I was 14 years old when I was arrested, placed in juvenile hall, and labeled as a direct file, which meant I wasn’t required to have a hearing before a judge to determine if I would go to adult court. If the D.A. decided you should be tried as an adult, that is all that was necessary under the existing criteria.
No questions asked, no argument. I had no prior experience with the justice system, so I had no idea what was going on. I was scared, confused and felt hopeless. It seemed that none of my questions were answered, everything went in circles, and I had to gather information or learn on my own.
I went to two juvenile halls in Los Angeles County, before being permanently housed at a third where I was placed in GSHU, meaning a “Special Handling Unit.” We were labeled and treated differently than youth in other units, whether that meant the way we were monitored, areas we could use for outdoor recreation activities, and at some point, where we could attend school. This unit had individuals who were facing serious charges, some of whom were tried as adults. The unit also housed youth who had evaluated mental health problems, as well as others who were too young to be in other units.
How is it possible or even legal for someone younger than I was to be arrested and placed in jail? I remember coming across two younger girls, one 9 years old, the other 11, and I could not believe they were in the same place as me. It was hard enough for me to grasp or understand the situation I was now in. Based on hearing their conversations and witnessing interactions, I knew they had no clue what was going on, where to begin to understand, or even who to consult and what questions to ask.
Because I was so young, I was not allowed to attend school outside of the unit with other girls that went to actual classrooms. I attended class in our day room, which is where we ate all our meals, and had our daily program. School inside juvenile hall isn’t the best way to learn. The environment isn’t set up correctly. It’s loud, distracting, and often the material we are taught isn’t correct or for our grade level. Also, at some point because they are not prepared for youth to be there that long, or to advance, some youth have to repeat subjects to receive credits to graduate.
How is one supposed to — or expected to — expand their knowledge or learn if not given proper material? Are youth graduating after learning what they need to know, or is it just empty credits to pass them along? I am always concerned about this because that is what happened to me. I wonder how many things I did not learn or wasn’t taught.
Being an incarcerated child and not knowing how to cope with everything taking place in my young life, sometimes I needed someone to talk to. I needed to be offered coping skills. I needed someone to listen to the issues I was struggling with, and I needed to know there was someone I could go to during a crisis.
Often, my needs and the needs of those around me were not met with care. If you are on the lowest security level, then you’re not classified as a youth that needs regular mental health services. For example, I spoke to a therapist on a monthly schedule, unless I was able to request more frequent meetings. If my therapist had time to see me, they would. If not, it wasn’t that big of a deal because of the level I was on.
When I was dealing with issues and didn’t want to discuss them with staff, the next best thing is a mental health referral. However, it didn’t always mean you would be seen, or even get access to the therapist you were comfortable speaking with. The end result is often you don’t get the help you need.
As a 14-year-old, the messages I received from the system was that I was not worthy of care. As a young teen in juvenile detention, I didn’t get what I needed to mature and move past my mistakes. Now as an advocate, I am pushing to reimagine how the system treats very young people. Along with others, we’re working for a reality where youth are treated as the children they still are, in need of guidance and proper rehabilitation services that focus on ensuring their growth and healing. I hope state leaders across the country will listen and join us.
Sophia Cristo is a youth advocate at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) based in Los Angeles, CA. ARC is a member of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN).