She Turned Her Life Around – Incarceration Spurs Change

May 12, 2008

By Jennifer Gentile  |  The Reporter  —  

Amanda Bell's life as a young adult was on a downward spiral. Now almost 27, the Vaca- ville resident was candid about past mistakes and her subsequent turnaround. She also openly acknowledged coming from a dysfunctional family and being a victim of molestation.

"I was just always extremely angry," she said. "I think it was because I didn't understand the things that had happened to me." When she was barely into adolescence, Bell began bullying other students and abusing drugs and alcohol.

At age 12, she started smoking marijuana, and within a few years, she had developed an addiction to crank. At 17, she committed an ATM robbery at gunpoint and was caught within minutes.

The crime "wasn't to hurt anybody," she said, but rather to get money for drugs.

"I was going to do what I wanted, regardless," Bell said. "I didn't care about getting in trouble."

Her life changed on Jan. 20, 1999 – which she recalled as "the day I got locked up." She was sentenced to 2 1/2 years at the California Youth Authority facility in Ventura County.

"My first two years in there, I acted out," she said. "It was the first time since I was 12 that I was sober. I didn't know how to deal with anything I was feeling inside." As a penalty for her uncooperative behavior, authorities tacked on another 2 1/2 years to her sentence.

Bell later would call her incarceration at CYA "the best thing that ever happened to me." She took part in counseling and treatment groups and earned her high school diploma.

Today, she is gainfully employed, married and the mother of a 2-year-old son. She said her life would look much different if she had been tried as an adult and did time in an adult facility.

"I don't think I would be where I am today if I had gone to prison," she said. "It worked for me. It doesn't work for everybody, but it worked for me."

Protecting youth in the justice system is the premise of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, which is up for re-authorization in Congress. The law, according to Media Director Eric Solomon with the Campaign for Youth Justice, "has worked for (more than) 30 years to ensure youth are not placed in adult jails." The Washington, D.C.-based campaign works to end the trying, sentencing and incarceration of youth under 18 in the criminal justice system.

In Solano County, "we make every attempt to use the Juvenile Court for juvenile offenders," District Attorney David Paulson said via e-mail.

"Only when the offender and/or the crime is of such magnitude that rehabilitation is an unlikely and/or unwarranted option do we file the case in adult court," he added.

On the whole, Paulson said the act has been "very helpful."

"It has forced jurisdictions across the country to address juvenile justice policy, to look at how the system works and identify flaws in the system."

In a letter to several congressmen, including George Miller, D-Solano, Attorney Sue Burrell with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center pointed out areas "in which the JJDA needs to be strengthened and the loopholes closed."

For one, she claimed that in some states, youth who are truant from school or who run away from home can be locked up when their "offense' is bootstrapped into the crime of contempt." She also alleged that jails find ways to get around the requirement of "sight and sound" separation of children from adults – like using window shades as barriers when a juvenile is in a holding cell.