Rebel Well: for those interacting with the justice system

This piece is part of Rebel Well: a Starter Survival Guide to a Trumped America for Teens and Emerging Adults.

If you find yourself involved with the legal system (including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or at protests), here are the most important and basic things to know:

1. Know your rights, ideally in advance. To the best of your ability, do your homework about your rights NOW so that you can consider them in your decisions. Ignorance of the law is not a legal defense: we’re responsible for abiding by laws whether we know about them or not. It’s also easier to feel empowered instead of intimidated by legal systems or other related agencies when you know your rights and to insist on those rights. Be aware that police are not required to be honest with you, and may lie or make deceptive statements to pressure you to confess to something you did not do, which is another good reason to refuse to talk without an advocate.

2. Utilize your on-call crisis team. 

3. Listen instead of talking. Listen to what law enforcement officers and people from any other related agencies say to you very carefully; that way you can know what is going on and be sure not to miss anything important. Do your best to keep quiet or say very little until you have a lawyer or other advocate there. If you say anything at all, let it be to ask for that person. After they arrive is when it’s in your better interest to talk, based on their advice.

4. Ask for legal representation. No matter what, let this be your mantra: “I want a lawyer.” Or, in the event that your parents or guardians hired a lawyer for you and you do not want that one or a lawyer assigned to you, say, “I want my own lawyer.” You have a right to a lawyer, and your own lawyer. Say it as many times as you need to until you get one.

5. Always assume that you have rights, power, and agency, and always ask for them. Sometimes you won’t have some rights, power, or agency, and sometimes when you ask for any of these things you will be declined. But operate from a place of assuming you have all the rights, and gently but firmly insist on them.

6. Be patient. Impatience can seriously mess you up in any part of the legal system. When we get impatient, we tend to get more reactive, more irritable, less careful; most often we tend to start behaving more and more badly. This isn’t about judgment: behaving badly here can really endanger you. Feeling upset or frustrated with the justice system or about a crime is certainly understandable, but do your best to try to stay (or at least act) patient.

Reporting crimes: If you are marginalized, figuring out whether or not to report may be even more complicated than in the past. This is especially true in the case of crimes you think law enforcement may be dismissive about, like sexual assault, abuse, or hate crimes.

The basic question to ask yourself is really just this: do I feel I will be safer if I report, or if I don’t? If it’s clearly one or the other, go with the one that flashes “safety.” If you’re on the fence, do a quick pros and cons list, or ask someone you trust. Remember: reporting should be about what you feel is best for you and what you can handle. You are not required to report crimes against you, nor are you ever responsible for what your attacker does to someone else.

If you report, ask for a victim’s advocate from the start, no matter what. That will always increase your safety. You can also ask for a contact with a victim’s service of specific crimes, such as calling or asking for a representative from a local rape crisis center, DV shelter, religious community, or queer or trans organization. You can wait to file a report until an advocate arrives.

Know that if you don’t report, you may still be able to get care and support through services for victims. What won’t likely change in the coming months or years is that organizations made of and to serve vulnerable people totally understand the choices people make around decisions to report.

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