It was 8 a.m. in the Hotel Murano conference room in Tacoma and like any good host, 23-year-old Aaron Toleafoa understood his mandate: wake up the crowd.
“How’s everybody feeling today?” he asked the guests who were gathered for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s annual Youth Summit. “Good, good. For everybody who’s not from Washington, y’all enjoy this town over here? It’s my hometown, so you better like it.”
Despite his local upbringing, Toleafoa hadn’t seen Tacoma since July of 2016, when he boarded a bus in shackles for the 60-mile ride from the local Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center to the Green Hill School in Chehalis, a youth prison where he is currently doing time.
On his 25th birthday, Toleafoa will board another bus, which will deliver him to an adult prison.
But for two days last month — even though guards dressed in street clothes stood in pairs guarding the conference room doors — Toleafoa could spend his day not just as a prisoner, but as a respected leader, moving freely among colleagues.
The summit, organized and run by young activists from around the country, is part of a growing movement to ensure that those with personal experience have a role in shaping juvenile justice policy. For most of these activists, their own incarceration is behind them.
But four of the event’s organizers are still behind bars — and that made the event all the more unique. Their involvement with the summit had strong backing from Green Hill School, whose leaders have taken steps to engage detained youth in reforming the system they are caught up in. The youth organizers have their own motivation: They are fighting to ensure that future generations don’t face the decade-plus sentences they received after going through the adult courts.
“I’m currently incarcerated,” Toleafoa said, laughing off a technical glitch that briefly delayed the start of the program the first two days of August, “so I don’t know anything about this laptop.”
Edgar Calixto, 21, was introduced to the power of activism when he joined Green Hill’s Youth Council. “Initially, it was just the simple things around campus, like trying to get more commissary items, being able to spend more,” he said. But the growing sense that his voice mattered inspired him to do more.
Calixto enthusiastically signed up for Green Hill’s Capitol Classroom. The program brings legislative staff into the detention facility to teach youth about how laws are made and help them choose bills to work on. Participants then travel to the state Capitol to testify.
Already, he and other members of the justice coalition’s Emerging Leaders Council have been effective. One bill they were instrumental in helping become law in 2018, Senate Bill 6160, allows youth tried as adults to remain in the juvenile system until age 25, in some circumstances. Other bills that passed allowed some youth between ages 21 and 25 return from adult facilities to the juvenile system, and provided a path for early release with social supports.
As the August summit got underway, Toleafoa introduced Ron Ackerson, 21, who performed a blend of song and spoken word he had composed for the event:
I was brainwashed thinking violence was the only way
I know I’m not perfect but I’m striving every day
At 15, they pushed me to adult court
It makes me really wonder, who is the system for?
I just wanna go further than the place that I come from
I turned myself in after six days on the run
I promise there’s more to life, little brother,
Put down that gun.
“You couldn’t hear my heart thumping?” Ackerson asked after stepping down from the stage. “I was shaking in my boots.”
Toleafoa responded, tapping his heart: “I’m happy that we did that bro. Now I feel free.”
‘You have a lot of friends, dad’
Toleafoa’s role on the Emerging Leaders Council is chair and facilitator. As such, he’s become an experienced advocate whose testimony has influenced legislation at the state and federal level.
Appearing before the conference audience, he wore a white hoodie that read “Relevant Engagement.” His hair was braided and pulled tightly off his face.
Participants included youth activists from various states and their allies. Guests also included Toleafoa’s mother, his younger sister, and his vivacious 7-year-old son, who ran circles around his father, scrambling in and out of his lap. COVID-19 lockdowns and visiting restrictions had limited contact with relatives, so the speakers from Green Hill who had family in the room soaked up the chance to laugh, chat, and embrace freely.
“You have a lot of friends, dad,” the 7-year-old whispered. It clearly meant a lot to the boy — who calls the place where his father lives “school-jail” — to see him as someone others admire and respect.
A skilled moderator, Toleafoa held the attention of the room even as he juggled the attentions of his family. But his outfit for the event was a symbolic Cinderella’s slipper. At the end of the day, he would be back in his Green Hill uniform, a pine green T-shirt and baggy blue pants. And he would board the bus back to the locked facility to wait out the year and three months until the crimes of his youth finally metastasized into the adult prison sentence that has loomed over him for nearly a decade.
At 15, after Toleafoa committed a series of crimes that culminated in a pair of car jackings, his case was transferred to adult court, where he was sentenced to 21 years in prison. A state law that Toleafoa helped pass has allowed him to remain in the juvenile system until he turns 25, and a state Supreme Court decision made it possible for him to receive a 68-month sentence reduction.
Even so, his first chance at being considered for parole will not come until 2029.
‘Treating children as children’
At the August summit, Liz Ryan — the recently appointed administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and a longtime advocate for closing youth prisons — was among the speakers. “True change in our justice system cannot occur without the expertise of young people just like you, so thank you for taking the first steps,” the Biden administration’s top juvenile justice official said over Zoom. “I will do everything I can to amplify your voices.”
Ryan was quick to point out the fact that Black and brown youth — who comprise almost all of the 12-member Emerging Leaders Council — are incarcerated at vastly disproportionate rates compared to white youth who commit similar offenses. And she noted: “We must reduce the disparate treatment and impact that youth of color experience in the juvenile justice system.”
One of her top priorities, Ryan said, is “treating children as children,” a statement she made as four youth prosecuted as adults listened in. “We must keep youth out of adult courts, adult jails and adult prisons.”
While the gap between the event’s ambitions and the participants’ reality loomed large, the young people helped bridge the chasm with their earnest commitment to listening and being heard.
“Advocacy is something that I live and breathe every day,” said Chris Ford, 21, opening the panel he led.
What drew him to activism, Ford said with a nod to the other young men from Green Hill, was “these people. People who really cared about me and advocated for me when I didn’t want to advocate for myself. Just seeing that type of energy — seeing that that kind of love is really out there — I just wanted to do that.”
Ford said joining Capitol Classroom after spending a year in county detention was a revelation. “Nothing like this was ever familiar to me,” he said. “Knowing that I can talk to somebody who writes the laws — some of the exact laws that keep me within this facility — that was very important.”
Green Hill Superintendent Jennifer Redman was a low-key presence during the summit, sitting quietly at a table with other staff from her facility. But during a break, she grew animated as she spoke of the positive changes she had seen in the young men as they grew into their roles as advocates — and actually helped make lasting change.
Redman described those housed at Green Hill as “strongly influential” in passing bills such as Washington state’s SB 6160 that limit or scale back the transfers of youth offenders to the adult system.
Through testifying before the Legislature, other interactions with policymakers, and events like the summit, “they get heard, they get valued,” Redman said. “They feel — as they should — like experts. They are going into environments with people who value their voice, which hasn’t always been the case.”
On a personal note, she said it’s “going to be horrible” watching the young men at the summit leave Green Hill for adult facilities.
“They’ve all been here a long time,” she said. “We’ve seen them grow up. We’ve seen them mature; we’ve seen them struggle. We’ve seen them do great things.”
A safer, more just world
Over the course of the two-day event, participants laid out an expansive vision of the safer, more just world that everyone in the conference room wanted to see. They described racist redlining in professorial detail, explaining how the endemic practice across the U.S. had affected their own lives and pushed their families into low-income neighborhoods. Residents of those communities, they said, attended under-resourced, over-policed schools that in turn pushed marginalized youth into the juvenile justice system. They called for more school counselors and fewer campus police.
In a session on prevention and intervention, Ackerson, Calixto, Ford and Kimberly Garcia, 22, an Emerging Leaders Council member from New Jersey, used their own experiences to underscore what true crime prevention looks like. Garcia, who was previously incarcerated, spoke with her toddler on her hip. Education, they all said, is crime prevention. Housing is crime prevention. Meeting young people’s physical, intellectual and emotional needs before they ever come into contact with “the system,” they said, is a far more effective public safety tool than waiting for an arrest to be made before offering support.
In another workshop, the seemingly impenetrable criminal justice system was spelled out in detail — offering yet another illustration of how much work remains to be done to reform the system.
During this session, participants were handed a flowchart listing elements of a legal process many had experienced but few, as teenagers, had truly understood: statutory exclusion, prosecutorial discretion, judicial waiver, diversion, prosecution, juvenile court intake, formal process, adjudication, residential placement, probation, revocation, aftercare. Conference goers were asked to use arrows to make sense of the complex trajectory the terms represented.
“A lot of these words we really weren’t familiar with,” Ford said. “But knowing from personal experience, arrest came first. I was taken into custody. And before my picture was even taken, I was told I was charged as an adult.”
“Aftercare? What is that?” asked Toleafoa, briskly marking up a chart held by Ford. I’ve seen my brother get arrested — intake, processing, adjudicated adult, straight to detention and into prison. My other brother gets out. No aftercare.”
No easy transition
The second and final day of the summit came to an abrupt end because of a COVID-related staffing issue. A closing panel on sentencing reform was canceled, as was a private gathering that would have given the members of the Emerging Leaders Council, which meets virtually, their first and possibly only chance to spend time together in person.
When he learned the closing sessions would be cut short, Toleafoa’s first reaction was disappointment, he said. But Ackerson, Calixto and Ford — younger men whom Toleafoa had counseled through the countless frustrations of trying to effect real-world change from inside a locked facility — buoyed his spirits.
“We still have a job to do,” they told him. “All these people came out for us. We’re doing this for a purpose.”
Toleafoa returned to his seat and the others took the podium for their final appearances.
“While they were talking, I was shedding some tears,” Toleafoa said. “Then they’re done, and there were no more questions, and I told my staff, ‘Hey, I gotta use the bathroom.’ Then I went and broke down in the stall.”
He said a prayer thanking God for allowing him to share in the experience. “I’ve always looked for those experiences in my life,” he said, speaking of the closeness that can come from a shared sense of mission. “It just sucks that I’m experiencing it in jail.”