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CJCJ Fellow Tenoch Ortiz

CJCJ Media

Nestled in California’s lush central coast is the small community of East Salinas, in Monterey County, where I live and raise my children. This region, like many others, is reeling from a history of trauma, inflicted by systemic violence and racism towards the Latino community, including stark health disparities, structural inequality and an over-reliance on incarceration with minimal use of community-based alternatives. In response to these systemic challenges, local residents are rethinking the county’s approach to juvenile justice by engaging in community-based advocacy and embracing a health equity focus on community safety and rehabilitative services.

California’s justice system is far removed from the orientation and restorative methods embraced by the Latino community. We use indigenous practices when addressing justice-involved people, including community gatherings to discuss the importance of identity. This helps the person establish a social consciousness around systemic issues impacting our lives including food, education, economics and health. Recognizing the unique perspective and culture within our community, a grassroots organization was recently formed by local residents who have personal experience with the justice system. Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA) is advancing a movement for social change through healing-informed approaches grounded in critical consciousness and health equity.

MILPA aims to restore Latino residents’ embodiment of culture and indigenous practices by advocating for a health equity-centered approach to justice-based systems and beyond. The residents’ movement is focused on community-based violence prevention strategies to address the structural inequity and implicit bias that have created racial disparities throughout the justice system. This local work has cultivated an opportunity to implement an innovative and unprecedented partnership between a variety of system stakeholders, including law enforcement and the county board of supervisors who hope to develop meaningful alternatives to youth incarceration.

The foundation of the next model of juvenile justice will need to foster a partnership between city officials and community members. By strengthening the community’s understanding of youth social issues, this type of partnership can direct stakeholders to focus on future policies that are rooted in promoting health equity. In Monterey County, the juvenile justice framework proposed in collaboration with local law enforcement is a multi-faceted approach reflective of the community it serves and is supported by a cadre of youth advocates. It is an infusion of culture and sense of belonging that also acknowledges consequence to actions.

Top-heavy reform within the juvenile justice system does nothing to address, alleviate or heal the neighborhood conditions and generational trauma that persist outside of justice institutions. Such conditions and trauma are rooted in structural racialization, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity. These efforts today are often unconsciously subjected to biased views when dealing with youth of color, who are often overlooked and undermined by law enforcement, probation and other system leaders. Instead, the residents of East Salinas are implementing an approach rooted in the community’s defined best practices, such as La Cultura Cura and El Joven Noble Rites of Passage, developed by the National Compadres Network.

America’s demographic shift should give the juvenile justice field foresight and vision to re-think current practices and policies. Health equity indicators, grounded in cultural health, could benefit youth and families. However, such innovation cannot be complete if there is no invitation of neighborhood activists and formerly incarcerated people to the table. If juvenile justice reform does not shift towards community investment and engagement, then the history of systemic racism will continue at the expense of necessary innovation.