Structure from a chaotic beginning
Our interactions became limited. I’d find food outside my bedroom door. The silence lasted for what would ultimately become a decade. In a way, her silence encouraged me to find my own voice and to use it. I began to advocate for myself, and I moved to New York City to live with my father at the age of 14.
My father’s behavior vacillated between genial and hostile. His constant threats of physical abuse were met with my threats to involve law enforcement. Throughout our tenuous stalemate, until I turned 18, my name was no longer Shane but rather some derisive homophobic moniker. Still, the noise was preferable to silence.
I enrolled myself in a high school, where I was encouraged to apply to the Center for Court Innovation’s Youth Justice Board that exposed high school students to the justice system. This provided opportunities to meet attorneys and judges in situations where I wasn’t being represented by or appearing before them. I was inspired by their sense of purpose and loyalty to helping people they had never met. This sparked my desire to pursue a career in law.
With this new sense of purpose aligned with the YJB, I gained confidence. I accepted my sexual orientation without shame. My relationship with my father felt détente until I came home the night of my 18th birthday to find that the locks had been changed.
Later, I returned to my father’s house to claim my belongings. My father answered the door and refused to let me in. I called the police. When they arrived, my father argued, “He can’t take any of it. I bought it all.” To which I calmly rebutted, “Those were gifts.”
My moment of self-advocacy was validated when the officers told my father, “If they were gifts, then you have to take it up in civil court. He’s free to get his stuff.”
I set out on a bureaucratic scavenger hunt to gather the legal documents required to qualify for employment, shelter, college, emergency resources and financial aid.
I entered a youth shelter and endured for a month before opting to sleep on the subway. I kept myself busy with school, work and drop-in centers. After my high school graduation ceremony, a dark reality became apparent: I was homeless. As fear set in, my pride capitulated, and I admitted my situation to close friends who immediately offered a place to stay.
I tried enrolling in college but quickly learned that financial aid was dependent on my father’s income. I went to an organization where attorneys used a federal regulation to draft a dependency override letter that explained my constructive abandonment. That letter provided me with the ability to apply for financial aid through college and law school. It was an annual reminder of the impact of effective advocacy.
Eventually, my sister was exonerated, and the outcome of the experience challenged my bias toward law enforcement, as opposed to criminal justice overall. For my first legal internship, I worked at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, combining legal analysis with data to inform policy. I researched the collateral consequences of low-level marijuana arrests and demonstrated that even the act of an arrest, absent any adjudication, could have a profound impact on a defendant’s immigration, financial aid, credit and a slew of other consequences.
The broken windows model of policing operated under an assumption that deferred adjudications were harmless. However, precedent demonstrated otherwise for some of the 51,000 people annually arrested for marijuana possession in NYC. These findings resonated with my supervisors, and the city altered its arrest policy later that year.
Earlier, I experienced how the law’s intervention can provide safety and escape. Later, I learned the justice system isn’t always just, but through legal review, analysis and data we can steer it in the right direction.
Today, I reflect on how the justice system shaped me and my family and hope the progress and improvements I contribute throughout my career will provide similar securities and justice to families who need help.
Correction“Structure from a Chaotic Beginning,” June, should have referred to the arrest of Shane Correia’s sister and brother on murder charges. Due to an editing error, the text identified his brother-in-law.
The Journal regrets the error.
Shane Correia is associate director of strategic partnerships at the Center for Court Innovation, where he helps promote new thinking about reducing crime and incarceration and strengthening public trust in justice.
My Path to Law celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories. Read more #mypathtolaw s stories on Twitter, where the hashtag was created by Exeter University lecturer Matthew Channon.