Home News Center YJLI Fellow Sheba Williams Advocates for Second Chances and Keeping Black and Brown Youth from Entering the System

YJLI Fellow Sheba Williams Advocates for Second Chances and Keeping Black and Brown Youth from Entering the System

March 25, 2019
Courtney McSwain


Sheba Williams is a 2018-2019 Youth Justice Leadership Institute Fellow and Executive Director of 
Nolef Turns Inc., a Richmond, Virginia nonprofit organization that provides re-entry services for adults who have justice involvement. In late 2018, Nolef Turns Inc. began developing The Institute of Forgiveness to offer much-needed services to youth in detention centers, those with incarcerated parents or those expelled from school. Because the issues faced by youth involved with the justice system vary significantly from those of adults, Williams felt the need to create a specific set of programs to address youth needs in the hopes of keeping them out of the system altogether. Moreover, her personal experience with the justice system allows her to relate to the youth she supports uniquely and powerfully. 

What got you into youth justice reform? 

Nolef Turns Inc. works with adults in Virginia who have felony convictions. However, in doing so, we began to encounter a lot of youth who came to us needing services like housing or employment. For instance, there is a huge influx of kids who are homeless just because they've been through the juvenile system and often, they can't go back to their parent's apartment if they live in public housing. We've had many kids reach out to us to help them figure out what to do once they come from a detention center, or they share how they are treated in school because they were in a facility. There are also those who have an incarcerated parent or parents, and because of that, they are expected to be the adult or the head of household when that parent is absent. 

Youth needs came up so often through phone calls and people reaching out for services that we felt like we needed a separate arm dedicated to them. That’s how the Institute of Forgiveness came about.  

What propelled you to want to participate in YJLI? 

While mentoring youth at various detention centers, I talk to the kids to learn what they feel they need to be successful. One day, I asked a group of kids what they thought would have prevented them from being in a detention center, and their responses were basic things like having a support system or not having to play the role of an adult in the household. 

When they realized I have lived experience with the juvenile and adult justice systems, they became more attentive because they felt like I could relate to what they were going through. After those weekly talks last year, we wanted to create a mentorship and trade program for kids that intervenes and prevents them from going through the system or getting further into the system. We want to pair them with others who have lived experience who can show them what they have to look forward to if they don’t make a change. We also want to provide those support services that they need to be successful.  

The Institute of Forgiveness is your YJLI advocacy project? 

That’s right. We’re focusing specifically on PRE-entry services for youth with justice involvement and court involvement, as well as, reaching youth whose parents are incarcerated. There’s a focus on all of the collateral consequences surrounding a felony and letting these kids know before they commit an offense how it would ruin their lives. We’re trying to keep kids out of locked facilities because taking a child away from their environment to a place where they are not surrounded by people who love and support them— ultimately pushes them into the adult system. We also want to offer them trade programs so they can make money and gain a skill. 

What motivates you? 

Knowing people do change and are worthy of a second chance, even in the face of so much adversity, motivates me. It means a lot that I've been one of those people in the detention centers. I've been incarcerated, and I have a felony conviction. I've dealt with every aspect of the justice system—from being a child who had parents who were incarcerated, to getting put out of school when I was younger, to being convicted wrongfully. I've been in everybody's shoes. All of that pushes me to fight for others—just knowing that people are worthy of a second chance and worthy of redemption. 

What’s your dream youth justice vision? 

The dream is getting rid of the locked facilities altogether and alleviating the racial disparities in policing, arresting and sentencing our kids. When I go into the detention centers in most of the localities in Virginia, 90 to 95 percent of the youth are black and brown, yet our state's diversion program reaches mostly white kids. I'm wondering if the information [about diversion programs] is just not passed onto our kids. We're trying to put more resources in the community to prevent kids from even going into these facilities. That is the only resolve that I can see because once they get caught up in that system, it is hard to get out. So, the dream our dream and focus - is PRE-entry and keeping as many kids from going into the system as possible. 


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