Presidential Candidates Can’t Ignore Criminal Justice Reform

By Serena Zets- 11th Grade, Pittsburgh CAPA

On one side of the aisle, a presidential candidate is preaching to “make America great again” and on the other, we hear that “love trumps hate”. How can these promises hold true when America was never great and is built on systematic hatred? I think that all presidential candidates need to stop spewing rhetoric and should listen to their constituents’ voices, especially the voices of our nation’s youth. No matter which candidate wins, our nation is going to change; for the better or worse, now that’s up to us. Our systems are broken and have been broken for a long time; if we don’t speak up, our youth and their future will suffer. We are the future- and currently we don’t have one.

From my perspective, the largest broken system in this country is our failed criminal justice system. This wrecked system reflects our country’s history of discrimination, racism, classism, and the stigmatization of mental illness. I believe that this is the case because I’ve seen the criminal justice system wreck my family and my community.

My family is a multiracial, middle class, nuclear family (two parents, one son, one daughter). We have remarkable privilege, but still our lives aren’t perfect. We suffer from mental illness and physical disabilities, we face racism, we can’t afford college tuition. In the eyes of the law, neither our privilege or our flaws mattered; my brother was taken to jail nonetheless.

My brother suffers from OCD, depression, and anxiety. A mix of social situations and his medication exacerbates his symptoms and makes it hard for him to handle daily life. He is regularly bullied because he isn’t hyper-masculine and he’s sensitive; he has been called gay slurs and they trigger him. One day it all became too much and he engaged in a fight with his bully. It took place in an unsupervised art classroom, and he picked up a cutting instrument to defend himself. Everything about the incident demonstrates faults on each party’s behalf; by my brother, by his bully, but primarily by the school.

The school police and city police arrived immediately to the school. Initially the police wanted to take him to the county lockup, but my parents explained that he was a minor and he was relieved of that; instead he was carted off to a juvenile detention facility and charged with aggravated assault. He spent that night in the facility where he was threatened, harassed, and refused his medication. If my parents hadn’t have arrived on the scene, he would have easily been taken to the county jail where the conditions would have only been worse.

The moment I heard the news, I broke down and sobbed for hours. I cried for my brother and I cried for the kids whose daily life this was. I worried that he wouldn’t have access to his medication or that he’d be assaulted. Those shouldn’t have been the first thought that came to mind. I should have been relieved that he was in a safe space where he could think about the mistake he had made and learned from it, unfortunately that isn’t how our criminal justice system was established.

From my family’s direct experience with the juvenile criminal justice system, I know that it’s broken. I would like to see our next president take steps in reforming and balancing the criminal justice system. No one should have to experience what my family went through; I just hope the presidential candidates can realize that.

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Serena Zets is a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA and resides in Squirrel Hill. She works as a freelance writer and her work has been featured in Youth Express, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette and Sonic Blume Zine. When she isn’t writing, she’s probably baking or watching Gilmore Girls.

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