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I got my first strike at the age of 16. Arrested for being present at the time of a robbery, I was prosecuted in San Diego as an adult for acting in concert. I took a plea deal, a decision I wasn’t fully capable of understanding and now deeply regret. I received probation – and a strike that’s permanently on my record.
When I got arrested a year later for a fight, that strike would lead to me spending 10 years of my life in state prison for an offense that typically would carry three years. Even after I got out of prison, I discovered that my record would loom over me for life, limiting my opportunities and my hopes of a successful future.
Today, at age 30, I work as a case manager for at-risk youth at a local nonprofit while studying sociology at San Diego City College. I help young people who have had contact with the juvenile system turn their lives around. We connect them to jobs and housing, pay for their internships, support their education and give them access to mentors. We also take them hiking, camping, fishing — activities they normally don’t get to experience.
I work to give these kids the kind of opportunities I didn’t have, but desperately needed, growing up in group homes and the foster care system. The first time I went outside San Diego was when I got sent to Tehachapi State Prison at the age of 17. I remember looking out the window at the barbed-wired fences and realizing that I had never been on a plane or traveled anywhere, even to Los Angeles. I had never done any real living. It was scary.
Our criminal justice system needs to stop prosecuting young kids as adults. Proposition 57, a statewide measure on the November ballot, would transfer the decision of whether to charge someone as a juvenile or an adult to judges, instead of prosecutors. This is the right thing to do. Given the long-term consequences of sending a young person to the adult system, it is a decision that should be made only after careful consideration by a judge.
Instead of rehabilitating young people, and putting those savings into prevention and youth programs, we are wasting millions warehousing them in harmful prisons. To me, rehabilitation means having support, resources and the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them without having those mistakes derail you for life.
Being prosecuted as an adult and sent to prison as a kid damaged me in multiple ways. First, there is the emotional impact. Prison is a dangerous place for anyone, especially a kid. To this day, I experience post-traumatic stress as a result of my incarceration. I always look over my shoulder if I hear any kind of sudden sounds or moves. Sometimes, I have trouble interacting with people or expressing myself. It affects my relationship with family, friends and community.
Also, there is an economic impact. Rather than having my records sealed after I did my time, which is what would have happened if I was sent to juvenile court, I will carry the stain of a criminal record for the rest of my life. I have lost many employment opportunities because of the adult felony I received as a teen. At times, it can feel as though, every time I try to do something positive, I keep running into a brick wall because of my past. But I am determined to move forward and win.
After finishing my last year at San Diego City College, I will go to a four-year university to continue studying sociology. In the future, I see myself with a family, owning a house and earning a master’s degree. I want to open up my own organization, one that helps people impacted by the criminal justice system reintegrate back into our communities. I also share my story as much as possible with young people.
Now more than ever, I truly believe that prosecuting kids in adult court is harmful and wrong. Rather than punishing kids with lifelong consequences, we should allow them the chance to grow up, learn from their mistakes and go on to live healthy and successful lives.
D’Andre Brooks lives in San Diego and is a resource manager at a local nonprofit. Brooks’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.