VEGAS LOST: From a childhood without a home to a career in law

Mahogany Turfley was a 15-year-old without a home. She watched friends overwhelmed with their situations turn to drugs and crime.

She went to college. Today, you can call her attorney.

“I was always interested in the law because I grew up in the system. I had my own experiences with the law and thought that’s one way I could give back,” Turfley said. "Not only that, but I could show people like me that it was possible, and for myself too. I have this dream, and regardless of what I’ve been through, it's still possible.”

When Mahagony Turfley talks about overcoming hurdles, you need to know just how big those hurdles were. We met the attorney while we were doing a story about drug-addicted and homeless teens at the Nevada Homes for Youth.

Turfley talked to us not as a lawyer, but a former resident. When she was 15, her group home closed. She was out on the street and found solace - and a roof - with the Nevada Homes for Youth.

“Anytime you feel helpless,” she told us then through tears, “when you see there’s no resources you can relate to that. That could be me. I used to do criminal law, and that’s why I don’t do it anymore. That’s how the system is set up. It's set up for failure.”

We wanted to know more. How someone with the decked stacked against them could become an attorney.

“When you make up your mind to do something and you have a dream, you don’t let those things stop you. You come up with a way to do it, and that’s what I did,” she said.

Turfley graduated from UNLV. She wanted to be a criminal lawyer but turned her back on that path, becoming disenchanted with the criminal justice system early in her career. She remembers it well -- shadowing another attorney on a visit with a client in the detention center.

“I say the system is broken because you go and you visit,” Turfley told us. “All you have to do is look around; who’s in there? Kids who got stuck in the system. Homeless people. People with mental health issues. So instead of having resources to address those issues, they put them in the system. They put them in the prison system. That’s why I say its set up to fail. Once they get out, they’re not taking medication and they end up right back in jail.”

Turfley says the focus should be on kids like her. Support them before they commit crimes, with an emphasis on drug treatment and mental health and programs to combat homelessness. “You’re not treating the root cause of the problem your just putting a band aid on the problem,” Turfley says.

She's now a civil attorney, and before she left us for a trial she gave some advice.

“Maybe get down in the trenches. Ask them, how can we help you? No one ever asks, 'How can we help?'”

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