‘It just makes us worse’: Former gang member describes revolving door of juvenile justice system

ORLANDO, Fla. — For weeks, 9 Investigates has been digging into Florida’s juvenile justice system, a system that even those running it say is broken.

Those who have been on the inside tell Channel 9 there are few paths within the system that don’t eventually lead to prison.


“You can get a gun like it’s a cold drink. It’s cheap, too. That’s just how it goes,” said former gang member Wes Nguyen.

Nguyen said he knows the violence on Central Florida’s streets. Pictures of his life are filled with masks and money that serve as snapshots of a teenager falling in with one of Orlando’s many gangs.

Read: Prosecutor reveals proposed overhaul to Florida’s juvenile justice system

“I’ve been around it since I was like, 3 years old. And so I really did not know what was wrong or right,” he said. “The reason why I went out is because I wanted to have a family.”

Nguyen’s encounters police began at 13, and he was in and out of the juvenile justice system.

It’s a system where teenagers like Nguyen are cycled through in a system advocates call outdated and underfunded.

Read: State attorney proposes juvenile justice changes to combat youth violence

“None of us get rehabilitated there. It just makes us worse,” Nguyen said.

For Nguyen, the revolving door was filled with the same faces, fellow teens in and out, nobody getting better.

“You don’t teach us how to go find a job. You don’t teach us how to act. You don’t teach us almost anything,” he said.

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That continued until he was 17, which is when he was arrested for attempted murder and faced life in prison.

Prosecutors dropped most of the charges in a plea deal, and that would be a turning point.

Now at 19 years old, he said he is on a new path working as a mechanic and mentoring other at-risk teens.

His mentor, Eddie Willis with Stop the Violence, said it took weeks before Nguyen showed any signs of a breakthrough.

Read: Pine Hills teens: adults’ failure to adapt contributes to violence

“They don’t want to be there, they don’t want to be involved. And firstly, they want to do just get out. You have to just have the patience enough to stay engaged, to keep them engaged,” Willis said.

Nguyen said it’s an ongoing fight.

“It was a tough ride just to be where I’m at right now. And I’m still fighting,” he said.

One of the major problems with juvenile justice has been high staff turnover due to low pay.

It wasn’t until recently that the state finally increased pay for detention officers from $14 an hour to $19 an hour.

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Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.