Above: Andy, the author of this essay, pictured on the right with other students during one of his Lewis & Clark Law School class sessions.
By Andy S.M.
Venustiano Carranza was known for its meager resources of clean water, housing, electricity and education. In the early 1970s and late 1990s, this rural town located in Quintana Roo, Mexico, was home to my parents until they migrated to the U.S. Unfortunately, they never had the chance to receive a higher education. The farthest they have gotten was elementary school. Most underprivileged families didn’t have the sufficient funds to pay for all of middle and high school level education. However, today my family continues to succeed and thrive without the privilege of having an education.
The fact that I was first in the family to be born in the U.S. gave hope to my parents. As I grew older, I began to undervalue and underestimate my family, friends, and my own life needs. I slowly struggled with my behavior in middle and then high school, ultimately affecting my grades and home life. At the age of 17, I gave out on my education and lost hope in myself, so I resorted to my negative and drug-abusive friends. Eventually, my family, and the ones I caused harm to, were struck with calamity and devastation.
On Dec. 20, 2016, I was 17 years old and being arrested for murder in the first degree. The following year, on Dec. 19, 2017, I plead guilty to one count of manslaughter in the first degree and two counts of criminal conspiracy to commit robbery in the first degree. I was sentenced to serve 240 months, or 20 years. Receiving a sentence of nearly two decades left me feeling broken, as anyone would. But, it’s led to great change.
Since the day of my arrest, I look back at the magnitude and severity of my crime with remorse and regret. While I cannot change what happened, restorative justice has given me the peace and understanding to move forward. I have vowed to make productive choices that contribute positively towards my environment. The process of change is continuous and challenging, but it has propelled me into who I am today. Being an incredibly sensitive and thoughtful young man wasn’t who I pictured myself to be five years ago.
Without this shift in my mindset, I would have never been able to find myself taking an in-person college course. Part of pushing myself out of my comfort zone was to do things I normally don’t do. In fall term of 2019, I enrolled in the “Introduction to Juvenile Corrections” course offered through Lewis & Clark Law School. This was so exciting for me because, in the past, I never valued school or the people that helped me. Finally, I made the choice to commit and finish this class.
I remember vividly on the first day of the class, I had so much anxiety built up. To top off the anxiety, I was running 15 minutes late for the first day! When I entered the Tom Nelson Conference Room, where the class was held, I wasn’t too sure of what I’d walk into because it had been four years since I was in an actual classroom with students. When me and my fellow MacLaren friends, and Oak Creek friends, acquainted ourselves with everyone, we all felt significant and normal. The opportunity to become positive, humane, and productive with ourselves was part of being normal, and with the help of this class, we achieved just that.
During the course, I developed a stronger understanding of the historical context for juvenile courts, current bills in juvenile justice law, and the science behind a developing adolescent brain. The guest speakers whom I met and conversed with were phenomenal, and left a lot of us feeling connected and hopeful. Today, I still reflect on all those memorable lessons and engaging activities that had everyone gain a sense of belonging and welcoming in the class.
There was also an abundance of humorous times, as well as serious moments; such as the time a Lewis & Clark law student voiced her opinion on why a juvenile justice district attorney in Portland continued to sentence juveniles under Oregon’s harsh Ballot Measure 11. Moments like these were unforgettable because we saw that some students stood up for us. The community that was created in this class had spirit and identity; we all represented change and hope.
Truly, there was a great meaning behind this class to reinforce ourselves. I learned a lot about why I made those bad decisions when I was young and the reason behind my actions. As a result, everyone that was a resident at MacLaren, as well as Oak Creek, gained a better understanding of themselves. Towards the end of the course, we all grew in faith and hope for the future. With positive experiences such as the ones offered for incarcerated youth and adults, it can have a profound effect on our fulfillment to change. Having the chance to progress our education and experience was part of the goal in taking this course. As I stood grounded in my own roots, it aided me to envision a practical life and continue to invest in my education.
Andy S.M. lives at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. The juvenile corrections law course he is describing contained a mix of students from MacLaren and Oak Creek youth correctional facilities learning alongside Lewis & Clark Law School students. Read more about the law class here.