Long before graduating in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Hernan Carvente knew he wanted to dedicate his life to helping young people in prison. He was incarcerated at Brookwood Secure Center, a youth detention facility, when he was accepted to John Jay. “I wrote a letter to a friend saying I was going to John Jay to become an advocate,” he said. “I was going to help other guys get through what I went through myself.”
After arriving on campus, Carvente realized that despite their clear passion for justice, many students had little interaction with people who’d been directly affected by the criminal justice system. With the encouragement of Amadou Ba, a fellow student in his corrections class, he founded the John Jay Youth Justice Club. “I wanted to educate people on the realities of the criminal justice system in New York,” he said. “But all in all, the club’s purpose was to give back to the community.”
The Youth Justice Club quickly garnered broad interest, and in 2017, only a few years after the club was founded, Carvente spoke with James LeCain, the director of the Brookwood College program, which is the same program that helped Carvente get accepted to John Jay while he was still incarcerated. After that conversation, the Youth Justice Club was invited to Brookwood’s annual We the People debate, hosted in collaboration with the Center for Civic Education. It was the largest debate that Brookwood ever hosted, and for the first time ever, John Jay students participated. Coincidentally, they won.
For Carvente, watching the debate was sublime. “It took a lot for me to not break down in tears,” he said. “It made me think about my journey, from being incarcerated at Brookwood, to becoming a college student at John Jay. It was coming full circle.” Due to the event’s success, the club’s current student leader, Emily Bustamante, is now in discussion with the Brookwood College Program to ensure that they’ll be able to repeat the event next year.
With years of professional experience, Carvente is a valuable advisor for the Youth Justice Club. While still a student at John Jay, Carvente became an intern with the Vera Institute of Justice, and once he graduated, Carvente was offered a full-time position. During his five and a half years at Vera, Carvente served on various boards on the local state and federal level, including two boards he was appointed to by Governor Cuomo, as well as boards with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He also traveled around the country delivering talks on justice. “Part of my message was my story, and the other part was about not seeing young people for the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he said.
Now, Carvente works at the Youth First Initiative, where he builds youth-centered media campaigns that help to close prisons. He will soon be a voting board member of the Credible Messenger Justice Center at Hunter College, and is also serving as an expert instructor with Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. Throughout all of his work, Carvente is an outspoken advocate for community alternatives to prison. “When you place young people in a jail setting, you’re likely to get worse outcomes,” he said. “My vision is to give them the resources they need to prevent them from going into the system.”
Carvente fondly recalls engaging in lively discussions about justice in John Jay classrooms. Today, that passion continues to burn. “This is what I love to do,” he said. “I come from a background thinking that I wouldn’t make it to 21, and that I wouldn’t amount to much in life. So I can’t tell you the gratification that I get from helping even just one young person. Every success is a miracle and a huge accomplishment in my eyes.”