The Washington Senate Ways and Means Committee had a packed agenda on a Friday morning last April. They heard from lobbyists representing realtors, health insurers, commercial real estate developers and school board directors about a range of bills.
They also heard from young men who don’t normally get to walk the halls of the state Capitol. They were there to give testimony on a bill that meant a lot to them.
“Good morning, Madam Chair and members of the committee. My name is Nashawn Cotman. I’m 18 years old and grew up in Lakewood, Washington,” Cotman said. “Today I’m here on behalf of myself, youth incarcerated at Green Hill School, and my son.”
Cotman and two other men had dressed up in suits to head to Olympia, leaving the place where they're normally locked up behind a tall fence. Green Hill School in Chehalis is a medium- and maximum-security facility for juveniles who have committed serious felonies, but they had been allowed to leave temporarily to meet with lawmakers.
The bill would allow many of them to stay at the juvenile facility until age 25 instead of transferring to an adult prison at age 21.
ADVOCATING IN OLYMPIA
In that hearing, and other committee hearings last year, the young men from Green Hill School came with carefully crafted arguments. They said juvenile facilities offer more therapy and educational opportunities. They said teens who commit crimes adjudicated in adult court should have the chance for rehabilitation because adolescent brains are not fully developed until people reach their mid-20s. And they spoke about their prospects for success after getting out.
“Without finding the root causes and ground zero of where our pain and anger started and finding closure and healing and forgiveness, locking up people and thinking that just the time and confinement alone will teach them to think twice before committing again is a setup for recidivism,” Aaron Toleafoa told the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee. “That’s not what we want for our communities.”
Their efforts paid off. The bill passed and Gov. Jay Inslee signed it in May 2019.
These young men have come a long way in their lives. Many at Green Hill grew up in chaotic homes marked by domestic violence, drug use and poverty. Some were involved with gangs. The crimes that brought some of them here include murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery and they say they’re not proud of what they've done. But they're trying to work toward a more productive future.
Christian Salazar, 19, has been incarcerated for about two years. He had hardly any high school credits when he entered Green Hill. Now he's graduated from high school and will be taking a college sociology class.
He said he was never interested in learning about government before.
“I never thought I’d be doing this type of work,” Salazar said. “Now I’m interested in that. I want to do it. But before if I heard about this type of stuff, I’d probably be like – what? No.”
But now he and other young men are learning to speak up and advocate, in large part because of a program called Capitol Classroom.
ADVICE FROM A LOBBYIST
On a December morning, about a dozen young men at Green Hill stared up at a screen for a video-conference with a lobbyist in Olympia, Carolyn Logue.
“How are you guys doing?” she asked.
“Good, good,” replied the young men, who were all wearing baggy black pants and green sweatshirts and t-shirts with the school’s GHS logo.
Logue lobbies for clients that include the online school provider K12 Inc., as well as heating and ventilation companies. She also volunteers her time to work with young men at Green Hill. She helped coach them on how to advocate for last year's bill and one in 2018. Now they're focused on picking something else for this coming session.
Capitol Classroom is a program started in 2011 by TVW, Washington's public affairs network. Professional lobbyists volunteer to work with public school students across the state. Students in the Lake Washington School District pushed for a plastic straw ban last year. A few years ago, students in Vancouver got a bill passed requiring warning labels on cough syrup.
“They really learn how the legislative process works and how to make their voice heard,” said David Johnson, TVW’s director of education.
For the young men at Green Hill, the issues are personal. They told Logue they'd like to keep working on juvenile justice reform, and they brought up issues related to the stresses some of them have experienced.
“We’d like to find out more about helping with homelessness,” Toleafoa said.
Logue told them there may be some bills in the works regarding homelessness but warned them that this session is a short one, only 60 days, and it's harder to get bills passed.
“Don’t expect it to fly through this year. It’s going to be a jam-packed session,” she said. “Most of the time you want to think of your projects as long-term projects. It takes a couple of years because you have to do the education.”
Toleafoa, 20, said he's gained confidence by going to Olympia. He's a tall young man who said he grew up in poverty in Tacoma. He said he lacked self esteem and used to hardly talk. He dropped out of high school, got involved with gangs and stayed away from home because he was worried he'd get picked up by the police.
“I was couch surfing, and then my friends got tired of my stay too long,” Toleafoa said. “I know at times I was sleeping at parks, behind schools. I was pretty much homeless for about three months.”
Now he thinks in terms of policy. Toleafoa said he'd like to create more of a safety net, so young people do not become homeless after they're no longer incarcerated. Toleafoa is now the chair of the Emerging Leaders Committee of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, based in Washington, D.C.
He and other young men at Green Hill have seen their advocacy pay off. The bill they lobbied for in 2018 also passed. Their work on that bill was featured in a documentary produced by TVW called "More Than Their Crimes."
“We’re here for Senate Bill 6160, a very important bill,” Gov. Inslee said at the bill signing. “This bill makes a number of changes to the juvenile justice system, both to line up with evolving brain science and to provide more discretion in sentencing youth.”
With big smiles on their faces, Toleafoa and three other young men from Green Hill stood behind Inslee as he signed the bill into law.
Salazar just recently got involved with Capitol Classroom, after watching his friends work on last year's bill. Its passage means Salazar will stay at Green Hill instead of moving to adult prison, and he said he was struck that it was his peers’ advocacy that helped make that happen.
“That’s what shocked me the most,” Salazar said. “They did this. They’re the reason why this is happening. I actually gave thanks to them, too, when this passed. Wow, I appreciate you guys.”
Salazar said he thinks it's important for lawmakers to understand the experiences of him and his peers, and what led them to be incarcerated.
“Honestly, I think it’s good for them to hear our stories and our backgrounds and to see that we’re also humans and we make mistakes,” Salazar said. “We’re not just ruthless criminals. There are reasons why. Sometimes you got to ask, 'What’s going on with that person?' instead of 'What’s wrong with that person?'”
These young men are still figuring out what they will lobby for this legislative session. But one thing is certain – they plan to be engaged in the process and make their voices heard.
It’s the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Today, KNKX Connects to Olympia, bringing you stories about Washington’s capital and how citizens can influence the direction of their state government. As the Legislature convenes, we’re taking a closer look at what’s happening at the Capitol, and life in the city surrounding it. To listen to all our stories, visit knkx.org/connects.