A Worthy Leader: Youth, Policy, and Hope in California

By Michael Mendoza, Policy Director at ARC

Michael Mendoza, age 15

Sitting in the gallery of our Capitol is breathtaking. Beneath a beautiful artisan ceiling I have a bird’s eye view of a space that transforms Californian lives every day. Looking down, I see Assemblymembers debating the future of our state. On the edge of my seat, I eagerly await the fate of Senate Bill 1391.

When the Assistant Speaker pro Tempore announces file item 344, SB 1391, my heart begins to race. Assemblymember David Chiu (D) speaks first, “SB 1391 would end the current practice of trying children who are ages 14 and 15 as adults in criminal court and sending them to adult prison.”

Assemblymember David Chiu (D) speaking on the AssemblyFloor

Memories flood my mind.

Utter despair was being locked in a cell one month after my fifteenth birthday. I had made the worst decision of my life. I sat in the back seat of a car with three other teens and watched a young man’s life cut short by gun violence. What’s worse is that I felt a sense of accomplishment because I did not understand the gravity of my actions.

The debate continues below on the Assembly Floor. “This bill is criminal,” says Assemblymember Travis Allen (R). “These perpetrators should face the maximum penalties.”

“These are the most heinous of criminals,” says Assemblymember Matthew Harper (R).

In my cell, I was labeled a super predator and a murderer by society. It felt like the entire world stared at me in disappointment and disgust. Shame lowered my gaze to the ground as sheriffs escorted me, shackled, into court rooms filled with condescending faces. Hearing the District Attorney argue that I should spend the rest of my life in adult prison made me feel hopeless. I’d been handed a future that my young mind could not comprehend: “You will be tried as an adult and face the rest of your life in prison.”

At that point, my future was sealed. I had given up on life. And my sentence was a clear message from society that it had given up on me. I was immediately transferred to adult court and convicted as an adult, at 16, for second degree murder.

On my 17th birthday I rode the bus into the wide swaths of the adult prison system. It was the longest bus ride of my life as I made my way into a world of violence and dehumanization. Adult correctional officers demanded that I strip naked and bend over while spreading my butt cheeks wide open. Then I was instructed to squat and cough. We were immediately forced into a single file line — “dicks to cheeks” the officers yelled — and safety became my only priority. No young mind could thoroughly prepare for an environment so full of anger and despair.

“From a children’s world to an adult prison world…a completely foreign one for any of these children” says Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D).

SB 1391 is marked by the bipartisan support in the debate on the Assembly Floor. I feel my heart beating faster after Assemblymembers take turns to speak on a measure that would have protected me from the horrors of the adult prison system.

Republican Assemblymember Rocky Chavez stands up. He recounts his experience with a young boy who attended his charter school, a safe haven for youth of color in his district. Assemblymember Chavez was trying to help this boy find his way. Unfortunately, the boy too found himself in the adult criminal justice system at a very young age. “We lost a great leader” says Chavez.

Throughout most of my sentence, I could never imagine myself as a worthy leader. The adult prison system is not set up to build worthy leaders out of young people. In fact, it sets out to create the opposite. Growing up in the adult prison system allows young people to be taken advantage of and manipulated. It is normal to carry drugs and makeshift weapons out of a sense of duty, peer pressure, and fear for one’s safety.

In 2013, five years earlier, SB 260 passed into law. This law created a Youth Offender Parole hearing that allowed individuals like me, who were under 18 when the crime occurred, to prove before a parole board that they were no longer the immature and impulsive kids who had made horrible decisions. SB 260 in part motivated me to do the intensely personal work of acknowledging what kind of boy I was. I learned how to deal with all the trauma, pain, and anger.

If SB 260 gave me hope, the people in my life motivated me to become who I am today. My parents and grandparents never gave up on me. They always inspired me to better myself and come home even when there was no end in sight.

Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D) then speaks of a young man who was saved in large part by the people who believed in him. “Those individuals saw something in him that he didn’t see within himself,” Gipson says.

Michael Mendoza in the Capitol gallery

I am no longer the 15-year-old boy that many called a heinous criminal, perpetrator, murderer. Sitting on the edge of my seat in the Capitol, I think not only about who I was but who I am today — a member of society deeply committed to public safety, a college graduate, someone who loves and is loved, the Policy Director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

As Assemblymember Chiu closes the debate, I can’t help but close my eyes as they fill with water.

“We want to see future Rocky Chavezes here helping us as policy makers,” he says.

The measure comes to a vote. Too nervous to see what the fate of this bill will be, I hang my head low, face to the ground. Then I hear the words from the Assembly Floor — the measure passes — and something like joy, or triumph, passes through me.