Home News Center William Bentley Uses His Voice to Keep Kids Out of The System

William Bentley Uses His Voice to Keep Kids Out of The System

January 27, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain

How did you get into youth justice advocacy work?

I was locked up and charged as an adult at the age of 14 and 17. I knew this system wasn’t correct and needed to be fixed and that I had to make it happen. Change starts with yourself, and I needed to start trying to change the laws that allowed me to be locked up and charged as an adult.

How has the experience of being a youth advocate with YASP been so far?

I’ve been with YASP a year and it’s been amazing. It gives me a voice and a platform to tell my story. I teach kids how to stay out of the court system and help those that do come into the court system navigate to get the best possible outcome of their case.

Can you describe your role as a youth advocate and the programs you work on?

I lead a youth participatory defense hub every week at our office. That’s a community-based environment where I teach the different processes and steps to help people navigate the court system. Usually when someone gets involved with the law all they get is a piece of paper telling them to show up. They don’t know how to contact their lawyer, they don’t know what not to say to cops, they don’t know the different stages within the court system. I along with other YASP members help them through the process.

This is the first youth-focused participatory defense hub in the nation. There are five other defense hubs in Philadelphia and others around the nation [focused on adults] but this is the only youth-focused one. The idea is to stop the “Central Park Five” case from happening again where you have kids saying stuff just to get out of the police station and ending up incriminating themselves for something they didn’t do.

We also do court support. We pack the courtrooms to show the judge that the community is there for the young person. And we create a social-bio video where we show the judge that the young person is a human being. The court system dehumanizes you and never addresses you by name. With this social-bio video, which we submit into evidence, we show the human side of that young person – that they are more than just what they are being accused of. We help bring the humanity back into the court room.

I go to colleges and middle and high schools to tell my story and teach kids how to stay out of the court system. I also canvas the communities in my neighborhood so that we can repeal Act 33, which is the law that allows kids to be directly tried as adults. And this year we are launching a restorative justice program to create a space where we can bring a victim and person accused of causing harm together to restore whatever was lost or repair the hurt that was caused.

How do young people feel about being able to work directly with you?

They love seeing me – even the parents, because sometimes I work with the parents if the kids are locked up. I was once where they are. Because I’m so young they see themselves in me and the parents see their kids in me. I’m not even two or three years older than them telling them that I’ve been there – it helps them connect more.

What gave you the courage to want to be so open with your story?

I always wanted to be a musician and show people how rappers and singers often paint this false image that we have to sell drugs in order to be successful or we have to take drugs to feel like ourselves. I wanted to call my projects “False Illustrators.” Working in youth justice advocacy, it gives me a different perspective of how the whole world is a false illustration, not just the music industry. Politicians say they care about kids but there are still so many kids being locked up and charged as adults. Using my voice and telling my story gives me a different way to show people are false illustrators.

Is there anyone you look up to as a role model?

There are two people I look up to. One is Malcom X, because – like I said with the false illustrators – he stood up for the truth about Islam and told people the way it was being taught in American was false, even though he knew it would risk his life.

The second person I look up to is Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. I just loved her because she said I’m not here to be president for blacks or president for whites or president for women – I’m here to be president for everybody. I felt that was amazing.

What is one motivational piece of advice you would share with another young person interested in youth justice advocacy?

As a youth advocate, you’re in a lot of rooms with older people and everybody seems to have a bigger voice than you. I had to realize that every voice matters and that my voice mattered just as much as anyone else’s. Even if you only say one or two sentences – your voice is important. That’s what I had to identify myself, and I would hope that any young people coming into this work would identify that sooner than I did: your voice matters no matter how big or small.

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