About 15 years ago, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Jaclyn Cirinna had a clear vision. It’s written in her elementary school yearbook—the child saw herself in the White House. The adult Ms. Cirinna still does.
“Vote for me in 2040,” she says, completely serious. Now 25, Ms. Cirinna has a better understanding of the skills needed for a job like the presidency, with its round-the-clock demands and challenges. Ms. Cirinna has maneuvered many barriers in the years since elementary school, and her life has taken more than a few detours. She has learned to become her own advocate and discovered that facing hurdles empowers her—and she actively seeks opportunities to share that power with her peers.
Ms. Cirinna entered the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts at about age 13, as the subject of a Child in Need of Services (CHINS, now called Child Requiring Assistance) application—a request from Ms. Cirinna’s school to the juvenile justice system for help in supervising her. Later, Ms. Cirinna’s behavior outside school led to a referral to a Massachusetts youth diversion program (“the diversion didn’t work,” she says) and then to the first of many residential placements. Ms. Cirinna spent time in 14 different residential facilities. At age 16, the court deemed her delinquent and committed her to the custody of the state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS).
“I basically went through the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“It’s a little bit of a blur to me, sometimes,” Ms. Cirinna says about all the moving around. When the court committed her, “they actually apologized to me for not being able to service me.”
After being placed in DYS custody, Ms. Cirinna spent a few weeks “self-assessing” and thinking about what she wanted in life. Her education was fragmented, with disjointed lessons that did not follow the state curriculum. Ms. Cirinna decided she wanted an education—a real one, in a classroom with peers and teachers. To get it, she learned to advocate.
A “really strong team” from DYS—comprising Ms. Cirinna ’s educational coordinator and case worker—supported her efforts. When Ms. Cirinna entered high school, the administration initially placed her in a special program with other justice-involved students, separated from the general population. She petitioned, asking to join a “regular” high school class. She won that right. She also enrolled in community college—taking one class per semester. Ultimately, Ms. Cirinna graduated high school on time, with college credits and plans for a 4-year degree.
Ms. Cirinna applied to college and received several acceptance letters. She chose to enroll at Salem State University and attended its “summer bridge academy”—an alternative admissions program that helps students prepare for college life. She lived on campus, met with tutors, attended study sessions, and abided by curfews. The university “recognized that I needed a little extra support, and I appreciated that,” Ms. Cirinna says. She took four college classes that summer and received the William J. Wolfe scholarship, which was renewed throughout her college career. DYS covered her other college expenses.
Ms. Cirinna graduated from Salem State in 3 years—she even spent a semester studying in Italy—with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice. She says she pursued psychology to understand people and their motivations—she never intended to go into clinical practice.
Understanding what motivates voters will help Ms. Cirinna win the Oval Office, she says. She makes other decisions with the same end goal in mind. Ms. Cirinna served two 2-year terms on The Annie E. Casey Foundation youth advisory council, for example, and was youth coordinator for Performance-based Standards (PbS), an OJJDP grantee—experiences that taught her about advocacy at the state and national levels. Currently, Ms. Cirinna works as a project associate for Justice + Joy National Collaborative (formerly called National Crittenton), OJJDP’s training and technical assistance provider under the Reducing Risk for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System initiative. She has a consulting contract with PbS and also consults with DYS.
Ms. Cirinna speaks with confidence and acts with intent, identifying what needs to be done for justice-involved youth and how she can use her experiences to contribute to juvenile justice reform.
“I think when you’re in the system, it’s really hard to imagine past that,” she says, noting that she “reentered the community at least 20 times.” Justice-involved youth need to hear that their experiences matter—that they can derive strength and wisdom from the struggles they face.
“We’ve got to start telling youth what they can do,” she says.