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A Judge Saw Potential, and Saved My Life

April 5, 2017

I was 15 when we snuck alcohol from a friend’s parents liquor cabinet. I was only 16 when I started smoking marijuana, and eventually, I tried this little pain pill the doctors prescribed.

I never thought I’d lose the honors classes, sports, friendships—my future—to heroin, but by 17 I had.

It was an early winter morning when I was arrested in my kitchen, with my broken-hearted parents watching. I had 27 felony charges, countless misdemeanors, and warrants in four counties for my arrest. I was, as many would describe, a delinquent; a criminal. I was also a kid breaking the law to support my addiction, and I went to jail facing many years in prison because of it.

I spent the next four months incarcerated with women from all walks of life but who had one thing in common: most were repeat residents of those concrete boxes and sliding metal bars. I spent four days in isolation initially as I made it through the acute stages of my opioid withdrawal, and another 21 days of isolation later on because someone on my block smuggled in a cigarette—three weeks straight confined to a cell.

Compared to many in my situation, I spent a relatively small amount of time incarcerated, but it affected me. I began to assimilate to my surroundings. The way I talked changed some; The things I talked about changed a lot. My perspectives narrowed and my tolerance shrank.

A Second Chance

This is where my story changes from other kids with a similar story.

Despite initial objections from the District Attorney, my attorney was able to get the court to agree to sentence me to drug court, probation and a treatment program and to grant my youthful offender status after I completed it all.

I spent the next several years of my life, not in prison, but in therapy. I went to individual and group counseling, built up peer supports and had mentors guide me. I went back to school and got a good job. I started to give back in my community, helping their kids struggling with addiction.

I met my husband and got married. We started a family. I paid off all of my restitution and earned an early release from felony probation. After four years, I was able to have my youthful offender status granted, concealing my felony record. That allowed me to get a federal job under a Department of Defense contract training thousands of our New York Army National Guard Soldiers on how to make healthy, low-risk choices around alcohol and drugs. Go figure.

Today, nine years after being arrested in my parent’s kitchen that morning, my life is transformed. I am a leader in my community. I am a business- and homeowner. I am a taxpayer. I have not committed any other crimes. I have no recidivism.

I am a young-person with a lifetime of possibilities to look forward to because I wasn’t discarded into the adult prison system, but was given the treatment I desperately needed.

I am a young-person with a lifetime of possibilities to look forward to because I wasn’t discarded into the adult prison system, but was given the treatment I desperately needed.

My outcome should be the standard, not the exception.

Invest in What Works for Young People & Communities

I don’t think I would have received the same treatment if I was anything other than a young, white girl from the suburbs. When America looked at me in that courtroom it saw potential, and that potential saved my life.

Our jails and prisons are full of young men of color who committed similar, and often lesser crimes than my own, but did not have the privilege of my name, or face, or skin tone.

These are young people who hurt the same way I was hurting and sought relief the same way I did. They have the same ability to overcome their addiction and their trauma but have not been provided the same opportunity to do so.

That is not okay.

Every young person should be provided with all of the help and support we could possibly give them to become the people they are capable of being because every single one of our lives is worth that much.

Why are we sentencing our young, broken, and hurting children to a lifetime with a criminal record? What good does that do? Why are we denying our children the treatment they need to heal? How can we continue to lock up our own kids and subject them to the brutalities that occur behind those bars?

It costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep a child incarcerated. That’s a big investment to ruin a young person's ability to get most jobs, receive financial aid, or even find housing. No wonder there is so much recidivism. 

Let’s spend our money on evidence-based therapeutic practices that can actually save lives, not further destroy them. You did it for me, with a lot less of your taxpayer dollars, and it’s worked out alright.

Please, Congress: let this be the year you reauthorize and fully fund the Juvenile Justice and  Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). It enables states like mine to enact reforms that bring our juvenile justice programs into line with what works. It keeps communities safer and helps young people get their lives back on track – and that is essential for the future of our nation.  It’s time to do what’s right.


Cortney Lovell is a recovery coach, addictions counselor, and national advocate. Driven by her passion to support individuals and businesses to reach their highest levels of success, Cortney launched a consulting business in 2016, WRise Consulting. She works with local, state, national, and federal organizations on recovery initiatives. She has helped develop recovery community organizations across the country and supports organizations to implement youth-guided practice, peer services, and recovery-oriented systems of care. Cortney is a task member on the New York State Governor's Opioid Task Force, a blogger for the Office of Women's Health under HHS, and has been a spokesperson for numerous addiction and recovery efforts.