Ulises “Uli” Villalobos is a member of Oklahoma’s State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice (SAG), a position he has held since 2018. He also chairs the SAG’s Youth Emerging Leaders (YEL) subcommittee, a position that offers him an opportunity to improve the experience of youth in the state’s juvenile justice system. With the mission of representing the state’s youth, the subcommittee submits recommendations that address juvenile justice practices to the SAG board, which reports to the Governor.
Uli helped establish the YEL subcommittee along with several other board members shortly after he joined the SAG, with the goal of creating a forum for youth from diverse backgrounds to provide feedback on Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system. The subcommittee focuses on delinquency prevention, racial and ethnic disparities, and youth engagement. It is made up of youth with a vested interest in juvenile justice—including those with current or past involvement in the juvenile justice system—and professionals who support the subcommittee’s goals.
“We want to give youth a voice at the table. We’re not looking for mentors; we’re looking for allies. We’re not looking for people to lead us; we’re looking for people to stand next to us.”
— Uli Villalobos, youth member of Oklahoma’s State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice
The motto of the YEL subcommittee reflects the group’s desire to challenge the perspective of state leaders—“Nothing about us, without us.”
Uli’s interest in juvenile justice stems from his own experience. As a teenager, he was placed on probation on two separate occasions for a total of 2 years. Perhaps more formative was what he learned about the juvenile justice system when his brother was incarcerated. That experience left Uli with the impression that the justice system did not serve the best interests of juveniles—especially those charged as adults—cheating them out of opportunities to be rehabilitated and return to a productive life.
Those experiences with the juvenile justice system spurred Uli’s interest in law and ambition to become an attorney. He currently is a senior at the University of Central Oklahoma, and is scheduled to graduate this December with a B.A. in political science and a minor in pre-law. When his criminal justice professor learned Uli had previously served probation, she encouraged him to apply for a position on the Oklahoma SAG designated for a young adult.
Since joining the SAG, Uli has spoken at several national conferences about developing effective youth involvement in justice systems, including three in 2019—the Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association Conference, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice 2019 Youth Summit, and OJJDP’s State Relations and Assistance Division (SRAD) National Training Conference. At the SRAD National Training Conference in November 2020, he spoke about the approaches Oklahoma has pursued to connect with youth and promote them as leaders.
“You need to actively and genuinely want to engage youth,” he said prior to last month’s conference.
The YEL subcommittee visits detention centers, placement homes, and other facilities to hear directly from system-involved youth. The group typically holds one or more focus groups with residents and uses the feedback to offer recommendations to the SAG board for improving conditions and services for youth across the state.
The subcommittee addresses other issues as well. After the 2018 Juvenile Justice Reform Act was enacted, its members drafted language to amend state law to reflect a change to the core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The YEL subcommittee also submitted a recommendation to the SAG for the state to create a bench card for judges, district attorneys, probation officers, and other court staff with information about the protections provided for juveniles, such as the four core requirements, included in the JJDPA.
“It’s very satisfying to me to know that the work we’re doing is providing a better experience for youth,” Uli said.
In addition to his work with the SAG board and YEL subcommittee, Uli is working at the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs as a part-time intern. In that role, he supports the agency’s effort to ensure the state is complying with the core protections of the JJDPA. He also works as a systems improvement specialist, crafting recommendations for the agency to carry out its compliance, grant monitoring, and probation services activities more effectively, and improve its support for the youth it serves.