How to survive in and reform the criminal justice system

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On the verge of his sixteenth birthday, Hernan was incarcerated for attempted murder. In this emotional story, Hernan shares his journey through the juvenile justice system, the often devastating impact the system has on those trapped inside, and his current work as an advocate for justice reform.

“I was viewed as that kid who was the gang-banger, who was angry, who was impulsive, who was an alcoholic. I was that person who was incorrigible, incapable of change. And these were the terms I heard throughout the course of my life.”

As a program analyst for Vera Institute’s Center on Youth Justice, Hernan worked on improving conditions of confinement, including efforts to support the incorporation of youth voices in facility-based and statewide juvenile justice policy reform. Today Hernan continues to serve as a leader in the juvenile justice reform movement, including serving as a mentor to formerly/currently incarcerated youth.

We caught up with Hernan after this recording to pick his brain about why he does what he does.

Why did you decide to share your story?
H: I shared my story because I want to make sure that everyone is aware of the injustices happening in the juvenile justice system. I want people who have never been in prison to see currently and formerly incarcerated people as more than our stories and mistakes. I want people to see our humanity and to get more involved so that we can prevent other young people and their families from falling into the grip of the juvenile justice system. There is power in numbers and so the more people are aware the more people we can help.

What is your view on/how do you define the criminal justice system?
H: To me, the justice system in America is doing exactly what is was designed to do which is to punish and criminalize people of color. It is an institution that creates the legal means by which to oppress communities of color. It is the reincarnation of slavery and Jim Crow in the 21st century.

How can everyday people help reform the justice system?
H: If people want to get involved they need to become more familiar with what incarceration looks like by going online and learning what is happening in their own community. After learning more they should get involved with organizations and campaigns that are looking to end mass incarceration. If they can’t dedicate actual physical time then they can donate to organizations doing good work. There is always a way for people to get involved. All you need to do is look.