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Frankie Guzman’s Efforts to Restore the Spirit of the Juvenile Justice System

By Bryn Martyna

Federal Judge Thelton Henderson swears in Frankie Guzman.

Federal Judge Thelton Henderson swears in Frankie Guzman.

The story of Francis “Frankie” Guzman’s path to becoming a lawyer is so gripping, the San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a front page, lengthy article on his journey “From prison to juvenile justice lawyer.” Frankie is the most recent attorney to join the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) as a recipient of a highly prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship. To focus on any one aspect of Frankie is to risk minimizing the others. His remarkable path to becoming a lawyer, his personal perspective from spending years in the juvenile justice system himself, the goals of his fellowship project, his long term focus for his work; a look at any one of these risks dwarfing the importance of the others. And being pigeon-holed is not something Frankie is interested in; “I don’t want to be deemed an organizer because it’s minimizing. It is just one of the things I do.”

Much has been made of other things Frankie used to do, actions he knew were wrong, but were part of what he describes as his “search for dignity, respect, and honor.” The San Francisco Chronicle article goes into significant depth about his past. The extremely shortened version, which is almost certainly minimizing, is as follows. He grew up in East Oxnard, his parents divorced when he was three, and his father abandoned the family. When he was five, his older brother was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 17 years to life. In middle school he learned his father was in federal prison for drug trafficking, and by 15-years-old, Frankie had ended up sentenced to the California Youth Authority (CYA), California’s prison for youth, for stealing a car and robbing a liquor store at gunpoint with a friend. After being released in three years for good behavior, he still found himself back in CYA several more times before he distanced himself from CYA for good. Or at least until he was a lawyer and recipient of numerous awards, returning to CYA on his own terms – speaking to youth about how he got from where they are to where he is now.

When asked how he made it to where he is despite his experiences with the juvenile justice system, he chalks it up to being tenacious. As he describes it, “I kept looking for things I was good at; I came upon school, and most importantly, school activities like student government. They gave me some agency. I had no one policing me, but people giving me resources and support to do well.” By any standard, he has proven himself to be very good at school, and school activities. He began at Oxnard Community College, where he also began his involvement in student government. Ready to leave Oxnard, he then applied and was admitted at U.C. Berkeley. He thrived there, found a public policy internship at the Greenlining Institute during college, and then got a job as assistant to director John O’Toole at NCYL after graduating from U.C. Berkeley with a B.A. in English. He left NCYL for three years to attend UCLA School of Law, which he describes as “the three happiest years of my life,” and returned to NCYL in the fall of 2012 as a Soros Justice Fellow. The goal of his 18-month fellowship is to “challenge the practice of prosecuting and incarcerating children in California’s adult criminal justice system and advocate for alternative sentencing and local treatment for youth charged with serious offenses.”

It is not hard to get Frankie talking about his fellowship project and his vision for his work as an attorney. As he puts it, “I’m one of those people who just wants to talk about work all the time.” His focus is on “restoring the spirit of the juvenile justice system.” As he sees it, the juvenile justice system as it currently functions “is obsolete – it’s not really dealing with the ‘problem kids’, but instead is pushing them upstream. We’re running kids through the system who shouldn’t be there and doing them harm. The mid- to high-enders are the only ones who should be locked-up in the juvenile justice system.” Long term, he wants to be a part of achieving sentencing reform – eliminating mandatory enhancements for juveniles, and restoring some discretion to judges. He does not believe his idea is innovative; he is just trying to restore the system to what it was supposed to be in the first place.

While many working in this field may not have any first-hand experience with the system they want to reform, he has “a very acute sense of what the problem is.” Although his role cannot be reduced to that of simply an organizer, he has stayed involved with the communities he comes from and which he is trying to serve. “In the communities I work in, sometimes there is the same mom who has a child in the grave and a child in prison for killing someone. Why can’t we figure out something better than locking these kids up?”

As a Soros Fellow, Frankie is working to answer that question. He knows that it can be “spiritually crushing to work in this field” and that is part of what drew him back to NCYL; he wants to be somewhere supportive, and he also appreciates “the talent that exists at NCYL in litigation and policy.” He chose to begin his career as an attorney at NCYL because “John [O’Toole] has demonstrated that he cares, and people gravitate to NCYL for the same reason; they really care about this work.” In turn, O’Toole characterizes Frankie as “a rising young leader in juvenile justice.”

This rising young juvenile justice leader still feels some aftershocks from his time spent in the juvenile justice system himself, despite the many years, degrees, and accomplishments between him and his time in CYA. Even though Frankie passed the California bar exam on the first try, for a time it was unclear if he would be admitted to practice law. Knowing that his criminal history could pose a problem, he had submitted the “moral character” portion of his application over a year in advance. John O’Toole, Ramón Arias (Director of Bay Area Legal Aid), Frankie’s former CYA parole officer, and others all submitted letters of support. Still, the bar delayed his application. Only once Morrison and Foerster put together a team of lawyers to represent Frankie pro bono in his application to practice law, and submitted a brief to the state bar, was Frankie deemed to have sufficient “moral character” to be admitted to practice law in California.

He asked Judge Thelton Henderson, Senior District Judge for the United States District Court, Northern District of California, to swear him in. The courtroom was full of supporters: his mother drove up from Oxnard with one of his mentors from junior college, and virtually all of the NCYL staff attended, along with many other people from various stages of Frankie’s journey to becoming a lawyer. Judge Henderson praised Frankie as a wonderful example of overcoming adversity, and his obligation to be a role model to others. As O’Toole recalls, “there was not a dry eye in the house.” However, Frankie is not pausing for a moment to celebrate. There is too much to do, and one has little doubt that Frankie will let anything slow him down.