I was recently invited to Washington, D.C., to share my personal story with Congress. I wanted to share it because it’s important for lawmakers to hear from those who are most affected by their actions. My hope is that my story will help create effective policies that divert youth from involvement in the juvenile justice system, support alternatives to incarceration, save taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, promote safer, stronger and healthier youth, families and communities.
I was in trouble with the law and spent time locked up in a juvenile detention center before entering the residential program at Boys Town Washington DC when I was 15. Boys Town’s program helped me turn my life around, just as it has for so many others just like me.
My situation wasn’t any different from those of other kids who end up in the juvenile justice system. But instead of someone just locking me up and throwing away the key, I got the help and support I needed in my community, and I was able to make changes for the long term.
I think all youth want to do something positive with their lives and are looking for consistency and structure – whether they can express that desire effectively or not. When someone asks what advice I would give to help young people avoid the juvenile justice system, it’s not as simple as saying don’t hang around with negative peers or stay away from drugs. For me, hands-on programs with tangible outcomes brought out my best self. When I was given responsibility, it created a sense of fulfillment and obligation to do better and to be more. This is the kind of help I received at Boys Town Washington DC.
Youth need to learn skills so they can change their behavior. They shouldn’t have to get locked up before they are eligible for help.
I feel like if I can give back, I should. I hope that sharing my story about how I overcame obstacles in my life helped make the issue real for the Congressmen who heard it. I hope others speak out, too. If anyone wants to know what works, talking and listening to individual young people who have experienced a troubled life but found the help they needed is the key.
Sloane Baxter, 22, is a volunteer youth advocate from Washington.