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Where No One Else Is Going

Doug Keillor ’99 founded Juvenile Justice Advocates International to fight injustice in Mexico’s juvenile detention system–because no one else is there to do it.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

February 14, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Doug Keillor

Doug Keillor ’99 is founder of Juvenile Justice Advocates, a nonprofit working to address injustices in Mexico’s juvenile detention system.

“If we aren’t there, nobody else will be,” says Doug Keillor ’99, with the clear-eyed realism and relentless determination that have marked his journey. Keillor, who earned a business degree at Bethel and followed that with law school, is founder of Juvenile Justice Advocates International (JJAI), a Mexico-based advocacy organization working for justice for juvenile detainees in the complex Mexican detention system.

His path began with much less clarity as a young PSEO (post-secondary enrollment options) student. “Coming to Bethel was an eye-opener,” he says. “All the activities, the study abroad opportunities…” Keillor didn’t study abroad while at Bethel, but the seeds were planted. After graduating in 1999, he worked in the business world, but found no sense of real purpose. In 2001, he took a risky step of faith, joining a Converge summer missions team to live and minister in Argentina. He calls the experience “intense, formative, and life-changing,” and it set him on a path toward a purpose he could not have dreamed of earlier.

Keillor married his wife Amanda and began taking graduate classes in international ministry. He continued to work in software marketing and sales, while also continuing to wrestle with a sense of deeper purpose and a heart for international ministry. As he considered the options, he decided to focus on what he’d always been good at—debate. In 2009, he and his family, which now included a young daughter, headed to Washington, D.C., where he began law school at American University. 

Keillor and his family were thriving in their new community when he accepted a summer internship in Bolivia. There, at an organization called Save the Children, his assignment was simple and heartrending. He conducted research in juvenile prisons, interviewing young inmates whose offenses were unclear—or nonexistent. “In Bolivia, 70 to 80% of people in prison have never been convicted of a crime,” he says. “The justice system was totally broken.”

It was another eye-opening experience for Keillor, one he would not forget. As he returned to law school, working in a public defender’s office for experience, he continued to consider how he could use his law degree to address the injustices he had witnessed during his time in Bolivia. He finally arrived at his niche, his call: addressing juvenile detention internationally.

With characteristic determination, Keillor applied for a Fulbright scholarship to do research in Mexico. He graduated from law school, took the bar exam, and headed south. In Mexico City, he visited detention centers, interviewing juvenile detainees and researching conditions and policies. When his research was finished, he produced a report with clear recommendations for the courts.

He also had a clear vision for the future: to see systemic change in the juvenile detention system in Mexico. With that goal in mind, he founded the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Advocates International (JJAI) in 2013. His team’s focus starts with working to change the justice system. They rewrite programs and legislation; they serve as eyes and ears inside a corrupt system, opposing common practices like extorting money from prisoners and their families. JJAI partners with Mexican government agencies like the Child Protection System, and recruits and trains young local attorneys to enact change within the legal system.

The nonprofit also works to mobilize and empower communities. They organize and assist parents of detainees in requesting information, visiting their children in detention, and posting bail. They connect with local churches to provide care packages to young detainees awaiting release.

Early JJAI efforts focused on Chihuahua, one of Mexico’s 32 states. There, 95% of juvenile detainees are boys, most of them in the system for petty crimes. They are usually poor. “There are no rich kids in prison there,” Keillor says, as he explains the systemic injustices. “If a boy has $20 or $30 with them when they’re arrested, they’re allowed to go free.”

The emotional toll of this heartbreaking work is staggering. Keillor and his staff have been in physical danger at times. They and their families face daily challenges and secondary trauma from the primary trauma they witness routinely. “I cry on the plane every time I fly back to Mexico City from Chihuahua,” Keillor acknowledges. So why do they do it? Because it’s something, he says: “It may be like bringing a Dixie cup of water to a person in the desert, but it’s something. We are doing something.”

Despite the difficult realities, Keillor and his team have made significant inroads. While there were 250 children in detention in Chihuahua when JJAI began, there are now about 40. The average length of time children spend in detention has gone from 290 days to 94. And JJAI is expanding, opening a second, third, and fourth site in locations in Mexico and Dominican Republic. Keillor’s vision remains as clear as ever: “We will go wherever there’s a need, wherever there’s an opening.”

Their research and advocacy have not gone unnoticed. In May 2018, Keillor was invited to present at the United Nations World Congress on Justice for Children, where he made recommendations and presented strategies for reform. Afterward—as always—he returned to the streets and prisons of Mexico, to fight for justice for those who might have no other hope. “We go where no one else is going,” he says, “because no one else is going to be there.”

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