transfer of Latino youth to the adult system, while reconsidering law enforcement tactics and the impact of policies related to racial and ethnic profiling, enforcement of gang statutes, and the negative effect that immigration enforcement policies have on Latino youth”.

As the 2010 census approaches, inarguably the face of America will continue to change. The demographic shift is inevitable, as a young population of Latino children grows into adolescence, we must be responsive to the issues that will impact our communities. Addressing the current Latino youth disparities in the justice system becomes a critical component. As one parent put it: “Whose child is next? It could be my neighbor’s child, it could be your child. Put yourselves in these shoes. How would you want your child treated? My son was David Burgos and he committed suicide at 17 while incarcerated in an adult prison. How did this happen? Keep 16 and 17 year olds in the juvenile justice system. We must save our youth.” Leadership is sorely needed to inspire and promote political will, along with the courage to see these reforms come to fruition. What role will you play?

Linda Caballero-Sotelo is a freelance writer based in California. Email your comments to: Lsotelo@toltecmedia.net

My Story…in my words
Accounts from Formerly Incarcerated Young People

Willy Rivera
I sincerely regret the mistakes that I have made. My experience in an adult jail was very hard. I was the only Latino on the unit and I felt extremely isolated. There were many fights. My cellmate and I were jumped and beaten by seven other inmates so badly that I had to be taken to the hospital. The inmates who attacked me kicked my face, chipped my teeth and stabbed me under my eye. During my incarceration I witnessed many acts of violence that would go unnoticed by the correctional officers. The medical treatment was insufficient and the mental health services ineffective. I believe that they didn’t understand how to treat youth. If you couldn’t sleep they just gave you pills. When I was there, I believe some kids were overmedicated. It didn’t seem well monitored. There were several suicide attempts among the youth that officers and mental health staff weren’t aware of or didn’t care to know about. I personally was involved in talking down one youth from taking his own life.

I do not believe that an adult jail is an appropriate place for juvenile offenders. The juveniles I was incarcerated with brought the street conflicts with them into the jail. This resulted in an explosive environment. I felt that the guards should have paid more attention. By treating these youth as adults, they only became more aggressive and the hatred just built up inside. Youth my age should not go through this stuff. Many of the young guys I was with came home without a GED. Youth need a special program to help them with reentry and counseling to cope with the trauma of being incarcerated. You return with little education, a felony record, and carrying the emotional burden of experiences in a harsh and violent environment. I work every day to heal from my experiences in the adult system. I am always looking over my shoulder and feel anxious, tense, stiff and angry. If there is anything I can do to keep other youths from undergoing this same experience, I will do it.

I was born and raised in Washington, DC I was charged as an adult when I was 16. I spent almost a year incarcerated in the DC jail. With a felony conviction on my record, I feel like I’m serving a second sentence: being punished twice. I know that there needs to be consequences for wrong actions, but everyone makes mistakes. Juveniles especially need help to get their lives back on the right track. Right now they are placed in adult facilities that have a lack of education programs, a toxic mental environment, and poor mental and physical health services. This only makes our problems worse and makes a youth more likely to get in worse trouble. My entire time I was in jail I went without any type of schooling, period. Only special ed programs were offered. The only people who gave me books were from the Free Minds Book Club.

Juveniles shouldn’t be detained in an adult facility because there is so much violence and negativity. After a while you start to adapt to all the frustration, stress, depression, and violence as if it was a normal way of life. Sooner or later you find yourself always angry and showing a lot of aggression towards everyone. You also become paranoid and have trust issues. It’s a totally different world where you have to constantly be aware, and you always have a feeling that someone’s trying to get close to you just to hurt you in the end. Once you get released, it’s hard sometimes to hang with your family and friends because your state of mind in jail follows you out. Juveniles in adult facilities are learning how to be better criminals, which is only going to lead to more violence and crime. As you can see, the lack of education programs, violent environment, boredom, and poor health and safety make adult facilities the wrong place for juveniles. Youth at the age of 15-18 are supposed to be learning how to become an adult, not how to be a prisoner.

Know This
Laws that prosecute youth as adults are on the books in most states. These laws, combined with other statutes, are putting thousands of young people at risk of facing harmful and irreversible consequences, often for minor mistakes. Some researchers estimate that as many as 200,000 youth are prosecuted as adults every year. Despite overwhelming research demonstrating that these policies have failed, statutes that prosecute youth in the adult criminal justice system remain on the books.

Visit: www.campaignforyouthjustice.org
The Campaign for Youth Justice is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

Resources: Find Your State Contacts
To contact chapters of parents & family advocacy organizations in your area, consult the following websites:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) state chapters:

Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) state chapters:

Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (FFMCH) state chapters:

Community Parent Resource Centers: http://www.taalliance.org/ptidirectory/index.asp

Protection & Advocacy System state contacts:

Unbelievable But True
Research shows that:
• An estimated 200,000 youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year across the United States
• Most of the youth prosecuted in adult court are charged with non-violent offenses.
• Young people who are kept in the juvenile justice system are less likely to re-offend than young people who are transferred into the adult system.
• Currently, 40 states permit or require that youth charged as adults be held before they are tried in an adult jail. In some states, if they are convicted, they may be required to serve their entire sentence in an adult jail.
• On any given day, nearly 7,500 young people are locked up in adult jails.
• On any given day, more than 2,000 young people are locked up in adult prisons.

Mi Revolución
Latino author Danny Boy, has emerged onto the literary scene, and has taken his place among Latino writers with his inspirational new book, Mi Revolución/My Revolution. Raised in La Puente, California, he uses his own life experiences and love for his community to secure a firm grip on the pulse of the Latino Culture. Danny Boy’s message of redemption and hope, along with his unique visual writing style, has made him one the most original new voices of our generation.

Mi Revolución/My Revolution is an important book of substance with a clear message of salvation and dignity. The book speaks to relatable cultural, economic, and social issues, within the context of Danny Boy’s compelling story. Life decisions, moral choices, and social challenges that Latinos face are appreciated and discussed in this book, however, Mi Revolución is a universal story, regardless of ethnic background. Take a walk with Danny Boy, as he introduces himself, and his story.

“Por favor, allow me to introduce myself . . . I’m known as Danny Boy, a name that has stayed with me going back to when I was a li’l chavalito. I am a Chicano writer and the proud author of Mi Revolución. Mi Revolución is my story. My personal revolution. It speaks to what I find worth fighting for, what I find worth standing for. It speaks to the power of redemption, hope and the true beauty of our culture. But most of all, Mi Revolución speaks to the one thing that I hold most sacred of all . . . FAMILIA!

My story begins with a family that probably looks just like yours: First generation, traditional, hardworking, broken English, flawed and spiritual . . .
My story takes place in a neighborhood that probably looks just like yours: Poverty-stricken, gang-infested, united, mariachi music playing and full of life . . .
My story’s struggle is probably just like yours: Social injustice, violence, life choices and just trying to survive
My story’s message is one that needs to be heard: Faith, conviction, tolerance, staying true to one’s self y familia primero para siempre!!
The only difference between my story and yours is that I chose to tell it. We come from a culture full of beautiful stories that need to be heard and more importantly need to be told….Find your voice!”
I invite you to experience a small part of My Revolution.
Here is an excerpt from my book:

“Orlando continued looking through the box and found his mail that had been saved for him while he was in the hole. He frantically reached for the pile of letters in hopes to catch up with time. He tore them open one after another. As he began to read about his daughter, a picture fell to the ground from between the sheets of paper. My brother reached down to pick up the photo that had landed face down. He turned it over and saw that it was a picture of our father proudly holding his granddaughter. Orlando was immediately paralyzed by the image of our father, a spiritual awakening. He is consumed by visions of himself, going all the way back to when he was a little chavalito. For the first time, Orlando realized how his life decisions affected our father. Each vision that passed through Orlando left a bloodstain on his soul that would remain for a thousand lifetimes. Unable to sleep, or forgive himself, Orlando reached out to my father from behind the bars that could not keep him silent. I now know how an envelope can truly hold the spirit of a man. My father received these words from my brother in a letter:

A Warrior’s Poem:
“I know you don’t understand right now, but you will when you get older.”

When you used to say those words to me,
Older seemed a lifetime away.
Going all the way back to when I was a little chavalito,
The trouble I used to get into.
Like the time I stole the neighbor’s big wheel,
Thinking I was all bad.
But when you caught me, you gave me “The Look.”
You know the look.
The look only a father can give.
Strange how one look can say so much,
But no words can describe the look.
A father’s look.

“I know you don’t understand right now, but you will when you get older.”

The times I cut class,
Your look was different this time.
Behind the anger, there was fear.
I didn’t understand.
But I know now you were afraid for me,
Afraid that I would deprive myself of the choices an education brings.
Afraid that I would end up in a job like yours,
Too much work, too little pay.
Ironic that my greatest teacher was denied the opportunity of an education.

“I know you don’t understand right now, but you will when you get older.”

There was only one time when we shared the same look.
The time you were playing dominos with your compadres,
And you gave me a drink of your cerveza.
At that exact moment my Jefita walked in.
Boy did you get “The Look”!
A poet’s poetic justice.

Here is something you might not have understood then.
Through all the looks and poverty,
Through the punishment and disappointment,
You gave me the greatest gift a son can receive.
Funny, you don’t realize it even when the gift is yours,
You managed to give me the gift……… Everyday
Imagine, the greatest gift……… Everyday
You came home……… Everyday

“I know you don’t understand right now, but you will when you get older.”

I’m a grown man now,
I find myself waiting for your looks.
Hoping to earn a look of approval,
The strength to provide you with a look of pride.

I know you don’t understand right… STOP!
Dad, I understand…
Now my daughter gets “The Look”


May this book start a revolución of the mind and spirit. May we stand and fight to find our humanity, compassion, and voice.”
– Danny Boy

To learn more about Danny Boy and Mi Revolución, please go to mi-revolucion.com