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Meet the Fellows: Chaz Arnett

November 3, 2014
Zoe Schein

This month we spoke with Chaz Arnett, an assistant public defender in the Juvenile Court Division of Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender. Chaz is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in juvenile justice reform?

I’ve been interested in criminal justice issues since I was young. I grew up in Baltimore and I had more opportunities than I wanted to see how the criminal justice system negatively impacted neighborhoods, communities, and families on an almost daily basis. It was constantly there—through police occupation of the neighborhood, people in my community getting arrested, others coming in and out of court, talking about cases.

Having all of those experiences as a young kid really colored my reality from both sides: having had people in my family murdered (by others, as well as by the police), I came into the criminal justice system as part of a family that was victimized, but also having family and friends caught up in the system from having committed, or been accused of having committed, criminal acts. Even I was accused of a delinquent act when I was 16. I was accused of breaking into a car and trying to steal it, even though I had nothing to do with it. I was approached by police officers at home and forced to stand in a show-up identification. The complaining witnesses looked me right in the eye and said I was the one they saw in their car, despite the fact that I was at home baby-sitting all day. Thus the inherent flaws and unfairness in the criminal justice system became overwhelmingly apparent to me at a young age.

Having had to navigate those rough waters all my life, I’ve always been interested in the faults in the system, the cracks, and how to address them.

Before I was working here [at the Office of the Public Defender] my work focused on ending the school-to-prison-pipeline. Through that work, and interacting with advocates around the country, I realized how many leaders in the youth justice reform world—lawyers, advocates, etc.—had no real experience with or connection to the juvenile justice world. So you have a bunch of people making policy, doing research, writing papers, but they’ve never represented a kid in court, or been to a detention center, or sat with a family as they somberly wept and watched their child being shackled. That bothered me, and that’s what led me to want to gain experience in juvenile defense.

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

I want to create a course, which would act like a training program or legal practicum, for law students to prepare them to be effective advocates in combating the school-to-prison-pipeline. My plan is to devise a description for the course, gather the readings, outline the seminar sessions, basically to plan the entire course out. Once I have that course, I can shop it around as something to be taught at a law school or used as part of an overall training curriculum for workshops or conferences.

I feel that the work in that specific area, the school-to-prison-pipeline, is heavily needed. I’m also really interested in getting more law students and new attorneys, who are trying to find themselves and what they want to do, interested in juvenile justice work. Ultimately, I would hope to connect law students and young attorneys with local nonprofits working on these issues—get more troops on the ground.

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important?

I think this sort of Institute, this opportunity, is not only beneficial but also inherently necessary. I don’t see how the goals of this “youth justice movement” can ever be achieved without the real champions, young leaders from the communities most impacted by the negative aspects of the juvenile justice system, leading the way. That’s what drew me to the Institute. It’s not just, “Oh we need to have people of color in these spaces.” It goes beyond that. We need to identify young leaders of color who have exceptional potential within them, who have dedicated themselves to this movement and we need to support them.

The people who are in my cohort are already successful in their own right—so in large part it’s about creating a platform for those voices to be heard and equipping fellows with the skills, training, and opportunity to go even further. I think that’s a worthy cause and it contributes tremendously to the movement overall.

What do you see as the Institute’s role in a larger movement for youth justice reform?

I think that’s still yet to be seen. This is the fourth year, and it’s too young to say what the overall impact will be. I think just in this short time we’ve witnessed the fellows go on to do wonderful projects and step up within the National Juvenile Justice Network as tremendous leaders. That in and of itself is beautiful. However, I think there are a lot of people who come in [to the Institute] who are young in their advocacy and young in their growth. I think what we will see down the road is that all the fellows will contribute to the movement, they’ll be doing really big things. The drive and the ambition that they leave the Institute with will blossom into flowers that we never could have even anticipated blooming.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

I’m always advocating for youth justice! When I’m not, though, I like to travel. I like to go to different places, try new things. So when I’m not at home on the ground doing this work, I like to be somewhere else seeing the world.

I think when you are passionate, you carry this work with you all the time, and it’s such a heavy weight. I know when you’re doing policy it seems like things are moving so slowly, and if you’re dealing with direct representation work you’re seeing the kids every day, and you see the cycle: the same kids are coming back, the kids are suffering, and so are their families and communities. You have to step back at times and try to create some space, maintain your sanity, and keep your spirits up, to be able to do this for the long haul.

In my spare time I also like to read about and engage in work that’s connected to youth justice. A lot of people don’t place youth justice in the larger context. I’m big into international law and human rights. All the work that I’ve done I’ve approached from a human rights angle. I think of juvenile justice as a human rights issue. Shackling is a human rights issue. Being denied representation is a human rights issue. So in my spare time I do a lot of reading, attending workshops and lectures, networking with human rights advocates, and anything else I can do to try to stay connected with the human rights movement, because it informs a lot of what I do.



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