In 1995, when Frankie Guzman was 15, living in the impoverished community of La Colonia in the city of Oxnard, California, his older friend came to his house to ask for a favor.
The friend needed cash. His request: Help me to rob a liquor store.
“It was a terrible idea – something I wasn’t at all interested in doing,” Guzman said in a recent interview.
But as his friend was walking away, Guzman started feeling guilty. He worried about what would happen if his friend robbed the store alone. So they bought guns, stole ski masks and gloves from a store, and drove to the liquor store at noon on a Saturday, Guzman said.
Shortly after they got away with $300 from the store’s register, the young men were caught and arrested.
Because of their one-year age difference, Guzman and his friend were sent into different justice systems. Guzman’s friend, age 16, was charged as an adult. To this day, Guzman has no idea where life has taken him.
Guzman was charged as a juvenile. A judge handed him a 15-year sentence – the maximum allowed at the time – at the California Youth Authority (CYA), the state’s prison system for youth. Guzman was released early, and returned to his community at 19, but the time in prison had troubled him deeply.
“I’m out for three months with a whole lot more issues and baggage and trauma than I went in with, and really wasn’t able to function on the outside,” Guzman said.
Guzman did two more stints in juvenile prison until, at age 21, he started thinking differently.
“I was hopeless and desperate, and afraid of failure,” he said. “And in my mind, at that time, failure was prison or a grave, or leading a meaningless worker’s life. And so I went to community college and I tried to do something different.”
It was at Oxnard Community College, not in the juvenile justice system, where Guzman was rehabilitated, he said.
“At community college – not only was it not a prison state – it was a place of nurturing and education and rehabilitation,” he said.
Guzman went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley and then to law school at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A recipient of a Soros Justice Fellowship, Guzman now works with the National Center for Youth Law, helping youth who, like him, have become enmeshed in the state’s juvenile justice system.
By any measure, Guzman has overcome long odds on his way to becoming an attorney and juvenile justice advocate. But his story is especially important as Guzman works to keep today’s youth out of the criminal justice system on a California ballot measure that intends to prevent youth from being sentenced as adults.
Prop. 57 would reverse an initiative passed in 2000 that allowed district attorneys to file charges against youth as young as 14 in adult court and expanded the list of offenses for which youth could be charged as adults.
The ballot measure would grant judges sole power to decide whether to move a minor’s case into the adult court system.
Guzman worked with other juvenile attorneys, advocates and community leaders to write the proposition, and Gov. Jerry Brown later agreed to sponsor it and provide funding to promote it, Guzman said.
Guzman also helped write a June report that analyzed data on youth in California who were prosecuted as adults. In “The Prosecution of Youth as Adults,” he and two co-authors found that while serious felony arrests have dropped 55 percent across the state since 2003, county district attorneys in the state charged youth as adults at a 23 percent higher rate per capita in 2014 than in 2003.
‘Direct file’ – a process that allows prosecutors can originate a juvenile’s case in adult court for certain offenses – was originally meant to be used in extraordinary circumstances, but Guzman and his team found that in 2014, 80 percent of youth transferred to the state’s adult criminal justice system were placed there by prosecutors.
“Prosecutors don’t understand, in large measure, how much these kids have the cards stacked against them,” Guzman said. “By virtue of their role as prosecutors, they are extremely biased against defendants and their role is one of convicting. It is not increasing public safety through rehabilitation. It is incapacitation through a conviction.”
With the November vote drawing close, Guzman said he is optimistic that voters will approve Prop. 57, despite noting that some district attorneys are painting the ballot measure as being soft on crime.
“Currently the only thing that would in any way suggest that we might have a problem is the untruths that D.A.s are putting out there, which to me are not a problem,” Guzman said. “I don’t believe they are going to carry much weight or water.”
Guzman is now 36. His life has taken him from robbing that liquor store at age 15 to, earlier this year, getting summoned by Gov. Brown to discuss and finalize Prop. 57.
It has been an unlikely journey, and it has led him to what he is doing right now – in this unusual election season – fighting for the passage of a ballot measure that he hopes will keep young people out of the criminal justice system.
It is one of 18 propositions on the ballot. As November approaches, Guzman’s work is far from over.
“I’m very excited about it,” Guzman said. “But the big fight is still to get people to vote for it.”
Lisa Weinzimer wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change massive online open course.
Holden Slattery contributed to this story.