image_pdfimage_print

Attorney General Sessions Would Return Youth to the Harmful, Ineffective Dark Ages

As I watched Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce the termination of DACA, I was reminded how President Donald Trump had duped Democrats into actually supporting Sessions and arguing that he should not be removed as the head of the Justice Department. Sessions’ announcement meant the end of protections provided to nearly one million Dreamers under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

A few months before the DACA press conference, when Sessions erroneously claimed that children brought to the United States by their parents were taking jobs away from Americans, Trump publicly criticized Sessions and signaled that he might be one of several administration officials on the chopping block. But fearing that Sessions’ ouster might lead to the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, Democrats caved and called for the attorney general to keep his job. Just a few months earlier, in his confirmation hearings, these same Democrats were trying to stop Sessions from becoming the nation’s top cop while reading the words of Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, warning that Session was a racist.

There has been debate about whether Trump is crazy or crazy like a fox. Though clearly showing signs of mental instability at times, Trump seemed to outfox Democrats with this move. Democratic and Republican congressmen called on Trump to keep his attorney general in place, and the president, who usually shuns such pressure, either complied or enacted his ploy to deceive the Democrats. Either way, Sessions remains, more secure than ever.  

Sessions leads the Department of Justice, which encompasses the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The OJJDP distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to states for prevention, diversion and rehabilitation programs, including those that aim to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. Yet his regressive policy agenda may dismantle the very reforms OJJDP has sought to achieve.

While the attorney general for Alabama, Sessions suggested that youth in the juvenile justice system be sent to “work camps” and argued for more funds to be spent on expanding youth incarceration. When he was on a youth violence subcommittee in the U.S. Senate, Sessions doubled down on his out-of-touch stance on juvenile justice, opposing prevention programs. In 2009, he also put forth an amendment to the reauthorization of juvenile justice funding to expand the number of children being charged and incarcerated as adults in the federal system.  

Early on in Trump’s presidency, Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would no longer pursue federal orders to reform police agencies that abuse their powers and have a pattern and practice of discrimination. Then while speaking to officers in New York, Trump encouraged police to violate the Constitution by intentionally roughing up suspects.

Sessions has also rescinded Obama administration policy aimed at reducing the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes. The Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged federal prosecutors to not go after long sentences for those charged with nonviolent drug offenses, a policy that has become a universally accepted, nonpartisan issue.

Sessions is instead looking to revive the war on drugs that led America to excessive levels of mass incarceration. After several decades of over-reliance on ineffective, harmful and excessively expensive incarceration, the United States has finally seen a significant reduction in youth detention rates and the beginning of a decline in the number of adults in prison.

Jeff Sessions would like to take us back to the dark ages, and Trump duped Democrats into supporting him.

David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. He is the former chief probation officer of Alameda County in California and the former deputy commission of probation in New York City.

New Yorkers Who March for Justice Reform: ‘We Have a Long Road Ahead of Us’

“Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”

NEW YORK — The civil rights marchers had gone about a mile and change into Wappinger Falls, a quaint village in Dutchess County, New York, when it was time for a bathroom break.

“Sometimes,” one of the marchers joked, “you need to take a bathroom break for justice.”

The three-vehicle caravan of a ramshackle school bus, a 12-foot Penske moving truck and a Toyota FJ Cruiser that had followed the marchers from Harlem all pulled to a stop at the curb.

The marchers had been walking for about an hour on a bleak and unseasonably cold and rainy September morning without incident when they decided to stop at a coffee shop along Main Street. A handful had been on foot from the starting point in Harlem on an 180-mile walk to Albany, New York, in an attempt to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hoped, bring about some reforms. Others had just joined the group a few hours ago.

A few of the marchers, a mix of white and black, young and old, gay, trans and straight, went inside the coffee shop to grab a hot drink to warm up They were a bedraggled bunch. Many had slept the night before on cots and inflatable mattresses in the sanctuary of a nearby church. So the warm, dry Ground Hog coffee shop was a welcome relief.

Stepping into the shop felt like stepping back in time to Mayberry or some other small-town idyll, aside from the cleverly named espresso drinks on the chalkboard like dirty chai latte or coconut moka. The chessboard-tiled floors, wooden tables and framed black-and-white photographs all had the feel of a timeless bit of Americana.

The customers, all of them white, lifted their heads up from breakfasts of French toast and omelets to observe the wet group of marchers ambling past, wearing a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky on the back of their T-shirts. It read: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

As the marchers lined up, the opening piano riff of Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” came over the speakers. The man taking orders came out from behind the slatted wood counter and approached a 30-year-old black woman, one of the march’s organizers.

“You all need to leave,” he said. “You all need to get out. Now.”

“Why is that?” Lilly Oseitutu replied in a lilting London accent.

“We’re busy and can’t have you blocking up our establishment,” he snapped back.

The two squared off in the middle of the cramped dining room. Ronnie Van Zant sang, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”

“I don’t understand,” she replied making a deliberate effort to remain calm. “We’re paying customers. Why would we have to leave?”

The counter man was in no mood for an argument and shook his head.

“I want you back outside now,” he said.

“We’re not leaving,” she replied.

The man held his ground for a few beats, then shook his head in disgust and returned to his station behind the counter.

The woman went to the bathroom and left the shop a few minutes later.

“You’re damn right I’m not leaving, I’m a paying customer. What does he think this is?” she asked no one in particular. The patrons watched as the door shut behind her and “Free Bird” reached its rousing final chorus.

“Lord knows, I can’t change, Lord help me, I can’t change ...”

The march’s origins

When Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, hears about the incident inside the coffee shop she is not surprised.

“Remember when I told you we were heading Up South,” she said. “This is Up

South.”

Elijah lifts her red megaphone to her mouth and leads the group in a new chant. They have a long way to go yet.

The nonprofit organization she founded and is executive director of, Alliance of Families for Justice, came up with the march. Here is an incomplete list of some of the abuses behind prison walls she is hoping to end. She has them printed on a pamphlet with a pair of black hands in handcuffs on one side and a white hand clutching a billy club on the other: Waterboarding. Mangled ears. Plastic bags held over prisoners’ faces. Teeth kicked out. Prisoners shackled and thrown down flights of stairs. Years spent in solitary confinement.

Lilly Oseitutu yells into megaphones during the March for Justice.

When the nation saw students punched and kicked for trying to integrate lunch counters, or marchers going from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, hit with billy clubs and tear gassed, it was outraged. That led to two signature pieces of civil rights legislation.

But, Elijah said, New Yorkers remain indifferent to the savagery in the state prisons that line the march’s route to Albany. That’s why she self-consciously borrowed from an effective civil rights tactic from the 1950s and 1960s. She wants to get people to see that the injustices plaguing the modern criminal justice system have parallels to the past. She sees a profound disconnect between how people lionize the work done in the civil rights movement but remain oblivious to the need for one in present.

It’s a paradox that frustrates Elijah and many who have dedicated themselves to the work of making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system — from the juvenile justice system to adult prisons. She, like many activists and advocates for juvenile justice reform and ending abuses behind prison walls, gets frustrated that the public does not see this as an urgent civil rights catastrophe going in New York state. It’s a partisan issue at best that gets bogged down in predictable policy debates in Albany.

All the while, people like Elijah, the alliance board and its members, made up mostly of volunteers who have seen firsthand what happens behind bars in New York state or who have family there now, watch as children and adults, a staggering number of them black and brown, get beaten out of sight in one of the prisons nestled deep in the bucolic woods and farms of the Hudson Valley.

She thinks the 21st century is in as desperate need for a civil rights movement as the 20th century was, and that the work started then is not done. It’s something she learned working as a defense attorney for decades.

“I started to grasp what my client’s families were going through,” she said. “Particularly mothers and spouses, mothers and partners, fathers and what they were going through. And the agony that they experienced having someone incarcerated. And they would suffer in silence, there was nowhere for them to go, there was no organization, there was nothing. They wouldn’t tell their pastor, they wouldn’t tell their fellow parishioners, frequently they wouldn’t tell other relatives. They would say, ‘Oh Johnny went down South to visit his relatives,’ but like I said, Up South.”

Elijah first stepped into a New York prison because she was in love. She was 17 and her boyfriend was in Auburn Correctional Facility. He was a few years older and was in for a drug charge. His older siblings had already died of heroin overdoses. Elijah was a freshman at Cornell University, an elite private school about 30 miles from the prison. She scheduled her classes so she would have Thursdays free.

“He was someone that I knew that I cared about,” she said. “So I went.”

On her class-free days she would go to the Greyhound station, take the bus to Auburn and visit him.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” Elijah said. “My parents went to their grave never knowing.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, she said, those visits to the prisons were making a mark on a teenage girl that would shape the lawyer, prison reformer and civil rights advocate she would become.

“What struck me was that everybody in the visiting room being visited looked like me, and all the guards looked like you,” she said, motioning to a white man. “And that was really stark to me, really stark.”

Elijah explained the origins of her brainchild, the March for Justice, sitting on a beat-up metal chair at a rickety foldout table in the lobby of the Unitarian Universalist church in Poughkeepsie, New York. Just down the hall in the sanctuary is where she would be spending the night with the rest of the marchers.

“The other thing that was stark to me was that I saw so many people from my neighborhood in that prison who I had thought had gone down South to visit relatives. I didn’t know they had gone Up South.”

Elijah’s Alliance of Families for Justice is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. She conceived of the March for Justice, a 180-mile walk from Harlem’s National Black Theater to Albany’s Capitol Building, as a way to be more aggressive in getting out the message of prison abuse.

She witnessed those abuses first-hand while she was the executive director of the Correctional Association, from 2011 until last year. It is the only private organization in the state with the legal authority to access prisons. The legislature granted it the authority in 1846 to inspect prison conditions and report back to the public.

But Elijah felt the association wasn’t doing enough for families, so she founded the Alliance to support incarcerated people and people with criminal records, and their families. Its purpose is also to mobilize people to put pressure on the political system to make sweeping institutional change. That was part of the inspiration for the March for Justice.

Soffiya Elijah and Lilly Oseitutu sell T-shirts and other merchandise before an evening event.

“When you are trying to move people you have to deal with their hearts and minds, and you can’t do hearts and minds on the phone,” she said. “You have to literally bring it to their living rooms, or at least to their neighborhood — the March for Justice brings it to people’s neighborhood, it brings it to their churches, their houses of worship.”

Justice, but first forms and stretches

It’s not even 9 a.m. on Sunday morning and Lilly Oseitutu in her second church. She describes herself as the “co-logistical coordinator of the whole damn thing.” She walks around the lobby with three clipboards with forms for new arrivals looking to join the march. One is for an emergency contact in case anything happens on the way.

After all the new arrivals fill out their forms they head into a wide hallway of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church. Oseitutu takes a head count — 15 will march today — and turns the crowd over to Elijah. Outside it’s gray and overcast with a cold steady drizzle. Elijah speaks the letter “S.” Bill, who wears a long scraggly beard and camouflage and seems like a veteran of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, leans toward a newcomer and whispers, “When Miss Elijah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”

Elijah turns to the group and flashes a broad, warm smile.

“Welcome to the March for Justice,” she said. “We’re scheduled to do 14 miles in the rain!

“I’m going to start with the importance of following leadership. Oseitutu and I call all the shots. When in doubt,” and then she paused and corrected herself. “I’m not even going to say the word doubt. Just ask us. If anything comes up — ask. If we say get off the road and on the bus, you will get off the road and onto the bus.

“We have a long road ahead of us. There will be times when you can’t be heard and we’ll say reserve your voices and just march. And when we say that, just march.”

After she laid out the importance of leadership, it was time for chi. Every morning Elijah leads the marchers in a series of stretches designed to get people’s chi going. She jokes that you can’t get justice without the chi. After series of twists, toe grabs and leg stretches it’s time to hit the road.

“This is a good time for a bathroom break because we don’t know where the next bathroom will be. So now is the time!”

Bathrooms, snacks, potential allergies volunteer marchers might have, roads with shoulders, alerting police departments, routes, alternative routes, places that will have outlets to charge phones, accommodations, sleeping arrangements, laundry — when you spend a few days on the March for Justice you get a sense of how much of the work is dedicated to a dizzying array of minutiae, tasks and navigating around unexpected obstacles that pop up, both major and minor.

Everyone climbs on the bus. Elijah is riding in another of the caravan vehicles. But she gives some final words of wisdom from the doorway.

The drivers of the March for Justice caravan watch the marchers from a parking lot.

“Our goal is to be what?” she asks the passengers. They look back blankly. Elijah nods. “To be safe!” She flashes a mischievous grin. “If you get a little anxious, sing ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’!”

Bill turns the key, the bus makes a loud wrenching noise and rumbles to life, headed to the next spot where the organizers have found a safe marching route.

Banners hang from each side of the bus covering the windows. On them are pictures of some of the incarcerated people and their families they are marching to help. The feeble light creates a gloomy atmosphere, but it doesn’t affect the marchers. The mood on the bus is upbeat. A few women are trying to retrace yesterday’s route on a map.

Another clutch of newcomers are engaged in lively chat, the kind of conversation you expect out of strangers who just met in a church lobby at 8 in the morning. Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group who has been with the group since they left Harlem on Aug. 26, is napping. Her son has been in a New York state prison for two decades. She calls him daily to keep him updated on their progress.

Bill pulls the bus into a Valero gas station in Wappinger Falls about nine miles outside Poughkeepsie. Kevin Barron, the media coordinator, stand up and shouts: “OK, everybody off!”

The marchers gather gear. The banner carriers work out the best way to hold them so they can be seen by passers-by. Elijah makes sure everyone has a poncho as the rain continues to steadily fall.

“Hey, does anyone want a megaphone,” one marcher shouted to the crowd. “I have two,” she said, raising the bright red amplifiers in the air.

They’re on the move.

Elijah lifts a megaphone to her mouth and shouts the first of dozens of call-and-response chants she will lead that day:

“One, two, three, four! Tell me what we’re marching for,” she says, almost singing the words. “Five, six, seven, eight! An end to the prison state!”

A car zooms by honks and waves. Elijah doesn’t miss a beat as she smiles and waves back.

Hot soup and a new home for the night

After Oseitutu’s showdown at the coffee shop, the rest of the march goes without incident. A few people roll their windows low enough to voice their displeasure. But most of their reception is positive, with people scooching their windows down to wave. The afternoon turns into a torrent and Elijah decides to drive the remainder of the day’s route. Everyone piles back in and Bill delivers them to a Unitarian Universalist church.

Everyone forms a bucket brigade and helps haul in all the supplies from the Penske truck. Once everything is inside the church, people settle in for lunch. A pile of brown bags sits on one table, and two pots of steaming soup sit on another. Volunteers made homemade chicken noodle soup and veggie and bean wraps. Stickers are on the foldout tables with bold black lettering that read: #Feed the Resistance.

Elijah calls out “S” and the room falls silent. She tells everyone what’s on the menu.

“The lunch is vegan, the cookies are not,” and then she starts singing it, as she would a march chant.

During lunch many of the participants talk about what brought them out to join the March for Justice and walk in a cold, dreary rain. Chaia Lehrer, a member of Mid-Hudson Jews for Racial Justice, explains it with a picture she recently took.

The March for Justice went on despite the rain.

“It’s totally off the road, it’s way back behind the woods,” she said, almost with an air of paranoia. “That’s how they do it. They hide it back in the country so no one can see it — so no one knows.”

Lehrer pulls out her phone and pulls up a photo. It is a picture of a sign. Highland Residential Center Office of Children and Family Services. It’s a juvenile center that was at the heart of a 2010 lawsuit for numerous abuses.

She pulls up another. This one is a picture of a nondescript building behind a fence ringed with barbed wire.

“Who knows what’s going on in there,” she says in a whisper.

Lehrer explains that her main frustration is that the children in the facility have no connection to the community in the surrounding area, and the community has no connection to the children. There is no incentive, she said, for anyone in the community to care about what is happening to the children imprisoned behind the gates.

“There are no kids from around here in there,” she says with a dismissive wave. “These are all kids from the city. The community has no connection to what is going on in the facility. Their parents are too far away to know. It’s a very bad situation.”

She pointed to the members of the march scattered around the sanctuary.

“This is the civil rights movement,” Lehrer said. “This is just the next phase of the civil rights movement. This is how civil rights abuses happen now. Locking people up, putting them under supervision. Making a whole new class of people with no rights.”

Jake Salt agrees that the March for Justice is at the heart of a burgeoning civil rights movement.

Salt, 31, said he first realized that the criminal justice system was broken when he got arrested for a prank gone wrong when he was a teenager, in the early 2000s. Salt and two friends were in the Youth Detention Center in Passaic, New Jersey. Salt, who is white, was in a holding cell awaiting an appearance when another teenager, who was black, approached him. Salt remember the black teenager yelling at him that he and his two white friends were going to be out of here and that everyone else in the cell would be stuck in jail.

“He was right,” Salt said, talking in the Unitarian church’s sanctuary after lunch. “The three white kids went home. All the black and brown kids stayed in jail.”

Growing up white and middle class insulated him from the pipeline that eventually funnels many black and Hispanic children into the adult prison system, he said.

“I was able to go through a year of probation and live my life and not be exposed to recidivism,” Salt said.

The experience forever changed his worldview. Salt, who now runs the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, dedicated his life to activism because of that day in the court. He said it was important for him to come out and show solidarity with the March for Justice because so many LGBTQ, especially youth of color, are vulnerable to the juvenile justice system.

“Sure, I’m in this Universalist Unitarian church sitting being able to feel great about being able to go and march and make a difference, and that’s fine,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who could be doing the same thing but they didn’t have the chance because the way they looked sent them down a different path.”

After the volunteer marchers who just signed up for the day leave and only the hard-core marchers remain, Elijah places a computer on one of the lunch tables and plays a video from the day before. It shows the march going past the Fishkill Correctional Facility. An administrator comes out and tells them to leave. They refuse. Oseitutu and the administrator get into a heated argument. As they go back and forth, corrections vehicles race past in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate them.

Jake Salt hangs out at a Universal Unitarian Church after marching from Beacon to Poughkeepsie, New York.

Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group at 82, has a son serving time there. He is 55 and has been inside for two decades. She talked to him on the phone later on. He told her he couldn’t hear them. She counseled him not to mention it to the other inmates. She was worried that the word would get out and her son would face retribution from the corrections officers.

Day 9: Next stop, New Paltz

The next morning is the same as the one before. More forms, a head count, more channeling the chi. Elijah warns the new marchers to be polite and not get into any skirmishes with anyone who might disagree with their message along the route.

She points to Miss Ivey. “Miss Ivey is here to make sure there is no counter-revolutionary activity,” she tells them, smiling. “If anyone gets out of line she is here to straighten them out.”

During breakfast, a heated argument breaks out among a few marchers about the best way to persuade people to their cause. One argues for direct action and confrontation, the other for persuasion. They agree to disagree.

Everyone is ready to go by 9 a.m. They file out with Elijah at the front. As the marchers make their way up the church driveway and down a narrow sidewalk a few step on someone’s lawn. Elijah cautions them to be careful.

“We don’t want to disrespect anybody’s property,” she tells them. “So please go single file.”

They are headed for Hudson Valley Rail Trail. After conferring with Oseitutu and Barron, Elijah decides that since it’s Labor Day they will be able to reach a lot of people with their message. She is concerned because this will be the first time the caravan won’t be by their side. The trail doesn’t allow cars. But, it's a warm and sunny day, and she expects there to be a lot of people out.

Soffiya Elijah (third from left) negotiates with a Park Department employee (far left) about marching across the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie.

While they are walking along Hooker Avenue, a white man in another pickup truck slows down and honks to get the marchers’ attention. Then he stuck his hand out the window and gave them the middle finger.

“We’re getting mixed responses,” Oseitutu said. “Very mixed responses.”

It is a sign of things to come.

First the march enters downtown Poughkeepsie, where Oseitutu said she has encountered more resistance to the message since they left Harlem. She has been darting back and forth across the street handing out fliers. She goes into businesses like a barber shop and Dunkin’ Donuts and makes her pitch.

Oseitutu tries to give a flier to a woman but she refuses.

“Black people kidnapped my kids,” she shouts. “You got to stop doing what you’re doing!”

“It’s to be expected,” Oseitutu says as she hustles across the street to hand another passerby a flier. “The further we head upstate we go, the more we are going to be encountering people who are resistant to our message. But I have really been feeling it today.”

When Oseitutu recounts the encounter with the woman to Elijah, she flashes a sardonic smile.

“Black people kidnapped her kids,” Elijah said sarcastically. “White people kidnapped my family. Did you say that?” she asked Oseitutu.

“No,” she replied. “I should’ve said that.”

“Listen,” Elijah said. “We don’t want to have a lecture about kidnapping.” 

One of the marchers taking part from Poughkeepsie to New Paltz, New York.

Taking the scenic route for justice

It doesn’t take long along the Rail Trail, a pedestrian trail that has a bridge that spans the Hudson River offering a stunning view, when they encounter their first obstacle. After a bathroom break at the port-a-potties and guzzling some water in the shade, they make their way to the bridge but are stopped by a Parks Department worker driving a golf cart.

“Who’s got the permit, you can’t march without a permit,” she says with finality.

After some initial confusion, Elijah approached the parks employee.

“I called the police station in the area and alerted them that we were coming and that we would be coming through.”

The employee starts shaking her head before Elijah can finish her sentence.

“There’s going to be no marching today,” she said. “Not without a permit.”

“Well,” Elijah said with a weary smile. “I’ve been marching all the way from Harlem. I’m not turning back.”

The two women stare at each other. After a few beats, the mechanical, officious bureaucratic demeanor of the parks employee melts away and her off-the-clock personality comes through.

“All right, listen,” she said. “You all go ahead and march. Just try to keep it to one side and watch out for the bikes.”

Can we chant, one of the marchers chimes in. The question hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity. For a second it seems like the hard-won victory may be derailed. The emotions that play across Elijah’s face make it evident this was a rookie question. Seasoned protesters know you never ask for permission.

The parks employee takes a deep breath, sighs, drops her chin to her chest and nods.

“Go ahead, chant,” she said. And then she leans forward and whispers to Elijah: “Keep up the good work!”

Crossing the Hudson

The small victory rallies the marchers, and they need it. They have logged about 5 miles under a bright sun and seem tired. All except Elijah. On the March for Justice she is equal parts drum major, singer, coach and CEO. At the front of the march she appears to fall into a reverie, slowly nodding her head and moving like a dancer, crouching with athletic ease.

Elijah gets the marchers organized and has them shouting another chant. She waves and beams a huge smile to visitors on their Labor Day strolls who gawk at the marchers navigating the crowds. Meanwhile Oseitutu and Ray Ray are sprinting up to people, handing out fliers to anyone who will take them.

Ray Ray, 42, a black activist from Poughkeepsie, approaches a white man along the trail and tries to hand him a flyer. He refuses. “Ninety-five percent of all the people in there deserve to be in there,” he said. “They’re all killers.”

Ray Ray politely disagrees and points to some of the facts on the flier. She then points out the Alliance for Families for Justice website, which has information and data on New York state prisoners. He does not show any interest.

Ray Ray tries another tactic.

“If you think that people who are killers or hurt other people should be put in prison, you should be marching with us. That’s what we’re fighting against. These prisoners are getting beaten and tortured and sometimes killed.”

A marcher comes out of a coffee shop where she stopped to use the bathroom.

The man does not agree. Ray Ray thanks him for his time, joins the chant and jogs to catch up with the march.

Another white man shouts at Oseitutu: “Can you please keep moving? We’re trying to enjoy our Labor Day.”

Oseitutu responds politely but forcefully.

“Actually, we have as much right to be here as you do,” she said. “So sit there and listen.”

Jayme Schultz, 38, who is white, had not planned on marching. She was out on a leisurely walk with her son on her shoulders when she noticed Oseitutu enthusiastically handing out fliers to passers-by. She changed her route and joined in the march from the rear. After a few paces she started joining in the chants.

“I saw them and it seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.

Schultz talked about a friend who was teaching behind the walls of a local prison. The administration would constantly sabotage her efforts to do her job, the friend said.

Jayme Schultz and her son Arthur joined the march on the Walkway Over the Hudson for a while.

“She came out of that experience completely changed,” she said. “She saw lots of abuses and the corrections officers treating the prisoners so badly, calling them racial insults. She said they were treated so poorly.”

Schultz said she had no doubt that the abuses in prisons and the racial inequities in New York’s criminal justice system represent a civil rights crisis.

“Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why it’s such a good thing these marchers are out here. You need to make people feel uncomfortable. They live their comfortable lives and they aren’t touched by any of the horrors that are going. You need to make them feel uncomfortable. You need to put it right in their faces where they live, where they go for their Labor Day walks.”

When she got across the bridge she stopped. She had a long walk ahead of her to get back home and needed to get her son lunch. Arthur, still on his mother’s neck, craned his neck to watch the marchers head off into the distance.

“I want to go,” he said in a disappointed voice.

“I know you don’t want to stop, you want to keep going,” Schultz said in a reassuring tone. “It’s OK, buddy, we’ll be able to join up again some other time!”

Not a safe route

After they cross the bridge and head farther north on the trail, the crowds diminish. They are now walking through towering woods that occasionally create a canopy with dappled light on the path. Elijah announces there won’t be any more chants until they reach a more dense area.

“I want you to conserve your energy,” she tells them.

The marchers slow their pace and chat among themselves, recalling some of the encounters they’ve had along the way.

There are exercise stations set up along the trail. One of them has a sign mounted that reads: Hamstring Stretch. Ray Ray sees it and gets excited.

“Oh man, hamstring stretch, I need that,” she said.

She jogs over and slings her leg up one of the bars and starts leaning in. She groans as she stretches.

“All right,” she said, limbered up. “Time to go.”

Ray Ray takes a stretch break halfway between Poughkeepsie and New Paltz, New York.

About a mile or so later, they reach Tony Williams Park, where another volunteer has lunch waiting. Two big trays of peanut noodles, one with chicken, another strictly vegetarian, and an economy-sized bag of ginger snaps for dessert. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the group. Even though many of them met in a strange church about seven hours earlier, they are laughing, hugging and sharing intimate conversation.

After lunch, Elijah, Oseitutu and Barron spread a map out on one of the picnic tables and assess the next move to New Paltz. The only road to New Paltz from the park has no shoulder. Elijah decides it’s too dangerous and tells Bill to get the bus ready.

Elijah explains to everyone that they need to drive the next few miles. They look visibly disappointed. They relish hitting the pavement. But Elijah is insistent.

“It’s just not a safe route,” she said.

New Paltz is where Elijah is scheduled to meet a 105-year-old named Journey Truth.

She wants to join the march.

The road to New Paltz

The mood turns at New Paltz. More people join the marchers as they make their way through downtown. At the head of the march is Elijah, trotting backwards, shouting one of her favorite chants:

“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”

Right behind her, singing along, are Miss Ivey and Journey Truth, a local, a former artist and activist who insisted on joining the march. She is being pushed in her wheelchair. Miss Ivey stands next to her, clutching her walker. The crowd is as big as it has been in days and the sidewalks are narrow.

The road is steep and they have to be careful. Miss Ivey and Journey Truth are determined. They find each other in the scrum of the march and reach out for each other. They clasp hands for a brief moment and look at each other while they sing.

Truth can’t make it to the end of the march. She is wheeled back to her car, where a marcher and her caretaker gently guide her into the passenger seat of a car.

“She’s 105 years old; she’s seen everything,” said Amy Trompetter, one of the many friends of Truth’s who care for her. But, she added, Truth is horrified by what the prisoners in New York endure. “She is going to leave the planet soon. She knows this. But she’s determined in helping to lead the struggle.” 

Journey Truth, 105 (in wheelchair), and Miss Ivey, 82 (using walker), march down the streets toward New Paltz, New York, with the March for Justice.

Unfinished business

The gloom that had settled on the group after the run-ins in Poughkeepsie has lifted as they make their way through historic New Paltz. As they approach the Reformed Church of New Paltz, they can see a huge crowd waiting for them. The crowd is jubilant, cheering them as they make their way into the driveway. The front lawn is covered with picnic tables that have spread out on them farm corn, casseroles, potato salad, burgers, hot dogs and a variety of homemade treats.

A celebratory feeling is in the air. Miss Ivey gets a burger and a hot dog, a little squirt of ketchup and mustard on each. Miss Ivey lives in the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, but was born in Selma and moved to the Florida Panhandle town of Pensacola when she was still a toddler. She still spent many of her summers in Alabama growing up, and said her time there had had a big influence on her.

“Now, when we were in the South, white people were the ones who taught their children there was a difference between black and white,” she said, munching on her burger. “Preaching hate at the dinner table. Black people didn’t do that. They just told us to be careful. They just told us what to be careful of. They never taught us to hate.”

She recently went back to Alabama to visit Edmund Pettus Bridge with seven of her grandchildren. But she said, civil rights isn’t a chapter to be relegated to a stale history book. There is no doubt in her mind that the March for Justice is part of a movement.

“It’s civil rights, it’s human rights, it’s the whole nine yards,” she said. “The brutality shown to the inmates. There’s no reason for a human being to be treated that way, to be dehumanized. What we’re marching for is unfinished business from the old days.”

A huge gust of wind blows through, knocking over some cups and causing a minor commotion.

“The wind is telling us,” Miss Ivey said. “We got to get moving.”

Bill helps escort Miss Ivey down the stairs to the basement. Elijah, Oseitutu and Kevin Barron are already there, converting a foldout table into a makeshift information booth. They stack their literature in neat piles and arrange their merchandise. After they’re done, they sit and relax for a moment.

Barron looks at Oseitutu.

“Tired?” he asked.

“I could sleep for three days,” she replied, hanging her head with exhaustion.

Barron, 62, arches his eyebrows and looks puckish.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“What does my age have to do with anything,” she shot back. “I’ve just marched for nine days. I don’t care how old I am, I am going to be tired.”

“How old are you?” he asked again.

“I’m 30,” she said. “Were you doing 19-day marches when you were 30?”

Barron leans back in his chair and waves his hand dismissively.

“I could have marched to California when I was 30,” he responded with a grin.

Elijah, who has been enjoying watching the exchange, chimes in. She turned to Barron.

“Do you remember what you said to me when I said we’re going to be marching from Harlem to Albany?”

“No,” Barron said.

“You said, ‘Who?’” Elijah responded. “‘We’ is a plural pronoun last time I checked.”

The anecdote has them all laughing, but it’s short-lived. Moments later, people coming for that evening’s program are already crowding around the table. They start asking about T-shirts and tote bags, and inquiring about the pamphlets.

The march has ended for the day, but their work has just begun.

Check out previous New York March coverage


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Federal Appeals Court to Hear Birmingham School Pepper Spray Case

A case that alleges chemical spray is overused in Birmingham, Ala., schools is headed to federal appeals court and will probably not re-emerge for at least a year.

Attorneys for the school officials, resource officers and city police officers named as defendants have asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to hear two questions. First, if the case go forward as a class action; and second, if they have any official immunity.

If the court decides to hear the questions, no ruling is likely for at least a year, said Ebony Howard, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

She is lead attorney representing six youths who say officers on campus sprayed them with a chemical called Freeze+P for minor school-based infractions, including in one case, uncontrollable crying over being bullied.

The SPLC is pursuing class action because of the number of chemical spray incidents at city schools: at least 200 since 2006.

“We haven’t been able to find anywhere that used it in this way and as frequently. We have found that pepper spray has been used for normal adolescent misbehavior,” said Howard. “When it is used in other school systems even one time it’s big news.”

Indeed, a glance at recent news stories turns up several examples of chemical spray reports.

In Rochester, N.Y., a student fight downtown broken up by police using chemical spray has led to students being banned from bus routes that meander downtown. Now they must use routes that go straight to campus, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports.

Topeka High School was put on lockdown after a security guard used chemical spray to break up a fight, the Topeka Capitol-Journal says.

But there is no nationwide count of such incidents in schools.

Matt Simpson, policy strategist at the ACLU in Texas, studies law enforcement in his state’s schools. He said families have contacted his organization about “very few” pepper spray in school incidents, but there’s no way to know how many actually happen.

“There’s virtually no uniformity on use-of-force policies for law enforcement in schools” in Texas he said, adding “there’s definitely not reporting.”

Some Texas school systems, especially larger ones, set up their own law enforcement agencies with a chief of police who reports to the school superintendent. Those agencies, said Simpson, are more likely to set a use-of-force policy tailored for young people and schools.

Other school systems contract with local city or county police, meaning an officer on street duty can be called to a school. Simpson said in those cases, use-of-force rules tend to be functionally the same on campus as on the street.

For the past few years, Texas ACLU has worked on legislation that would limit the use of chemical sprays or stun guns in schools, especially banning their use on the youngest children. Simpson said they will advocate for the same thing next year.

NAACP Blasts Mace in Birmingham Schools

The NAACP launched an online petition this week, inviting people to lend their names to a campaign to end the use of pepper spray on students in Birmingham, Al. public schools.

“As long as we continue to treat students like criminals, they will grow up to become criminals,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, in a written statement.

The NAACP argues that Mace and pepper spray may be legitimate parts of an adult or crowd policing strategy, but are not acceptable for use on school children. Birmingham’s public school population is overwhelmingly African-American.

The petition comes as wrangling in U.S. District Court over the practice reaches nearly the two-year mark. In December, 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit for damages on behalf of six defendants, and also asked for pepper sprays to be banned. They alleged that Birmingham police officers in the school used the chemical as a first resort and as punishment, among other charges.

“Mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately in Birmingham’s public high schools that each Class Representative [defendant] — and all BCS students — faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury,” the original complaint read.

Birmingham’s Board of Education and schools superintendent have been dismissed from the case, though six city police officers, the police chief and a high school assistant principal are still on the docket.

A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Schools declined comment.

Police carry the mace because it its part of their “daily equipment,” a police spokesman is quoted in Birmingham media.

The Birmingham police spokesman could not immediately be reached for any further comment.

In a written statement, Hezekiah Jackson IV, Metro Birmingham Branch NAACP president said, “we as a community must end this form of archaic police disciplinary response, implement alternative strategies and create an atmosphere in which all children of Birmingham can feel protected and comfortable.”

Photo source: http://justmytruth.wordpress.com/

Immigrant Voices: Young, Ambitious, Proud of the Nation and Illegal

Israel silhoutte Gabriela silhouette

Immigration is an explosive topic in this nation. It has deep implications for the economy and the social and cultural landscape of the country. It has and will continue to have a huge impact on politics, especially for the presidential election.

We know all that, of course. Anyone who follows the news the least bit, knows that. What a lot of people don’t know too much about, however, is the impact growing anti-immigration sentiment and the passage of severe, some would say, draconian anti-immigration laws have on families, especially their children.

News outlets have told these stories before, gotten below the surface of the debates, to show the struggle of good, law-abiding, hard-working families faced with deportation and an end to a life they have know for many years.

Today, JJIE goes a step further by giving you the voices of three Georgia college students who, though they have lived in the country many years and are ambitious, stellar students, have a hint of a Georgia twang, root for the Georgia Bulldogs, or the Atlanta Falcons, are subject to deportation because they entered this country illegally, as children.

In the interviews that follow you will hear from Jessica Colotl, a recent graduate who was arrested and sent to a detention center for more than a month to await deportation. The other interviews are with two students, Israel and Gabriela, who asked that only their first names be used. They are still in college but since they are illegal, they fear arrest and deportation.

The nation needs a reasonable debate over immigration policy; that much should be clear, even to the casual observer. But it is also clear that voices such as these should be included in that discourse.

U.S. Immigration System is Broken, Says Latino Community Leader

Jerry Gonzales

The U.S. immigration system is broken and not in line with the nation’s values, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), at an event Wednesday night. GALEO is a nonprofit organization seeking to increase Latino civic engagement.

“We need to have a workable system that moves us forward and upholds our values,” he said.

Addressing a small crowd of mostly Latino students at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Gonzalez said a top priority should be keeping families together.

Under the current immigration system “some families have to wait 20 years to be reunited,” he said. “Would you wait 20 years when the only thing separating you from your family is a border?”

Gonzalez said the current system promotes illegal immigration.

“We need to have a system that encourages legal immigration rather than illegal,” he said.

But a recent change in immigration policy may help keep some families with U.S.-born children together. The Department of Homeland Security will refocus its deportation efforts on convicted criminals and foreigners who pose a national security risk, The New York Times reports. The new policy also pushes closing low-priority cases. The move may reduce the number of families split apart when illegal immigrants with U.S.-citizen children are deported, in some cases forcing the children into foster care.

As JJIE reported Monday, at least 5,100 children whose parents are detained or deported are currently in foster care around the United States, according to research by the Applied Research Center (ARC). Previously unreleased federal data obtained by the ARC showed that, between January and June of 2011, the United States carried out more than 46,000 deportations of the parents of U.S.-citizen children. Almost one in four people deported in the last year was the mother or father of an American citizen.

The Obama administration will also retrain immigration enforcement officers and prosecutors in an effort to speed the deportation process and clear a backlogged and overburdened court docket, The Times said.

According to Gonzalez, President Obama has lost the confidence of many in the Latino community because of the high number of deportations during his term in office. According to The Times, Obama has deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants in each of his three years as president.

“Obama,” Gonzalez said, “is known among Latinos as the ‘deportation president.’”

Despite a hard-line deportation policy, the Obama administration is fighting back against recent state immigration laws such as those in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama that mandate proof of citizenship or immigration status during many government transactions.

In fact, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with Alabama’s law. A federal appeals court blocked a provision of the legislation last month that mandated public schools determine citizenship of students. The court upheld other parts of the law.

“Alabama’s law is horrendous,” Gonzalez said in his speech Wednesday evening. “It has caused a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding right before our eyes.”

Some state lawmakers in Alabama are beginning to have second thoughts about the legislation, The Times says.

“The longer the bill has been out, the more unintended consequences we have found,” said Slade Blackwell, a Republican Alabama state senator. “All of us realize we need to change it.”

Gonzalez, for his part is calling, for voters to kick out lawmakers responsible for the bills.

“We get the government we deserve whether we engage or not,” he said. “And I believe we will get a better government if we encourage engagement at every level.”

Show Me Your Papers, It’s Not Kids Play, It’s UnAmerican

Martin Castro, chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, while giving a talk recently in Lawrenceville, Ga., made a little joke. He said one in six Americans is a Latino -- he paused and then added that the other five out of six Americans soon will be related to that one. He is correct. Your neighbors and co-workers today will likely become your in-laws tomorrow. Hence, I, and lots of others folks, would argue that any political group that angers the Latino community does so at its own peril.

Castro also told a story about his 10-year-old son. The story has the power of a Biblical parable illustrating the intrinsic dangers of state laws passed to hunt down illegal Latino immigrants in states such as Georgia, Alabama and Arizona. His son just started middle school when a group of kids came up to him and demanded to know if he was a legal or illegal alien. When he refused to answer that question, they wanted to know his national origin. When he refused to answer that question, they asked him to put his arms up against the wall because they were going to frisk him. That act, Castro reminds us, “Happens to individuals every day.”

Cops and robbers has always been among the games kids play. With the expanded power of our police to check your papers, that too becomes part of the game.

The United States of America I grew up in not long after World War II, shunned any attempt at having us show our papers because our young men and women had just ended fighting and dying to rid the world of needing to carry papers. Needing to show your papers was tantamount to being subjugated to a police state that preyed on minorities and dissidents. If you are Latino in the United States today, legal or not, the possibility of a nation where first the police, then your employers, then your neighbors, then the kids in the school yard, want proof you are as American as they are, is very real -- and very dangerous because it never stops with just one group of people.

If we really want to demonstrate how American we are, let’s do so by demanding that the show-me-your papers laws in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona and everywhere else are rescinded, ripped up and thrown into the legislative trash barrel, where they belong.

Watch JJIE's interview with Martin Castro below.

Part One

Part Two

Alabama’s DCANP Budget Cuts by District

Alabama Districts
Alabama Congressional Districts

Alabama's Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention (DCANP) has been hosting a series of Sustainability Meetings with community-based program leaders around the state. When the FY 2012 budget takes effect Oct. 1, the DCANP will be forced to cut 74 of the 175 community-based programs the department funds. Read the full story.

The slides below were compiled by the DCANP and outline affected programs by district:

District 1

District 2

District 3

District 4

District 5

District 6

District 7

One Agency’s Budget Struggles Typical of Nation

Opening slide to DCANP Sustainability MeetingsAlabama’s only agency designated to prevent child abuse and neglect, among the many juvenile justice departments around the nation grappling with a smaller budget, will serve nearly half the number of kids in 2012 as they did in 2011.

The Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention (DCANP) is preparing to cut 74 community-based programs around the state when the new budget takes effect October 1. The cuts bring the total number of programs to just 101 for FY 2012, compared to 227 funded in FY 2005.

The reduction in services represents roughly 14,000 kids that will no longer have access to community-based prevention programs.

“I’m really concerned with the burden of the system as a whole,” says Kelley Parris-Barnes, director of the DCANP. “When you take the community-level programs out you don’t have the capacity in the state to do it.”

The DCANP doesn’t deliver services directly. Rather, the department funds a variety of community-based prevention and education programs. According to Barnes, community members have the capacity and cultural relationship to identify at-risk children long before state-level agencies are able to.

The financial challenges facing the department and the state as a whole are not much different than those facing local governments throughout the United States. Texas, Idaho, Louisiana and many others have witnessed a reduction in juvenile related services.

“There’s not a state, county or city not making the same evaluation with the current budget situation we’re in,” says state Rep. Jack Williams, the Republican chair of Alabama’s Children and Senior Advocacy Committee, adding the committee plans to look at the effectiveness of existing programs and set benchmarks for the future.

“If an agency is serving children in need and doing an effective job I want to do everything I can to support them in the greatest capacity the state has, but we’re going to have to set some benchmarks,” Williams says. “At some point there is going to have to be a line and if you fall below it, the state is not going to be helping [with funding] anymore.”

The DCANP has already seen some steep state-level cuts in writing. When the budget takes effect at the beginning of October the agency will lose nearly 75 percent of its funding from the state’s General Fund and almost a third from Alabama’s Education Trust Fund.

click to download
A letter 'for prevention' to Sue Bell Cobb. Click to download.

Also gone completely is $1.5 million in federal money to fund the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program, and roughly $200,000 from other federal funding.

“The Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention should be the last thing cut in the state budget because of the far-reaching consequences for the safety of children,” says Sue Bell Cobb, former Alabama Chief Justice and long-time child advocate.

In a letter to Cobb, DCANP director Parris-Barnes outlined the effectiveness of community-based prevention programs, citing the fact that every dollar spent on child preventative services represents a minimum of $5.68 in state savings.

In the interim, the department and other child advocacy groups in the state are looking to keep programs afloat through a variety of measures. The DCANP has been holding sustainability meetings with program leaders from around the state to outline the impact of specific cuts to each district. Among the topics were tactics for pursuing outside funding and getting children into alternative programs.

click for budget cut's impact by district
Click for budget cut's impact by district

Alabama’s Children First Foundation is drawing plans to advocate for an increased tobacco tax in an effort to drum up additional funding for child services in the state.

“All child advocates in Alabama are extremely concerned about the reduction in funding to the Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and other child services,” Cobb said. “There’s still so much to be done because we’ve really never had the adequate funding or appropriate priority put on these [prevention] programs.”

In 2009, the last year data was available, Alabama ranked 46th among the states of children living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

Alabama's governor's office was unavailable for comment prior to deadline.