Voices of Youth Justice: I am Not an Outlier

By: Miguel Garcia

Mar 20, 2024 | Voices of Youth Justice

Voices of Youth Justice: I am Not an Outlier


I’m Miguel and I’m an Ombudsperson Liaison with the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR). In my role, at the first state office to implement a health-based, youth and community-centered approach to youth justice, I make sure youth who are court-involved in California understand their rights and ensure that their rights are upheld. I also work with probation departments across the state, providing impartial policy and procedure recommendations.

But my journey with the justice system started long before I joined OYCR. At just 15 years old, I was charged with premeditated, attempted murder — hurting not only the victim, but also his family and community. Getting to where I am now took time, unwavering determination, a lot of support from the adults around me, and access to resources that ultimately empowered me to shift my perspective and succeed.

This is my story. My hope is that it shows how supporting our youth is critical and how it can help them change their paths.

I grew up in the City of Perris within Riverside County, a predominantly Hispanic community, surrounded by gangs and foreclosed homes. My brother and I were raised by a single mother, aunt, and grandparents and while we always had a full house (sometimes with as many as 12 people staying there) I often felt very alone. I avoided being home because it felt so crowded, my extended family emigrating from El Salvador and Mexico would stay with us when they arrived in California.

Because I felt invisible and unheard, I sought instant gratification through negative actions with quick reward while out in the streets. I got into fights, started selling drugs, broke into abandoned homes, and essentially behaved as a menace to society, with no regard for the impact on my family, those who wanted to support me, or my community. Eventually, I ended up making the worst decision in my life.

In June of 2010, I found myself in a juvenile courtroom. My county-appointed attorney told me because of the severity of my crime, at 15, I would be charged as an adult. 15 years to life. In shock, I couldn’t process what was happening and struggled to comprehend the gravity of the situation. My mom was crying, all I could muster was, “Don’t worry, I’ll be ok, everything will be ok.” Seeing how little effort the county-appointed attorney put in for me, my mom searched throughout the Southern California region for new legal representation.

Mr. Leonard P. Valadez stepped in to assist me, offering an opportunity to be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), where I received age-appropriate treatment and rehabilitation instead of being sentenced as an adult. At DJJ, there were new obstacles I had to face — from gangs to fights and drug use.  

While in DJJ I had two moments of realization:

  1. My mom couldn’t keep making the 4-hour drive from Riverside to Camarillo every time I got in trouble.
  2. The endless cycle of drug tests and having to start over as they counted my days of good behavior was exhausting.

These realizations changed my perspective. It took me about two years into my time at DJJ to be ready to take accountability and make the changes needed to live a successful life. I understood that accountability and hard work were equally essential. I seized every opportunity that came my way, actively sought out avenues for growth and advancement and each step propelled me forward to the next, enabling me to elevate myself. I got clean, reflected, and saw others stuck in a cycle of non-change which served as powerful motivation for me to strive for a different path. My parole agent, Dorthy Rodia, was able to get me out early on good behavior. I knew I wanted a different life for myself.

As a former youth who was justice system-involved, my story serves as an example that restorative justice works. I am not an outlier. When young people are provided resources and opportunities to grow and reflect on their past decisions, they can and will succeed. It is evident that youth who are court-involved need resources and help at every step. They cannot do it alone — I didn’t do it alone. I had my family, support from the adults around me, youth justice volunteers, role models, and resources from state programs all propelling me forward.

I took responsibility for my actions, and I put in hard work and effort. But my own determination and effort alone couldn’t have gotten me where I am today. I also needed opportunities to grow, whether it involved education, scholarships, or job training. Striving for excellence became my mantra and I remained steadfast in my pursuit of continuous improvement.

Inmate Ward Labor Crew

I served as the lead laborer for the Inmate Ward Labor (IWL) crew, becoming an accomplished welder and stand out overseeing the remodeling of facility units at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. This role allowed me to lead and support 25 other incarcerated youth from various levels of security in gaining employment through the program, enabling me to save $5,000 in case prior to my release. The Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), composed of volunteers from the surrounding community, offered scholarship opportunities for incarcerated youth pursuing post-secondary education after high school and I received $4,500 in scholarships for higher education.

I took advantage of the therapy offered to address the trauma I experienced growing up, as well as the shared experience of those in detention. I used therapy to discuss my sense of loneliness and frustration with my parents for not making enough time for me and my brother. I also used the opportunity to talk with a therapist as a way to escape the reality of being incarcerated and speak with someone other than staff and youth. All of this allowed me to gain my confidence as I returned home.

I opened up to my therapist about my desire to advocate for young people after hearing of an opportunity to do so from guest speaker Scott Budnick. Upon my release, Scott Budnick connected me with Assemblymember Jose Medina where I interned full-time for 6 months.

Using the scholarships I got in DJJ, I enrolled at Riverside City College. I earned three associate degrees: humanities, philosophy and arts, social behavioral science, and communications, media and languages. Building on this foundation, I transferred to UC Riverside and obtained my bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs.

For a time, I was still viewed as the young individual who committed a serious crime rather than the young man I had the potential of becoming. I found myself trapped in the perception of being solely defined by my past mistakes. The stark reality is that too often, those working with incarcerated youth only saw them through the lens of their transgressions, overlooking their inherent potential for growth and redemption.

We need to change this. Through my own experiences, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power inherent in youth, their ability to reclaim their futures, and to evolve into competent, contributing members of society. It is my firm belief that with the appropriate resources and support, our society can harness the untapped potential residing within youth in detention facilities, empowering them to rewrite their narratives and become agents of positive change within their communities.


There are a few things that give me hope for California’s youth justice transformation. One, youths who are systems-involved today are guiding change. When I was young, I was able to push for real policy change and felt like my voice really made a difference. Now, I see other young people doing the same.

Two, when stakeholders throughout the system and organizations dedicated to supporting young people are able to have frank and open dialogue, it results in positive outcomes for both the youth and staff supporting them. In my role as an Ombudsperson Liaison, I aim to foster collaboration among probation departments. I know from personal experience that when stakeholders throughout the system talk to each other, it helps.

And lastly, the state of California is providing the necessary resources for the rehabilitation and success of all youth upon reentry, like improvements in education, vocational training, and behavioral health treatments.

Restorative justice works. With support, every youth has the potential to turn their life around and become contributing members of their community.

Miguel with his partner and two kids