Juvenile Offender Becomes Advocate for At-Risk and Delinquent Youth

A photo of Starcia Ague
Starcia Ague
Incarcerated for 6 years at age 15 on charges that included kidnapping and robbery, Starcia Ague is now a college graduate and leading a national crusade for reforms in the juvenile justice system.

Among other achievements, Starcia helped push through a law in the state of Washington that allows Class A juvenile felony records to be sealed, at the discretion of the judge, as long as youth have a clean record for 5 years after their release. The law, Senate Bill 6561, which passed in February 2010, ensures that juvenile offenders who have shown a sustained commitment to turn their lives around can apply for jobs, housing, and educational opportunities without being compromised by their past.

"I poured a lot of myself into Senate Bill 6561. I stood before the state legislature and recounted much of my life story," said Starcia. "It was an empowering and terrifying experience, but I knew how necessary the bill was to so many futures. . . . It is gratifying to know that, as a result, there are now more opportunities for other young people in our community to move forward and plan a happy and healthy life."

During this past legislative session, Starcia worked with students from the University of Washington's Legislative Advocacy Clinic to get another juvenile justice reform passed. House Bill 1793 restricts the dissemination of juvenile records by consumer reporting agencies in Washington state. Perhaps more importantly, the bill sets up a legislative work group to develop recommendations that would restrict access to juvenile records and allow records to be sealed without an order from the court.

"Ideally, the work group will call for the automatic sealing of all, or at least most, juvenile records on the juvenile's 18th birthday," Starcia said. "Prosecutors would still have access to these records, but it wouldn't put disadvantaged youth in the position of trying to figure out how to seal their own records."

A 2010 graduate of Washington State University with a degree in criminal justice, Starcia, now 24, works as a research coordinator in the University of Washington's Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy. She is working with Dr. Eric Trupin on juvenile justice reform and policy issues.

Starcia has participated in projects at the University of Washington and Washington State University to improve alternatives to detention for juvenile status offenders and to better equip detention staff and probation officers to deal with mentally ill juvenile offenders and their families. She received the Governor's Spirit of Youth Award in 2009. In addition, she was awarded scholarships to attend the Georgetown University Certificate Program to Improve Outcomes for Children and Youth Involved in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems.

While enrolled in the Georgetown certificate program in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2010, Starcia contacted OJJDP and came to the Office to share with staff her story and her perceptions about the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system.

"The collateral consequences of crime and record expungement are major issues, and Starcia's insights helped us to better understand the problems associated with reentry," said Linda Rosen, Juvenile Justice Program Specialist at OJJDP. "She is an extraordinary young woman who has made and will continue to make a tangible difference for youth involved in the juvenile justice system."

A photo of Starcia Ague with OJJDP's Acting Administrator
Starcia Ague visited OJJDP in the summer of 2010 to share her story and her perceptions about the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system. She is seen here with OJJDP's Acting Administrator, Jeff Slowikowski.
As a child growing up in Olympia, WA, Starcia moved in and out of homeless shelters with her mother, who regularly beat her. Starcia's father was a drug dealer and her mother was an addict who prostituted to pay for drugs. When her mother kicked her out at age 11, Starcia lived in a trailer with her father, who had a meth lab in a shack next door. She became involved in alcohol and drugs. Charged with six Class A felonies during a robbery in 2003, she received what is known as "juvie life"—mandatory incarceration in Washington's Juvenile Rehabilitation Authority (JRA) until her 21st birthday. At first, Starcia was angry and distrustful. She refused to communicate and lashed out often.

The turning point was a meeting with a woman in a Bible study who "showed me that there were people who had overcome way more than I had, yet they still had faith and hope," in Starcia's words. In church, she met a couple who became the parents she never had. They encouraged her to apply to a 4-year university and, upon release from JRA, Starcia enrolled at Washington State University.

"Receiving an education and having hope for a future was one of the most powerful forces for change in my life. I am convinced that opportunities for betterment, hope for the future, and mentors are critical," Starcia said. "If there is not someone to help juvenile offenders see their own potential and plan for their futures, then it is generally easier to continue the life they are familiar with—a life of crime. We all have the opportunity on a daily basis to mentor each other: friends, coworkers, family, strangers. You never know what kind of lasting impact you might have on another's life. Those of us who have overcome challenges have an even greater obligation to reach out."

In recognition of her determination and accomplishments, the governor of Washington granted Starcia a full and unconditional pardon in February 2011. The pardon obviates the need to wait until 2014 to have her felony record sealed.

"The news of my pardon is huge for me. It will open so many new doors," Starcia said recently in a speech at a fundraiser for the Center for Children & Youth Justice in Seattle, WA. "But I know that for so many others like me, their only chance for success is real and lasting systems reform."

Starcia was represented by TeamChild attorney George Yeannakis at her pardon hearing. He has seen the changes brought about by her tireless work and believes in her potential to continue to improve long-term outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system in Washington state.

"Starcia has helped educate our legislators on the many unintended and harmful effects of juvenile justice legislation adopted to address juvenile crime in the 1990s," Mr. Yeannakis said. "She will continue to work to rectify other inequities in the juvenile justice system to allow youthful offenders to gain greater access to employment and educational opportunities."