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A Thief and Murderer Afraid to Care, I Learned to Truly Understand What Life Is About

Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.

BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.

She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.

True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.

My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.

Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.

Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.

“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.

By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.

Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.

Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.

Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.

Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!

Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.

Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.

We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.

The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.

Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

We Can, Should Hold Kids on Probation Accountable in Developmentally Appropriate Way

Marie WilliamsIn 2015, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, there were approximately 48,000 youth in residential placement facilities across the country. That’s down 55 percent from 1999, when our juvenile justice systems housed more than 100,000 young people.

This significant decline suggests that the push for decarceration of youth is working. Fewer young people are being removed from their homes and communities for behaviors that come into conflict with the law. What we haven’t seen, however, is a corresponding decrease in the use of juvenile probation to sanction young people for delinquency or status offenses. Over the same time period, the proportion of kids who come into contact with the juvenile justice system (whether petitioned or nonpetitioned, adjudicated or nonadjudicated) who receive probation has remained relatively static.

While this may sound like good news, these trends actually tell a different story. Fiscal pressures and new research are prompting jurisdictions to move away from incarceration as an effective response for dealing with most young people who commit delinquent or other offenses. However, increasingly, these jurisdictions are putting pressure on juvenile probation departments to perform almost all the traditional roles of juvenile corrections: to monitor, intervene, sanction, hold accountable and rehabilitate youth.

Given this multifaceted mandate as well as the overarching need to preserve public safety, it is perhaps no wonder that many juvenile probation departments and courts err on the side of caution by imposing restrictive conditions on the young people under their supervision. Every sitting juvenile court judge and every active juvenile probation officer would, understandably, rather not risk the safety of the public by showing leniency to a young person who may have broken the law.

The problem with an overly punitive approach to juvenile probation is that, simply put, it does not work. In his soon-to-be released monograph, “Youth on Probation: Bringing a 20th Century Service Into a Developmentally Friendly 21st Century World,” Robert G. Schwartz, co-founder and executive director emeritus of the Juvenile Law Center, and 2016-2017 Stoneleigh Foundation Visiting Fellow, describes the difficulty this presents for juvenile probation officers:

“They see themselves as monitor, enforcer, mentor/coach, parent, role model, change agent, case manager, therapist, and court representative. While some of these roles can be adapted to probation that is sensitive to adolescent development, these roles are often in conflict. Probation officers face the challenge not only of adopting a role or roles, depending on the circumstances, but on conveying his or her role to youth.” What we now know from developmental science is that there are approaches to juvenile probation that may hold young people accountable while still ushering them toward more productive and prosocial behavior.

The “graduated response” approach, now being piloted by the Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Department, in partnership with Naomi Goldstein, a Drexel University professor of psychology and Stoneleigh Fellow, emphasizes rewards and incentives for positive and compliant behavior, rather than merely sanctions for negative or noncompliant behavior.

It includes opportunities for young people to exercise decision-making skills and enlists them as partners in designing their own pathways to successful completion of probation, rather than prolonging it with unattainable or unrealistic behavioral expectations. Not only is this approach more aligned with the original purposes of our juvenile justice system, there is also growing evidence that it is more effective than overly punitive approaches to juvenile probation.

In Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington, the juvenile probation department instituted what they call their opportunity-based probation program, an incentive-based system that rewards probationers for meeting goals. Using a point system, the program provides young people with an opportunity to accumulate points, earn prizes and ultimately receive recognition at a graduation ceremony. Incentives offered to youth in the program include YMCA memberships, internships and the chance to have their probation supervision terminated early.

In his upcoming monograph, Bob Schwartz draws lessons from Pierce County and other jurisdictions, outlining several principles for reforming juvenile probation to comport with new adolescent brain science while still holding youth accountable. These include an abandonment of boilerplate conditions, a recognition of youth as individuals and an avoidance of harm to young people under supervision by not setting them up for failure with impractical restrictions.

Ultimately, jurisdictions must grapple not only with ways to revamp the processes in their juvenile probation departments, but also with how to change a way of thinking and a culture that may be more closely aligned with law enforcement than with a supportive social services model. The 21st-century juvenile probation department should be modeled on 21st-century research, which tells us that kids on probation can be held accountable, and can succeed, if we create expectations and goals that are realistic, achievable and developmentally appropriate.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Beat Within: This Is a Poem About What Causes Poems Like This to Be Written

Before I begin this poem ...
I'd like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence …
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
On September 11th 2001 ...

I'd also like to ask you to offer up a moment of silence …

For all those who’ve been harassed, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, raped or killed in retaliation for those strikes ... for the victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, in the U.S. and throughout the world ...

And if I could add just one more thing ...

A day of silence.

For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who died at the hands of U.S.-backed Israeli forces over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence ...

For the million and a half Iraqi people … mostly children ... who died of malnourishment or starvation as a result of a twelve-year U.S. embargo against that country … before the war ever began … and now … the drums of war beat again ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Nine months of silence
For the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer
Of concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors
Well they went on as if they were alive ...

One year of silence …

For the millions dead in Vietnam ... a people ... not a war ... for those who know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel — their relatives’ bones buried in it — their babies born of it ...

Two months of silence ...

For the decade of dead in Colombia ... whose names … like the corpses they once represented … have piled up and slipped off our tongues ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Seven days of silence ... for El Salvador
A day of silence … for Nicaragua
Five days of silence … for the Guatemalans
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years …

1,955 miles of silence …
For every desperate body that burns in the desert sun
Drowned in swollen rivers at the pearly gates to the empire’s underbelly
A gaping wound sutured shut by razor and corrugated steel ...

Twenty-five years of silence …
For the millions of Africans who found their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could poke into the sky
For those who were strung and swung from the height of sycamore trees
In the South
The North
The East
The West
There will no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains ...

100 years of silence …
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous people from this half of right now
Whose land and lives were stolen
In postcard-perfect plots like
Pine Ridge
Wounded Knee
Sand Creek
Fallen Timbers
Or the Trail of Tears
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry
On the refrigerator of our consciousness ...

From the somewhere within the pillars of power …
You open your mouth to invoke a moment of silence …
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut

A moment of silence …
And the poets are laid to rest
The drums disintegrated to dust ...

Before I begin this poem.

You want a moment of silence …
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
While the rest of us hope to hell that it won't be
Not like it always has been
Because you see
This isn't a 9/11 poem
This is a 9/10 poem!
A 9/9 poem!
A 9/8 poem!
A 9/7 poem!
This is a 1619 poem!
A 1492 poem!
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written
But if it is a 9/11 poem
It's a September 11, 1973 poem for the people of Chile
It's a September 12, 1977 poem for the Steven Biko of South Africa
It's a September 13, 1971 poem for the brothers at Attica prison in New York
It's a September 14, 1992 poem for the people of Somalia
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground
Amidst the ashes of amnesia
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history uprooted from its textbooks
The 100 stories that CNN, ABC, The New York Times and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem to interrupt their programs
This is not a peace poem
Not some poem of forgiveness
This is a justice poem
A poem for never forgetting
This is a poem to remind us
That all that glitters
Might just be
Broken glass
And still you want a moment of silence for the dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empties;
The unmarked graves
Lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children.

Before I begin this poem …

We could be silent forever ...
Or just long enough to hunger for the dust to bury us
And would you still ask us for more of our silence ...

Well if you want a moment of silence ...
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines
The televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights
Delete the emails and instant messages
Derail the trains and ground the planes

If you want a moment of silence …
Put a brick through the window of Taco Bell
And pay the workers for wages lost …

Tear down the Liquor stores
The Townhouses
The Penthouses
The Jail houses
And the White Houses

If you want a moment of silence ...
Then take it now!
Before this poem begins
Here’s your silence
Take it!
Take it all!
But don't cut in line
Let your silence begin
At the beginning of crime …

Jesse Jackson, 52, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at inocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Are Youth of Color Benefiting From Juvenile Justice Reform?

Within the scope of juvenile justice literature, studies highlight the need for both immediate and long-term reform measures. This is clearly pertinent given the existence of racial disparity in terms of treatment and confinement among youth in the United States. In fact, federal and state-level funding has been provided to address this dilemma during the past 10 to 15 years.

There are a variety of programs and policies that facilitate juvenile justice reform efforts. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has instituted a number of effective measures designed to reduce the use of detention among youth. One example is the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which has demonstrated promising results in a number of states.

Congress is currently reviewing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, which passed the House in May and was sent to the Senate. Certain components of this act will address either directly or indirectly the need for and evaluation of juvenile justice reform measures.

North Carolina finally increased the age at which a juvenile may be certified as an adult. Despite this needed change, implementation of this law may not take effect until 2019. After reviewing the 2016 Juvenile Justice Report as provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I noticed the following reform findings:

Between 2010-16, there was a 56 percent decrease in youth sent to detention centers and 48 percent reduction of youth sent to development centers. A 28 percent reduction in school-based complaints and a 37 percent reduction in gang affiliation among youth were also identified.  

The report said that compared to their counterparts, youth of color are more than 2.5 times more likely to have complaints filed against them and 1.5 times more likely to experience secure detention.

To this end, racial disparity levels (or the ratio of blacks to whites in terms of treatment in the juvenile justice system) have either remained the same or in some cases actually increased. This begs the question: Are juvenile justice reform measures exclusively beneficial for youth who are not considered “youth of color”? If so, this is equivalent to the “whites only” segregation-based ideology of the Jim Crow era.

Ultimately, let’s not assume that progress in relation to juvenile justice reform efforts is applied in an equitable manner. Just as there is a racially disproportionate number of youth confined in the juvenile justice system, there is also a similar relationship with regard to those who avoid such treatment. From this standpoint, the abstract and practical concepts of juvenile justice reform must be re-examined.   

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine’s University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”

Girls Need Safety, Opportunity, Not More Policing

The bad news about girls just seems to keep coming, particularly if you pay attention to popular media. Girls are going “wild,” girls are “mean” (and certainly meaner than boys), and girls are even getting as violent as boys. Current media coverage of modern girlhood, at least in the United States, is virtually all grim. It is also clear as to the source of the problem — girls are getting more like boys — and that is bad news for girls.

Despite widespread acceptance of these notions, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are incorrect. They also lead to bad social policy, obscure the good news about girls and distance the United States from the global conversation about girls and girlhood.

Let’s start with the media fascination with “mean” girls. The manipulative and damaging characteristics of girls’ social worlds have been the subject of high-profile best-selling books like “Odd Girl Out” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” These, in turn, spawned hit movies like “Mean Girls” and a slew of articles, like The New York Times Magazine cover story entitled, “Girls Just Want to Be Mean.”

Notions of “meanness” rely on psychological categories of behaviors that are intended to harm, but are not physical in nature; instead they rely on covert or indirect behaviors like rumor spreading, ignoring or eye rolling. Some scholars have suggested that while boys tend to specialize in physical violence, girls specialize in these more covert forms of aggression, an idea that the media immediately embraced.

However, the literature on relational aggression does not consistently support this notion. For example, University of Georgia researchers randomly selected 745 sixth graders from nine middle schools across six school districts in northeast Georgia. The student participants took computer surveys each spring semester for seven years, from sixth grade to 12th.

Key findings included the following. First, covert and relational aggression is extremely common; 96 percent of the students who participated in the study reported at least one act of relational aggression (meaning, everyone is mean sometimes), and 92.3 percent of boys and 94.3 percent of girls said they’d been the victim of such an attack at one point during the study period. Second, they found that boys admitted to significantly more acts of relational aggression than girls did. And girls were more likely to be victims.

Finally, and of the greatest significance, of the meanest kids (the ones who fell into the “high” relational aggression group), 66.7 percent were boys and 33.3 percent were girls. So, at least according to this study, the problem is mean boys, not girls.

But what about all the evidence in arrest statistics, in media stories featuring menacing images of “gangsta girls” peering over the barrel of a gun and in social media obsessed with the cheerleader beating up other girls? Are girls “going wild” and closing the gender gap with boys in physical aggression or violence?

Since the 1990s, there has been plenty of official evidence that girls were getting arrested for offenses that were not typically associated with female delinquency (like running away from home). Notably, arrests of girls for simple assault, in particular, soared at the end of the last century; one study of court referrals between 1985 and 2002 found a 202 percent increase in girls charged with “person offense cases.”

And even though juvenile arrests have declined in recent years, girls now comprise a far larger percentage of juvenile arrests than they used to. Essentially, girls have gone from about one juvenile arrest in five (in the ’80s), to one juvenile arrest in three (in 2015). Much of this is due to the fact that arrests of boys, particularly for offenses like simple assault, have fallen more sharply than girls’ arrests for the same offense (47.8 percent compared to 39.5 for girls 2006-15).

Juvenile court and correctional data reveal a similar theme. Since 1990, girls’ adjudications for person offenses have increased by 60 percent, now representing 22 percent of all youth adjudicated on such charges. Likewise, the number of girls in custody for a violent crime has also been on the rise. In 1989, 8,512 girls were in detention for a violent offense; 25 years later, that number more than doubled to 17,730.

What about other data on girls’ violence? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has monitored youthful behavior in a national sample of school-age youth in a number of domains (including violence) at regular intervals since the ’90s. Their data show that more than a third (34.4 percent) of girls surveyed in 1991 said they had been in a physical fight in the previous year, and slightly more than half (50.2 percent) of the boys reported fighting. By 2015, though, only 16.5 percent of girls reported being in such a fight, and boys’ violence was also down, with only 28.4 percent saying they had been in a physical fight.

In essence, the data show that girls have always been more violent than their stereotype suggests, but also that girls’ violence, at least by their own accounts, has been decreasing rather dramatically, not increasing.

To further explore these issues about girls’ self-reported violence and likelihood of arrest, two other professors and I used two national self-report data sets to compare self-reported behavior with self-reported arrests in two different time periods (1980 and 2000). This research found that girls who admitted to simple assault in 1980 had about a one-in-four chance of having been charged with a crime, compared to girls in 2000, who had about a three-in-four chance of arrest. Furthermore, black girls in 2000 were nearly seven times more likely as their 1980 counterparts to have been charged with a crime.

In short, while girls had long reported that they were acting out violently, their arrests did not necessarily reflect that reality. Instead, girls’ arrests tended to emphasize petty and status offenses (like running away from home or being “incorrigible”); by the 1990s, that had changed dramatically, as more girls were arrested, particularly for such seemingly “masculine” offenses as simple assault — and this pattern was particularly pronounced among African-American girls. But these shifts are in the behavior of those who police girls, not the girls themselves.

So what is going on? Misguided school policies (like zero tolerance) and relabeling of girls’ fights with their parents as assault have buoyed the arrest numbers, not changes in girls’ behaviors. And again, the impact has been most pronounced among African-American girls. As a result, in 2013, African-American girls were the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they were 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls.

While the media and policymakers in the U.S. have been fretting about policing girls’ meanness (through misguided anti bullying policies), and demonizing girls, particularly girls of color, for their presumed violence, the global conversation on girls has taken a completely different tack. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient (at age 17) of the Nobel Peace Prize, made history.

Malala’s story of triumph over abuse and violence began in 2012, when she survived a bullet fired by a Taliban fighter that caused a massive head injury, and she became an international advocate for girls’ education and peace. She was one of two recipients of the Prize for 2014, sharing it with Kallash Satyarthi, who campaigns for children’s rights in India and has been involved in rescuing trafficked children. They reflect a growing global focus on girls’ rights, especially their right to education and to be safe from abuse, particularly physical abuse, sexual abuse and early marriages.

This international concern about the extensiveness of girls’ victimizations and girls’ rights stands in stark contrast to the discourse on girls in the last 25 years in the United States, where both media and policymakers have been expressing concern (and developed policies) to respond to the growing numbers of “mean,” “bad” and “violent” girls. It is time that the United States joined the rest of the world in advocating for safe childhoods for girls, calling for expanded (and equitable) educational opportunities (building on the impact of Title IX) and offering them the chance for a bright future they deserve.

Meda Chesney-Lind is a professor and the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was also recently elected president of the American Society of Criminology; her term begins in 2018.

New Juvenile Mental Health Court in Texas Helps Youth Recover As They Are Held Accountable

Over two decades ago, as a favor to a friend, I walked into the very juvenile courtroom that I now have the privilege of presiding over on a daily basis. A racquetball buddy of mine found himself in need of a defense attorney for his son. When I walked into the juvenile courtroom to familiarize myself with the process prior to taking the youngster’s case, I knew right then and there that I had found my home away from home.

From day one, those alleged “juvenile delinquents” moved me in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. The young people in juvenile court are resilient, talented, unique unto themselves and capable of stunning greatness. They should not be defined nor stigmatized by the acts that brought them into the juvenile justice system.

That is not to say that they should not be held accountable for their choices. I believe young people will accept and respond to fair consequences and will react in kind if we set our expectations of them at the high watermark.

As much as I enjoy the daily docket, my heart soars in fulfilling a new role, presiding judge of the Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. SOAR Court was the brainchild of Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department. The theory behind this specialty court is that through intense services, court involvement, recommendations of a treatment team and community involvement, we can divert medium- to high-risk children with mental illnesses away from placement and instead keep them in the communities with their families.

In doing so, we can offer services and interventions not only to the child, but to everyone involved in the child’s life. Part of our mission is to build relationships between the court-impacted families and treatment providers and community resources so that when probation ends, the family is still functional and connected to local resources and assistance in their communities.

The children in SOAR have a diagnosed mental illness. Not to in any way diminish the impact of certain mental illnesses, but unlike many mental health courts, we focus on the more serious mental illnesses such as mood disorders rather than something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SOAR Court is not a substitute for children who are “unfit to proceed” or who lack “responsibility for their conduct” (Texas statutory terms).

No child should be expected to plead true to an offense if she does not have the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings and assist in her defense or appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or to “conform [her] conduct to the requirements of law” (Texas statutory definitions found in Chapter 55 of the Texas Family Code). The children in SOAR Court must be competent to enter pleas of “true” and not be entitled to the juvenile version of the “insanity defense.”

Children may be referred to SOAR by the prosecution, probation officers, community members such as police agencies and teachers, parents or the child’s attorney. The screening process is intense and involves a behavioral health assessment or psychological evaluation, application, interview and consent of the SOAR treatment team.

Once a child and family are admitted into SOAR, they will begin a journey involving individual and group therapy, family therapy, parenting classes, assessment and reassessment, participation in programs to develop social and self-advocacy skills, educational assistance and the responsibility of appearing in open court to articulate challenges and successes. In open court, each child and parent/guardian stands in front of a whole courtroom full of supporters and other SOAR participants to explain what events or conditions have been hardships since we last met and what experiences have been positive.

Incentives and sanctions are handed out in this open court setting. Such incentives and sanctions have been discussed and agreed upon in advance during a treatment team meeting. The treatment team consists of Ms. Prillwitz, a case manager, a probation officer, a state’s attorney, a defense attorney and myself. Examples of incentives include lessening of restrictions, praise by the team and the court, expansion of privileges and receipt of certificates of accomplishment. Extra community service, essay writing, restricted curfews and, as a last resort and sparingly used, detention are examples of sanctions.

SOAR consists of four phases. The first is orientation, assessment, rapport building and treatment planning. The treatment plans devised by our probation officer and caseworker are something to behold: very much individualized, intense and subject to review as the child and family progress. Stabilization comprises phase two of SOAR, followed by phase three, a transition phase wherein court involvement, probation and caseworker contact, and the intensity of services and counseling is reduced. The last phase is our aftercare and maintenance phase.

Our SOAR Court started on Nov. 1, 2016. Thus far no child has been removed from the court, and we have had one successful graduate. To call her a success is to diminish what she actually accomplished. Our first graduate progressed from being nonvocal in court to becoming a self-advocating, self-correcting, selfless member of her community — helping people in her neighborhood and church, and even block walking for a city council candidate. We see more such accomplishments in her future and in the futures of other SOAR participants.

So you might be asking what SOAR means. It means whatever it means to you and, more importantly, whatever it means to the young people in our court. The treatment team views this as a joint endeavor between us and the families. We do not propose to know all the answers, but we want to work with the families so that we can exercise trauma-informed care while focusing on strengths.

The concept behind Ms. Prillwitz’s vision was assuredly sound. Her implementation of this program was nothing short of amazing. The path to approval of and funding for a specialty court such as this is certainly not easy and involved consent from the prosecuting attorney’s office and approval of the commissioner’s court and governor’s office. However, it is all worth the effort. Now it is up to our treatment team to do all we can to help the children and families in our court SOAR!

Kimberly McCary is the judge of Denton County Court at Law Number One, Sitting as a Juvenile Court, and the judge of the Denton County Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. Before that she  was in private practice, specializing in juvenile defense work and serving as a municipal court judge.

Why the National Juvenile Justice Network Is Embracing Anti‑Racism in Its Youth Work

It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.

The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.

Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.

This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”

It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.

These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.

The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.

As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.

That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.

Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.

Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.

So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.

And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.

While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.

It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.

So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?

If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.

It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.

What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.

Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.

Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Arizona, Other States Need Resentencing Guidelines for JLWOP Youth

The current law of the land prohibits the use of mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders due to Miller v. Alabama. That case’s standards also apply to offenders previously given natural life sentences for homicide offenses because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. It is unclear, however, how these important changes in law will translate into actual practices.

Some of the practical challenges associated with these changes in law pertain to the interpretation of specific standards governing juvenile sentencing and release decision-making processes, e.g., transient immaturity, irreparable corruption and meaningful opportunities for release.

These standards address important principles identified by the Supreme Court in support of its reasoning as to why sentencing juveniles to life requires different considerations from adults: a) juveniles have diminished culpability because of their developmental and neurological immaturity; b) juveniles have more of a capacity for change than adults. Yet minimal attention has been devoted in Arizona toward providing decision-making authorities with guidelines for implementing these special juvenile considerations.

Twenty-nine states had life sentences for juveniles without the opportunity for parole when the Miller case was decided. Arizona was one of those states, so the 34 juveniles given LWOP sentences before the Miller decision need to be resentenced.

Arizona did not commute its juvenile natural life sentences to indeterminate-life terms of imprisonment as did 17 other jurisdictions. As a consequence, the courts in Arizona must implement the individualized sentencing process prescribed in Miller when the 34 become eligible for resentencing.

In the Miller decision, the court was not banning life sentence for juvenile offenders, but equated a life sentence with a death sentence, which means life sentences for juveniles now require the kinds of individualized determinations that are required for death sentences. However, a number of legal scholars have questioned whether Arizona and other states will implement the intent and spirit of the standards governing these individualized sentencing processes.

The legal officials who will participate in these resentencing and future sentencing procedures for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses are expected to take into account whether the offense reflected the offender’s transient immaturity or the juvenile’s irreparable corruption. While many expert witnesses and other consulting professionals are aware of the contributions of immaturity to various forms of behavior, there is a lack of credible evidence in the scientific literature on how to make valid recommendations about whether or not a juvenile is irreparably depraved or unlikely to change. As a consequence, lawyers in Arizona and other jurisdictions are struggling with how to develop effective strategies for presenting evidence to dispute claims of irreparable corruption.

The Miller decision also has implications for how parole boards and other releasing authorities insure that juveniles are afforded meaningful opportunities for release. In order to address this new legal requirement, some states have developed specialized criteria for guiding releasing authorities in the implementation of Miller requirements.

Thus far, Arizona has not followed the lead of California and other jurisdictions that modified their parole procedures and criteria for determining a juvenile lifer’s suitability for release. Arizona has 74 juveniles who were sentenced to 25 years to life. They will be eligible for release by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under Miller, but not all of them will have access to legal counsel to assist them in making a case of their suitability for release. The availability of legal counsel in these parole processes also will vary from state to state.

In Arizona, the Arizona Justice Project is a nonprofit group of lawyers and volunteers who are developing strategies in conjunction with the Sandra Day O’Connor Post-Conviction Law Clinic and faculty and students from the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions (OODSS) in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University to assist inmates seeking release pursuant to Miller requirements. The Arizona Justice Project “reviews and assists in cases of actual innocence or cases in which a manifest injustice has occurred.”

The pilot project with the OODSS was developed to assist lawyers working with the wrongly convicted in helping them address their reentry concerns. The student social workers in this pilot program not only provide supportive services to inmates experiencing reentry difficulties, but also assist inmates at their release hearings by presenting responsive release plans that address relevant risks and needs. This strategy, employed by the Arizona Justice Project for collaborating with faculty and students from the School of Social Work, is an interim solution to a pressing problem.

In 2018, the number of inmates in Arizona who will become eligible for consideration for release will begin to exceed the capacity of the pilot project. This project and other legal assistance programs serving these offenders will have to make difficult decisions in selecting cases for their assistance. This is unfortunate because the release planning provided by the reentry team has helped assuage a number of concerns from the defense community about releasing inmates who were disconnected from family and other relevant supports needed for a successful reintegration in society. Clearly, advocates in Arizona and other jurisdictions need to push for funding of this and other kinds of initiatives to work on the translation of Miller principles into meaningful opportunities for release of juvenile lifers.

The pilot project has already produced positive outcomes in addressing reentry and release planning issues. In addition, it is demonstrating the importance of promoting similar forms of interprofessional training with a focus on principles of holistic defense in sentencing juveniles from indigent backgrounds to a LWOP sentence. Indeed, similar interprofessional training programs are needed for preparing social workers and lawyers in the sentencing of juveniles in states that have maintained LWOP sentences for irreparably corrupt youth.

Thus far, the federal government and most states have not identified special funding for the purposes of training releasing authorities, lawyers, judges and other professionals in how to develop effective strategies for responding to Miller requirements. An equally important concern is in the future sentencing of juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. For these youth, they deserve to have their judges have clear guidelines for interpreting Miller standards. These youth also should have public defenders and mitigation specialists who have access to the kinds of training and supports currently available to mitigation professionals in capital cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court is requiring that given the seriousness of LWOP sentences that practitioners must connect the seriousness of a youth’s offense to special circumstances of youth. In order to avoid claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in these matters, the juvenile justice community must take affirmative steps to make sure that lawyers and mitigation specialists are prepared to develop and present evidence of “transient immaturity” in making a case for leniency when youth are convicted of heinous offenses.

José B. Ashford is a professor of social work and doctoral program in sociology. He is also the director of the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions and of the graduate certificate on criminal sentencing and sentencing advocacy. He is an affiliate faculty member in the schools of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Program on Law and Behavioral Science, and School of Justice and Social Inquiry.

Shackling People in Court is Shameful, Unnecessary Legacy of Slavery

Elizabeth ClarkeU.S. states are rapidly removing Confederate statues, symbols of racial oppression. But there is another holdover from slavery that is prevalent in our society today — the routine use of shackling persons using handcuffs, leg irons and other hardware to confine individuals in the justice system.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to view a felony appellate courtroom in Casablanca, Morocco. These were appeals by people imprisoned for felony offenses who were asking the court to reduce their sentences. The people who were appealing — appellants — were brought in from prison and sat on benches behind a wooden screen. Their families sat on the other side of the court. One by one, the appellants were led to the front of the courtroom and directly addressed the judges, standing with dignity next to their lawyers.

What was remarkable was the fact that every person who stepped up to appeal their sentence was dressed in street clothes and unshackled. They stood respectfully before the appellate justices and were free to consult with their lawyers without the degradation of handcuffs, of leg irons, of belly chains and of prison uniforms.

The court resembled a U.S. traffic or civil court — not a felony criminal court.

The lack of prison uniforms and shackles dramatically changed the tone of the proceedings, serving as a reminder of the essential dignity of each of the persons appealing their sentence.

We observed a case of a young man in his early 20s appealing a 10-year sentence in a drug case. He was free to confer with his lawyer and to respond to questions by the court, without the interference of shackles on his hands or legs. The fact that he wore street clothes, not a prison uniform, served as an additional equalizer. A person who appears respectful and dignified in street clothes standing freely before the court seems a more likely candidate for early release from prison than a person in a prison uniform and shackled. The court subsequently reduced his sentence to four years.

In the United States, even children who are accused of a crime and confined in detention/prison appear in court in prison clothing and shackled with handcuffs. Leg irons and belly chains are frequently used along with handcuffs. Shackles are used in court from the first moment of the case — even before the trial and well before sentencing and appeal. A campaign by the National Juvenile Defender Center has convinced several states, including Illinois, to ban the use of handcuffs and shackles on children in courtrooms — but these instruments of human degradation are still used to transport children from detention to court.

Corporations that manufacture the hardware have convinced U.S. justice system officials that shackling individuals is essential for secure courtrooms and safe transport. A few decades ago, handcuffs alone were enough — but a consumer market was then developed for leg irons and belly chains and states rushed to invest in the “necessary” hardware. Shackling human beings is less than first world — and the experience in the Morocco felony courtroom demonstrates vividly that shackling is not essential to safety.

The racial legacy in the use of shackling is clear. One of our former staffers discovered that juveniles are not shackled in her home nation of Japan. A Japanese academic explained that this is a uniquely U.S. practice that is the legacy of slavery, the current iteration of the former use of “slave chains.”

Indeed, while the practice of shackling children is nearly universal in urban courtrooms filled with black and brown children from low-income neighborhoods, children from families of means who demonstrate similar “criminal” behavior have access to mental health and/or substance abuse treatment centers that generally do not use human shackling hardware, except in short-term “crisis” situations.

Testimony at a public hearing when Illinois considered adopting a Supreme Court Rule to end indiscriminate shackling of children in court included emotional comments from a former juvenile court judge. She noted that the use of shackles on children was common practice in her courtroom when she first came to the bench, and she didn’t think to challenge the practice.

In retrospect, she stated that she wished she had changed the policy — she recalled the horror on the faces of parents as they saw their child brought into the court in shackles and the shame on the faces of the children. Another lawyer argued there was no “safety” issue, as his experience with children shackled in the court system and children with similar issues who were not shackled in the mental health system convinced him that children could be safely transported and appear in court without shackles.

Respecting the human dignity of all individuals, including those accused/convicted of criminal offending, is essential to ensure a strong civil society. The use of shackles on human beings in the U.S. is the legacy of slavery — today’s slave chains. It is especially problematic given the profound racial disparities in our justice system. It is time to end this practice and extend to all our citizens — especially children — their human right to stand unshackled in our courtrooms.

Elizabeth Clarke of Evanston, Illinois, is founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a coalition working to transform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.