Supporting positive youth development: Insights from a former ‘at-risk’ youth, now a Youth Justice Attorney

Frankie Guzman, Director of the CA Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law

Each year in the Unites States, hundreds of thousands of California children and youth are involved in the child welfare, juvenile, and criminal justice systems. A highly disproportionate number of them are youth of color. All too often, once involved, they are removed from their homes and communities, and denied the supports and opportunities they need to heal and grow into successful adults. Those removed from their communities often have suffered significant early-life trauma; but instead of responding to their needs, they are put into environments, like groups homes, juvenile halls, and prisons that by their very nature exacerbate the trauma. Drawing on his own experiences with poverty, abuse, and neglect, Guzman will discuss the myriad of obstacles these youth face, the impact of these challenges on their development and well-being, as well as what supports can help these youth transition successfully to their home communities and to adulthood.


Raised in a poor, mostly immigrant community plagued by drugs and crime, Frankie experienced his parents’ divorce and his family’s subsequent homelessness at age 3, the life-imprisonment of his 16-year-old brother at age 5 and lost numerous friends to violence. At age 15, he was arrested for armed robbery and, on his first offense, was sentenced to serve 15 years in the California Youth Authority. Released on parole after six years, Frankie attended law school and became an expert in juvenile law and policy.

Through partnerships with community organizations and advocacy groups, Guzman has helped lead California’s effort to reduce the number of youth prosecuted as adults and serving time in adult prisons by passing legislation that established Youth Offender Parole Hearings, reformed Juvenile Transfer Hearings, and eliminated prosecutor’s direct file authority. In 2018, Frankie worked successfully to eliminate California’s practice of prosecuting 14 and 15 year-olds as adults, prohibit California from arresting and incarcerating children under age 12 in the juvenile justice system, and secure more than $40 million dollars to expand pre-arrest diversion programs and deliver developmentally-appropriate, culturally-relevant and trauma-informed services for youth in under-served communities in California.