At Virginia’s state house, lobbyists are everywhere. They meet with lawmakers, help draft bills, and testify in committees.
But one day this week there was a surprising group of lobbyists: teenagers. And they’ve successfully convinced lawmakers to close one of the state’s juvenile prisons.
A small group stands in a corner of the state capitol’s crowded lobby. James Braxton, one of the adults, goes through their agenda for the morning.
“Our objectives are ending the school to prison pipeline... right?” he asks the two teens working with him today.
They’re with RISE for Youth, and they advocate against incarcerating kids.
Braxton and the kids set off. They’re here today to share their own experiences with the criminal justice system. They begin with Delegate Lashrecse Aird.
Because both these kids are 18 or under, and they’re sharing personal information, RADIOIQ has chosen to not use their last names.
Doug served seven months for a crime he says he didn’t do, having a gun.
“I had to actually like get incarcerated to get services so I’m here to say reinvest in more supportive environments and have more closer facilities, like closer to home,” Doug says to Delegate Aird. She nods along, asking what she can do as a lawmaker.
RISE for Youth’s lobbying helped convince lawmakers to close Beaumont Correctional facility, one of the state’s youth prisons. That was a couple summers ago. Doug, who has been lobbying with the group for several years, remembers it as a huge accomplishment.
“And I was relieved for the people that they were about to send there,” he recalls. “I was feeling bad for them.”
Since then, this group of teens hasn’t settled. They want lawmakers to continue to close prisons, and reinvest the savings in smaller therapy-based programs. They come back each year, pushing lawmakers to consider their experiences in those decisions.
Kidaya, one of the other young people here today, says it isn’t always easy to come into a building of adults and tell tough personal stories.
“But it feels good in a way, cause you’re telling them what you want,” she adds.
In seventh grade, Kidaya was caught with a stolen phone. She says she knows accountability is important, but she doesn’t think the judge in her case listened to her.
“It made me feel really small,” Kidaya recalled. “She was really short, snappy. She just kept asking me stuff over and over again… as if I was lying.”
For the most part Doug and Kidaya say everyone in this building is welcoming, and wants to hear what they have to say.
Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who works as a public defender and has helped kids like them, says nothing is more powerful to lawmakers than personal testimony.
“When you can actually put a face and a name with an issue then I think it makes more tangible, makes it more real and you understand the urgency of needing to address this issue,” Carroll Foy says, thanking the two as they leave her office.
But at the next stop on their agenda a legislative aide comes out, saying the lawmaker they had an appointment with isn’t available.
Kidaya shakes her head, saying this isn’t the first time this has happened.
“They’re too good to hear what we have to say,” she says.
Kidaya adds that advocating in this building can be hard sometimes. Doug chimes in, saying he gets tired of repeating himself year after year.
“Like don’t think you think they get it by now? Or should have got it? Two three years ago?” Doug asks.
Maybe if they had a kid in prison, he says, maybe then they’d understand.
Our conversation is cut short. Another aide comes out, telling them the next lawmaker is ready to see them. They head inside an office overlooking capitol square, ready to tell their stories one more time.