RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — James Braxton went outside only once in the four months he spent in jail, and he ate ice chips instead of drinking water. He says he didn’t want to get used to a routine; that would have meant he was staying there.
It was in 2005 when he got a call from a friend after being fired from his job at a call center for fighting with a coworker. Braxton needed money, and accompanying a friend on a personal retaliation mission was a way to get it.
But things didn’t go according to plan. He ended up driving their car through Newport News, pursued by up to a dozen squad cars. Braxton and the three young men in the car with him were charged with possession of a firearm and larceny.
“I was almost laughing because I couldn’t believe it; I was almost in a state of shock. It didn’t really hit me until we got to jail and we’re there for hours in processing,” Braxton said. “It had already hit the news what was happening, so guys in there are treating us like, ‘Dang, y’all about to go down.’”
Braxton’s story didn’t begin with a failed robbery attempt, and it didn’t end when he left Hampton City Jail. His early years are similar to those of some of the youth he advocates for today.
He joined RISE for Youth — a statewide campaign advocating for youth justice reform — two years ago after more than a decade of working to better himself and navigate past traumas. He is now the group’s strategic engagement director.
Shortly after Braxton’s parents divorced when he was 9, his mother, Mattie Brisbane, was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the major traumas of his childhood was thinking his mother was going to die, Braxton said.
“That was a trying time,” Braxton said. “I felt like God spared her because in the times when I needed someone the most, she’s always been there. She’s always been there, always believed in me and always supported me.”
Despite his tendency to act out in school and high levels of frustration, Brisbane said she always saw “greatness” in her son.
“Even as a toddler, he was very smart, very curious, but he was bold,” Brisbane said. “One day I went to turn on the light, and the light wouldn’t come on. A couple of things electrical didn’t work and I started looking around — he cut electrical wires because he wanted to make his own TV.”
In his early high school years, Braxton said he was “one foot in the streets and one foot out.” The area where he lived at the time — Lincoln Park, a public housing site in Hampton that was demolished in 2016 — was known for crime, drugs and violence, he said.
“By default, I just got sucked into some of the activity that was happening,” Braxton said. “I gravitated toward it. It’s where I felt welcome, it’s where I felt like I belonged.”
As a 17- and 18-year-old, Braxton acted as a stepfather to his 23-year-old girlfriend’s child. The experience was toxic, he said, and the stress interfered further with his education.
“I’m thinking about how I’m going to get out of school to get to the WIC office to get this baby some milk,” Braxton said. “I’m now taking on that responsibility as an 11th grader in high school working two jobs living a whole grown person’s life. There was nobody I could talk to about that.”
When he was a senior in high school, the stress led Braxton to attempt suicide by taking a bottle of painkillers.
“I remember waking up in the hospital and just feeling broken and the weakest I had ever felt in my life,” he said. “I vowed to never be that weak again.”
It might have improved his situation, Braxton said, if he had had a mentor — someone he could relate to.
“That would have allowed me to feel open enough to have those conversations,” Braxton said. “And then from that, [have] some real, tangible, solid answers for housing and for food and for transportation in places where I don’t have to be system-involved to access them.”
By “system,” he means the welfare system or the criminal justice system. Most young people can’t access resources for necessities like food, housing and transportation until they’re “system-involved,” Braxton said.
An alternative would be local organizations working with the local government to address those issues, he said.
Braxton experienced what he considers a similar lack of assistance after he was released from jail in 2005. He got out when his $80,000 bond was reduced to $20,000, an amount his family was able to pay.
At the time, he spent all day, every day applying for jobs — it was “application after application,” he said. The opportunity that Braxton says changed his life was when he was hired as a pediatric dental assistant.
“But it had nothing to do with the [criminal justice] system, and the system had the opportunity to do that,” Braxton said. “That has to change.”
To Braxton, that job is the reason a judge decided to give him a second chance at the end of two years of criminal proceedings in 2007. The office staff and the doctor that hired him came with him to the sentencing.
“The judge was like, ‘I don’t see this often; I don’t see young men coming in with these kinds of charges and they’re doing the positive things you’re doing and making this kind of impact,’” Braxton said.
Braxton had taken an Alford plea — in which the defendant pleads guilty without admitting to the act — to his gun charge. After three years of probation, the judge dropped the larceny charge.
Braxton worked in property management for several years before he felt he needed to make a change and connect himself to his “purpose.”
He now advocates for improvements in the criminal justice system. In January, Braxton was part of a rally at the state Capitol that urged the General Assembly to reinstate discretionary parole, which allows prisons to release certain offenders before they have completed their sentences. During the 2019 legislative session, several bills were proposed to reinstate parole; none of them passed.
Braxton said he hopes “to be an example and mentor, especially to young African-American boys that don’t have examples of fathers or leaders in their home or in their environment.”
“I think that’s where it starts,” he said, “not waiting for the state or not waiting for the government to provide answers to neighborhoods and communities.”