‘I studied law in jail – now I want to change the system’

'I studied law in jail - now I want to change the system'

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In the US city of Philadelphia in 2018, one in 22 adults was on probation or parole. Among them was LaTonya Myers, who was facing almost a decade of supervision after a string of minor crimes. But a reforming district attorney, who started work the same year, has been reshaping the system – and LaTonya herself has become an activist for change.

LaTonya woke up in the night to the sound of thuds and yells. Her mother’s boyfriend had been growing increasingly abusive and unstable, and now he was dragging their bed out of the apartment and into the passageway outside.

LaTonya crept out of bed and saw the boyfriend shouting and jabbing his finger at her mother’s temple.

“I thought I could protect my mom,” she says. She picked up an aerosol can and hit him with it. He went to a payphone and called the police.

“I thought that all I had to do was tell the truth and they would see that this man was abusing me and my mom,” LaTonya says.

Instead, the police took her away in handcuffs and charged her with first-degree aggravated assault. She was 12 years old.

For three days she sat behind bars and cried the deep sobs of a child who doesn’t know where her family is, or what is going to happen.

“I remember being asked for my social security number. I was 12, I didn’t know my social security number!” she says.

Eventually she was taken to a juvenile court and given a choice by a lawyer: plead guilty and be released on probation, or go back to jail for another 10 days and fight the case in court.

All LaTonya wanted was to go home with her grandma, who was waiting outside. So she pleaded guilty without appreciating what becoming a convicted felon would mean.

“That experience turned my heart calloused and cold,” she says. “It was a wayward life after that.”

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