What happens in the juvenile justice system
Juvenile justice needs work, two experts say

By Peter M., 17, Central Juvenile Hall
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Illustration by Tammy Phan, 16, Mountain View HS

I open my eyes from a restless night’s sleep and stare at the nightlight on the ceiling of my dirt-saturated room. I try not to touch the yellow stains running alongside my bed, because I have no clue as to where they came from. I nestle up to get in a couple of extra zzz’s but to no avail. Soon I hear the jingle of keys, and the door unlocks while the detention services officer yells at me to get dressed and wash up.

This has been my morning routine for the past 18 months.

Being a 17-year-old facing prison time is not easy—especially when I’m looking at 12 years. I’m locked up in Central Juvenile Hall on charges of a home invasion robbery with possession of a firearm. I face a maximum sentence of 30 years in state prison. I’ll take a deal for the minimum amount of time I can serve for my crime—12 years with one strike. If I run a good program, hopefully I’ll be out by 2010.

I got arrested a month after I turned 16 and it was a big joke to me. When they read my charges and how much time I was facing, I laughed in the courtroom and thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

Now it’s not so dumb. It’s reality.

I still haven’t come to truly grasp it, but my mind is starting to perceive it. It’s just hard to believe that a first-time offender, especially a juvenile, can receive such a harsh punishment. But they did it to me without thinking twice.

Now I’m in the dark with no hope of starting a family, going to the beach with my friends or even relaxing at home with my family in the near future. What makes it even harder is knowing that when I get out, my dad might not be there to hold me in his arms.

My dad was diagnosed with terminal intestinal cancer in early 1999 and has since undergone four operations. His left kidney is failing and a tumor has saturated into the bone. If the doctors cut it out, he risks the loss of movement in his leg. In a few months, he will be operated on again to remove the damaged kidney. It’s pretty much downhill from there.

I can’t think of a more severe pain than knowing that one of your loved ones will not make it with you through your times of distress.

Times weren’t always so bad

I had a better childhood than most people could wish for. My parents were there for me though thick and thin, never letting me down. I’ve played classical music on the piano for nine years and was a child prodigy. The only reason I stopped was because I got locked up. I have awards, certificates and ribbons that can fill up a wall and had a scholarship to go along with them all.

If you knew me on the outside, you’d need a minute for the surprise to pass before you could believe that I was arrested. I never had a criminal past, and all of my family and relatives refer to me as a well-mannered, polite smart kid who always had a hand out to help.

That hand is what got me in here.

I got into trouble

I grew up as the kid who made friends with everyone and made everybody laugh. I never hung around the gangs or the junkies. I hung around with a crowd that had the resources to do anything.

When I take my 12-year deal, I will have a felony on my record and a strike that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I’ll have to live with being discriminated against and looked upon as a criminal for the rest of my life, because of a stupid mistake that was made in the past.

Life in juvenile hall has been uncomfortable because I’m always being told what to do. They tell me when I have to wake up, when to eat and drink, when I can use the restroom, when I can talk and when to go to sleep. I’m in my room all the time and the four dirty white walls are confining. I get mad when they send the group down early, because that’s more time spent in my 8- by 11-foot closet.

I try to stay positive

Believe it or not, juvenile hall has its upside also. The school system is one of the best in Los Angeles County, and they offer you a slew of programs that keep you occupied and educate you at the same time. The facility I’m in right now is one of the oldest and offers an array of programs that often overlap each other on certain days. I participate in all of them because I would go insane if I ran a regular program.

I’m in an art class, a GED class, photography and film class, a college class and my most preferred, the writing class. It’s called Inside OUT Writers. My teacher, Duane Noriyuki, is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. He is also my mentor. Through his wisdom and knowledge, I learned to unlock my writing skills, to express my heart and emotions through essays and poetry.

But all this is a front to hide the real problem of the halls: prejudice, discrimination, corruption, hatred, anger, violence and scandalous politics. There are at least two fights a day, one riot a month and racial tension is always present. Some staff who are supposed to be here to protect you only care about the money they make and consider you a nuisance that someone else should handle. I’ve seen 16-year-olds get life and smile the next day like nothing happened.

But at night we all cry.

The mask comes off and you don’t have to hide anymore.

Part of my life is gone

Life in the halls is not all fun and games like some people assume. It’s where you wait to be sent to places like county jail, youth authority and state prison. You have to grow up and mature real fast, because if you don’t your life could very well be over.

The most important part of my life is gone. I would give anything to get it back. So far, I’ve spent my 17th birthday in here, two Easters, two Christmases and will spend every holiday incarcerated until sometime in 2010.

I get lonely in here because I only get to talk to my parents on the phone for 10 minutes a week and only see them one hour on Sundays.

Every day since I heard about my sentence, I ask myself only one question: Will I be able to hold my family in my arms if I make it out of prison?

It’s hard on my soul, but they gave me no choice and left me without any options.