'Meet the Justice Advisors' Series: "Reflections on Coming Home"
Small moments matter when you’re on a journey.
In January I pulled up to the Capitol in Hartford, where I was invited to speak before members of the Connecticut General Assembly. I had no idea where I was going and didn’t want to be late. There was a police officer sitting in the parking lot. My first instinct was fear: turn around, go. But then my rational mind kicked in – listen, bro, you’re home, doing awesome and it’s his job to help you – so I walked over to him. “Hey, I have a speech today at the Capitol, can you point me in the right direction?”
He was helpful, even a little bit chatty.
And it was awesome.
I’m a person who has no problem talking to anyone in most situations – but in my old life, I never would have initiated a conversation with a police officer. Never. Now, I’m not afraid to do it. That’s a powerful shift, internally.
That moment stuck with me. So did the moment that came after: On the panel that day, there were lawyers, educators, people doing great work in their fields – and there was me. It was an “aha” moment to be sitting at the table with them, with my ideas and opinions being valued just like theirs.
I have had more moments like that since. I’m part of the Justice Advisors group with the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA), a group of young leaders who advise legislators and decision-makers about effective justice reform in our state.
We Justice Advisors (JAs) have experienced the justice system. I went to prison when I was 21 years old. It was my first involvement with the system. I did 10 years for a charge of robbery and assault, coming home at 31. I had a lot of time to think about things, investigate who I am and what I want to change in my life. In prison, I already had my high school diploma so I became a GED Tutor and started helping my fellow other inmates.
Coming home was rough. I couldn’t find a job: I’d fill out an application, get called in, nail the interview and get hired. Then, each time, a few weeks later, I’d get a letter from a third-party agency that never talked to me, only saw my record, telling me my employment was terminated. This happened at more than 15 places.
A mutual friend introduced me to Public Allies, a national nonprofit that supports young leaders. I was hesitant at first. Getting so many rejections was rough and I was sure same would happen with Public Allies. But it turned out to be different – and it changed my life completely.
Now, I’m a full-time Public Allies employee. Until July 2018, I was the Youth Development Specialist at Stamford Academy Charter High School, working with a student body of amazing young people who just needed a little extra guidance.
Listening to the Experts
As Justice Advisors, one of the things we do is hold listening sessions with young people who have experience in the justice system. We try to do this at least once a month, and bring what we learn back to our meetings with policymakers, lawyers and law enforcement.
In May, we held a session at my school, Stamford Academy, with about 15 students in the room. Our discussion ranged from big-picture topics, like what to do with the state budget for justice reform, to the very personal: what supports should have been there for you so you didn’t go down the wrong path?
The discussion was real, it was raw. We adults don’t usually get to hear the types of answers the students shared. My bosses certainly don’t hear it often – after our session, they said, “We have to do that again, and get more leadership involved, because we’ve never seen anyone interact with these students the way you did.”
You’ve got to be vulnerable and real with young people, ask the questions and give them the space to answer honestly.
During the session, I found myself getting upset when a couple of students made reference to it being too late for them to turn things around. Because there weren’t options in their community to help them get right before they started going down the wrong path, they felt it was hopeless.
Another comment that several students made really resonated with me: They wanted mentors, but felt there weren’t enough men in their neighborhoods who were successful. All the people who could be potential mentors were “dudes on the block who are still out there doing the wrong thing,” they said.
I felt that at their age, too. I continue to be surprised there’s not a better program in place for this – mentors from our community who know the life, who have lived it, who can show young people another way and help them avoid making the same mistakes and learning the hard way.
My colleagues at Stamford Academy and I try to fill that gap. That’s part of why we were able to have such an open listening session. For me, I expose my own history and where I’ve been. I tell them the truth: I’ve been where you are, probably worse. You can feel a weight lift off of their shoulders and they open up. You’ve got to be vulnerable and real with young people, ask the questions and give them the space to answer honestly.
New York City has a “Credible Messenger Mentors” program that is trying to make this approach part of the juvenile justice system. In April 2018, the Justice Advisors spent 3 days in New York, learning from this community-based approach that is now integrated into the Department of Probation.
Back home, the JAs agreed that creating a program like the Credible Messengers would be one of our key priorities, and shared what we learned with the Court Support Services Division so it would be on their radar. We have a million potential credible messengers in our neighborhoods. We just need to get over our apprehension and use them.
Reimagining Youth Justice in Connecticut
The Justice Advisors’ visit to New York City showed us a different approach to probation for young people. Here in Connecticut, it feels like a concept of, “I’m the man, you messed up, you listen to me and that’s it.”
The probation office we visited in the South Bronx is more family- and community-oriented. The first thing you notice is that there are no metal detectors. The Director of The Bronx NEON explained why: “These are kids. You’ve done what you done and now you’re back in the community and we want you to re-enter.” They haven’t had a single problem since they got rid of the metal detectors.
Inside, it feels like a community center, with access to resources. There is a clothes bank where you can get clothes for job interviews, a food bank, and rooms set aside for art activities and even talent shows where Probation Officers pair with clients.
There’s also no desk between Probation Officers and clients, because that would feel like a barrier and authority.
The message is, “We’re working with you to make sure you do right” rather than, “We are waiting for you to mess up, and we’ll lock you back up.”
I’m passionate about transforming my state’s approach to both prevention and re-entry from the justice system. We’re working with policymakers, elected officials and systems decision-makers to understand what can work to reduce youth justice involvement and recidivism. We need to put new approaches in place so people can actually get their lives back and prosper.
Together, my fellow JAs and I are changing the paradigm of what a leader looks like, and the background a leader could and should have.
Let me be clear: I don’t advocate not holding people accountable for what they do, but there are different ways to go about doing it. Children shouldn’t be locked up in a cage 23 hours a day. We have to balance public safety and accountability with rehabilitation.
As a justice advisor, I’m able to be on the front lines and be part of a process to repair our communities. To have my experience validated and to hear, “You’ve been through stuff, you’ve done wrong and it’s not too late. Your voice matters,” is powerful.
Together, my fellow JAs and I are changing the paradigm of what a leader looks like, and what background a leader could and should have. We’re proving that that everyone can be a leader given the right capacity.
Yancy Singleton is a founding member of the Justice Advisors, a CTJJA partnership. He is now the Public Allies Program Manager for the City of Bridgeport and recently completed his second year as an AmeriCorps Public Ally, where he served at Stamford Academy, a charter school for youth with behavioral and trauma issues. In his role as Youth Development Specialist, he focused on helping students strengthen social and emotional values. Yancy also interned with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP), supporting the development of action-research projects, engaging with Executive Session members, and with the overall strategies of the IIP.