Hundreds of people like Alabama’s Evan Miller are newly-eligible to appear in front of sentencing judges and perhaps parole boards, as the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down certain life sentences without parole that were handed out to juvenile offenders.
As a drug-addicted, abused, neglected minor in and out of foster care, 14-year-old Miller and a friend, killed his mother’s drug dealer in 2003 after an evening of sharing drink and drugs. Under a mandatory sentencing law that ignores mitigating factors, Alabama sent Miller to prison for life without the chance of parole.
But now minors like Miller must be allowed to present mitigating circumstances and the sentencing judge or jury must pay attention, the court ruled on July 25 in Miller v. Alabama.
“Its kind of a new procedure that I think is going to be imposed in some jurisdictions,” said Richard Broughton, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Detroit’s Mercy School of Law.
The list of mitigating factors, he said, “is potentially limitless.” In other kinds of cases it can include a rough childhood, alcoholism, low IQ. “Anything related to the defendant’s background,” Broughton said.
A total of 22 states already do that: a defendant can present mitigating factors to the judge or jury during the sentencing.
So the ruling is immediately applicable to the other 28 states and to federal courts.
Anyone can still give a juvenile life without parole for murder, but the sentence can’t be imposed under a one-size-fits-all mandatory sentence.
Louisiana holds a few hundred of the roughly 2,500 people nationwide who might be affected by Miller, according to research by Human Rights Watch, a lobby that fights such sentences.
“You would be eligible to have the sentence overturned,” said Frank Neuner, Chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. “You would have to engage an attorney to take a writ of habeas corpus or appeal to the court that sentenced you.”
It’s only the sentence that can be appealed, he emphasized, not the verdict.
States that are not compliant with Miller now must fix their statutes and in the meantime, judges must ignore the unconstitutional state law.
District attorneys “need to read the opinion, they need to make sure that judges before whom they’re practicing understand the opinion,” said Broughton. They and prosecutors can also help craft and push Miller-compliant state legislation.
But even in Miller-compliant states, judges and juries may need to make sure they pay attention to mitigating circumstances. Indeed, Judge Steve Teske, who serves in Georgia where there’s no mandatory sentencing, pointed out that the ruling “requires” the sentence to take into account how children are different. (Teske is a contributor to the opinion pages of this publication.)
“Conceivably it is possible that if there was evidence that was strong enough presented to a jury or a judge that would counsel against a sentence to a lifetime in prison but they did it anyway,” he said, that could open the door to a charge of abuse of discretion.
Jurisdictions where Miller explicitly applies:
Maggie Lee is a reporter for The Chicago Bureau.
Check out more of JJIE's coverage of the Supreme Court's JLWOP decision:
The violence that stains Chicago is a long way from Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday it was not just to lock up juvenile killers for life without parole in most cases. The court, reasoning children should not face what amounts to death behind bars, voted 5-4.
Monday’s decision had been anticipated since arguments were heard in March on two cases out of Alabama and Arkansas dealing with 14-year-old convicts, and won the applause of children’s and rights advocates and scorn from those who believe punishment should be equal to the crime.
“I’m feeling very good, hopeful,” said Julie Anderson, 55, whose son was convicted of murder at 15 in 1995. “We’ll see how it plays out, but my son defintely qualifiies under this ruling to have his sentence looked at again.”
She added: “And there’s so many of them, these people who were only children. Most are of color, too – something like 86 percent, and they don’t commit 86 percent of the crime.”
For Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, the ruling carries with it an important acknowledgment by a system that for too long treated minors like the adults they had yet to become.
“I would say this is a big step forward for children,” Totonchi said. “What the court did today is recognize that there is fundamental unfairness in essentially a death in prison sentence for children.”
With a jump in crime in some cities, including Chicago where nearly 20 people were shot, beaten and stabbed to death last weekend, the calls for a major crackdown on crime – including that perpetrated by and against juveniles – has risen among some.
Here, for example, Chicago police have changed hours and assignments to deal with an escalating homicide rate. The department has pleaded with residents to turn in guns as part of a regular exchange program that police hope will quiet the shootings, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been out front in trying to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to free officers to address more serious and violent crime while he proposes to rewrite stiff gun ordinances that have been overruled by the courts.
These moves are part of a wider push against crime that has some experts worried that lawmakers would be pressed to react swiftly and put the brakes on reforms that are starting to relax some of the harsh laws of the 1980s and 1990s.
“If anything the recent spike in juvenile crime proves that tough on crime measures have little or no effect,” said Steven A. Drizin, the head of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Law School and the former supervising attorney at the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center. “We have some of the toughest juvenile justice laws on the books — automatic transfer at 15, mandatory minimum sentences, gun enhancements, and truth in sentencing, LWOP, all of which apply with full force to juveniles convicted as adults.
“These laws have been on the books for several decades. They have no deterrent effect on juveniles because most do not know about them, they tend to be impulsive decision makers, and because juveniles are being armed by adult gang members to carry out their dirty work.”
If there is an uptick in juvenile crime – and some would caution it’s more hype than reality – Drizin said the blame belongs more with “economic conditions, instability in the drug markets, easy access to guns, and gang warfare than with tough penalties. Toughening juvenile laws is misdirected because it does nothing to the adult gang leaders who recruit and arm juveniles.”
All the more reason that Monday’s court ruling settled anxiety in some circles.
“The most immediate effect [locally] will be on the nearly 100 juvenile offenders who are serving life without parole sentences in Illinois,” Drizin said, adding that most of the sentences handed down under the old law will have to be revisited. “But the Supreme Court’s decision today may require changes to any sentencing schemes in Illinois that automatically mandate sentences for youth and prevent courts from considering youth as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
“There are many such sentences in Illinois — automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court, mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders, 15-20-25 year gun enhancements, ‘truth in sentencing’ for youthful offenders, and life without the possibility of parole of juvenile offenders, to name a few.”
It’s a long list, and Drizin and other legal experts figure the court challenges to other laws, including, he said, “to the application of the ‘felony murder’ doctrine to juvenile offenders — based on the concurring opinion — will no doubt follow from this decision.
Monday’s decision came on the same day the high court gutted Arizona’s controversial immigration law, and rights advocates and conservative groups alike were busy sending out news releases praising and condemning the court’s actions. But mostly the decision on JLWOP was positive, as fears of a retreat to harsh laws that swelled the prison population by some 600 percent over a generation were somewhat eased.
“Kids by the nature have a harder time appreciating the long-term consequences of the decisions they make,” said Shoba Mahadev, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center, adding that about 80 percent of the juveniles facing life without parole in Illinois were given mandatory sentences . “It is something that anyone would struggle to adjust to for life in prison with no hope to earning your leave.”
“It basically is the third leg of the stool that says you cant be sentenced to life without parole for even a homicide if you’re a juvenile,” said Georgia attorney McNeill Stokes.
In the two precedent cases, Roper and Graham, The U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, in the first, to sentence juveniles to the death penalty. In the second they struck down life without parole for non-homicide cases.
“It’s a continuation of the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that recognizes that juveniles cannot be treated the same as adults,” he said.
For Anderson, the decision is perhaps a telling turning point in this country’s justice system. For so long, she said, the system didn’t get that kids were kids – “they’re not miniature adults or short adults, they’re kids.”
Her son, who was accused of being the shooter and was remanded to adult court at 15 and got a mandatory sentence, is now 32. Seventeen years gone – much of it on lockdown – and now she’s hopeful.
“There was such a backlash [against crime] with these laws that treated kids like small adults when my son was convicted,” she said. “We understand that elderly think different, and other parts of government understand that children are different. Why didn’t the courts? Maybe now they will.”
Eric Ferkenhoff is the editor of The Chicago Bureau.
Maggie Lee is a reporter for The Chicago Bureau.
Check out more of JJIE's coverage of the Supreme Court's JLWOP decision:
- UPDATED: Supreme Court Forbids Mandatory Life Sentences Without Parole for Juveniles
- High Court Ruling on Juvenile Life Without Parole Could Impact Many
UPDATED Tuesday, 9:23 a.m.: WASHINGTON - Advocates for juvenile justice reform applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 5-to-4 ruling yesterday that children under 18 could not be handed life imprisonment sentences without hope of release – even if convicted of murder – without taking into account their age and other extenuating circumstances at the time of the crime.
“Held: The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders,” read the majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, which combined the court’s ruling on two cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sharply disagreeing that such sentences constituted cruel and unusual punishment for what were “heinous” crimes to society.
“Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not ‘unusual’ for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” Roberts wrote. Kagan responded in a footnote to her opinion that she finds it ironic that the dissenters are holding a 14-year-old’s actions to the same standard as a 17-year-old’s, given that the main finding of the majority is that courts must take individual circumstances into account before deciding on a sentence.
Bryan Stevenson of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, who separately argued both petitions in front of the Supreme Court in March, said he was delighted by the ruling. “We think the court has made an incredibly important step forward in what I regard as one of the incredibly large tragedies in the American criminal justice system,” he said. “Some of the people affected by this decision have been in prison for over 40 years.”
The vast majority of the 2,500 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed while they were less than 18 years old are in states with mandatory sentencing laws, Stevenson said. When judges are provided discretion by the law, he said, they usually choose a less harsh punishment.
Both Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs dealt with 14-year-old boys who had been handed life sentences without parole under Arkansas and Alabama laws that mandated the sentence regardless of the defendant’s unique situation.
Jackson v. Hobbs concerned 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson, who decided to rob a video store with friends but who entered the store just shortly before his friend fatally shot the video store clerk. Jackson was sentenced to life without parole because of his involvement in the crime, even though he said he did not know his friend had a gun and intended to use it.
Miller v. Alabama involved another 14-year-old, Evan Miller, who along with a friend robbed and beat a neighbor with a baseball bat after a night of drinking, then set his trailer on fire, killing him.
A 2005 ruling by the court, in Simmons v. Roper, banned the death penalty for minors, and another, for Graham v. Florida in 2010, banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who committed crimes other than homicide. Yesterday’s ruling extended that ban to mandatory life-without-parole sentences even for those minors who are convicted of homicide-related crimes. However, the ruling does not explicitly void the sentences for Jackson and Miller, but instead sends their cases back to a lower trial court for a rehearing.
Both Roper and Graham had acknowledged that children lacked the maturity and judgment of adults, that children were capable of reform, and that children could not be given an adult punishment without consideration of their minor status, Stevenson said in his oral arguments for Jackson v. Hobbs in front of the court.
“They're not thinking three steps ahead; they're not thinking about consequences; they're not actually experienced enough with the world to understand how they deal with their frustrations in the same way that an adult is,” Stevenson said. “And so, their judgments about what they intend to do, their declarations, mean something very, very different.”
As children’s brain development is not “crime-specific,” he said, using language that Justice Kagan echoed in her own opinion, those juveniles convicted of homicides should be given the same consideration as those convicted of non-homicide crimes.
For the hundreds of other individuals in jail who believe they are now eligible for a reduced sentence, Stevenson said, the next step will vary from state to state: Some states offer remedies and others even deny such inmates the right to a lawyer.
Although the court did not bar juveniles from ever receiving a life sentence without parole, Justice Kagan’s opinion made clear that the court expected “this harshest possible penalty” to be rarely applied, given that children’s brains were different from adults’ and given the difficulty in deciding whether a youth’s crimes stemmed from “unfortunate but transient immaturity” or from “irreparable corruption.”
Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national network of citizen advisers who work with state agencies on preventing delinquency and juvenile crime, praised the ruling, saying it allowed juveniles to be held accountable for their actions while leaving room for compassion and rehabilitation.
The decision to extend the ban to mandatory sentencing for all youth under 18 surprised some court-watchers, who had expected the court to extend the ban only to youth who had not actually committed the murder themselves, or to those who committed the crime when they were as young as 14.
The sticking point, as justice after justice questioned Stevenson during oral arguments earlier this year, was at which age the court should draw the line at a ban on life without parole, and how that line could be justified.
“It actually makes more sense that they did not pick a random age,” said Nadia Seeratan, a senior staff attorney and policy advocate at the National Juvenile Defender Center.
Given the court’s past findings about children’s brain development, she said, “They’ve followed and stayed consistent with those decisions.”
Check out more of JJIE’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s JLWOP decision:
It is a fundamental principle in effective supervision of juvenile offenders that the optimal caseload size should be 25. It is still common throughout the country to find caseloads exceeding 60 and sometimes more than 100.
When I took the bench in 1999, our caseload size was 150 - it was not pretty! Today, it’s 25. The kids who scare us get intensive supervision, the kids who make us mad are referred to a system of care for services.
The commission of a delinquent act doesn't always mean the kid is delinquent. Many of us can recall our own youthful indiscretions.
The studies declare that overreacting to low-risk youth will likely have unintended consequences, such as making them delinquent. Telling a low-risk kid he's delinquent and requiring probation can have a debilitating effect on the psyche - it’s the labeling theory working at its best. If you’re told you’re bad, you will become bad.
Other unintended consequences include the watering down of supervision for high-risk youth who need it the most. Again, studies are clear that community protection demands intensive supervision of high-risk youth to reduce the risk of re-offending. The more time devoted to the kids who make us mad will translate into less time to a kid who scares us.
We must be smart in how we treat our kids and not be fooled that probation or jail is the cure-all. The "get tough on crime" rhetoric is a great sound byte, but how to "get tough" is what separates some politicians from the practitioner. The sound byte may get votes, but it doesn't always reduce crime.
The more low-risk cases that enter the front gates of our juvenile justice systems, the more difficult it becomes for other players in the system to perform at optimal capacity. Many years ago, after a school fight case, I asked the prosecutor if he thought such cases were worthy of his prosecutorial efforts. He replied "No--most of these kids don't belong on probation." He added, "I could use more time to prepare for the difficult cases--the kids who do scare me!"
It then dawned on me - the domino effect. What affects the prosecutor, affects the probation officer and ultimately me, the judge.
My effectiveness is compromised when cases unworthy of court intervention keep me from work in the community and activities that promote the administration of juvenile justice. People often inquire how I am able to write, lecture, provide technical assistance to others and attend community functions and keep up with my court docket? It's quite simple - we have far fewer cases today than when I took the bench in 1999 - 63 percent to be exact.
Many years ago, we changed the way we do business implementing best practices such as Annie E. Casey Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) strategies and the Model Guidelines for Delinquency Courts produced by the National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). We introduced risk instruments to help us know who can be diverted and who needs to be targeted for intensive supervision. Needs assessment tools were also created to determine the most effective programs to ameliorate those criminal tendencies identified in each high-risk kid. We implemented graduated sanctions to swiftly respond to probation violators. Most important of all, we brought the community of stakeholders to the table to create a system of care to get services to the kids who are low risk in need of services - those that make us mad and are diverted.
It’s a systemic paradox - on one hand probation officers, prosecutors, defenders, and judges require more time to be effective, but on the other are trapped in a fortress called the office or courtroom mostly to keep up with kids who have made some adult mad, usually a school administrator or parent! It’s difficult to find the time to be effective in a system that is lacking diligent gate-keeping mechanisms.
To the prosecutor it translates into more time needed to prosecute the serious cases. To the probation officer, it translates into fewer low-risk kids to spend more time supervising the kids who scare us. To the judge, it translates into more time to get involved in the community to sustain an effective system of care and to improve the administration of juvenile justice altogether.
The American Bar Association's Model Canons of Judicial Ethics encourage judges to "engage in extrajudicial activities that concern the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, such as speaking, writing, teaching, or participating in scholarly research projects." The Model Canons further encourage judges to "share their expertise with legislative governmental bodies and executive or legislative branch officials." Judges are allowed to "accept appointments to entities that concern the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice."
Of course, the Canons also include an operational phrase - "when time permits." Several years ago I did not have the time for extrajudicial activities that today integrate me into the community and allow me to try and promote the administration of juvenile justice. Today, we are able to help other communities change their juvenile justice systems so they too will have more time to be effective - and in turn, they too will be able to pass it on!
WASHINGTON - A mix of around 250 child welfare workers, law enforcement officials, public officials and nonprofit employees from 49 states and territories, many of whom advise their local agencies on preventing juvenile delinquency and improving juvenile justice systems, are convening near Washington, D.C., this weekend to lobby their federal legislators and share best practices at a time of shrinking state budgets.
This year’s conference and meeting of the Council of State Advisory Groups, organized by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, will train new state advisory group members on federal requirements under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, tackle common challenges like recruiting enough members under the age of 24 to meet federal quotas, and emphasize how members can use research data about proven outcomes to improve their programs and measure performance.
Clema Lewis, co-director of a domestic violence coalition in the Virgin Islands, was among the attendees at a training session for new advisory group members this morning. Although she’s been a part of the advisory group for the last 12 years – and now serves as its chairperson -- this was the first such training she had ever attended, she said.
Coming to a conference like this helps her keep up to date on the latest research, network with other people with similar challenges, and most importantly, take that information back home to share with her peers, Lewis said.
“We are all dealing with the same kind of issues,” said Chris Shorter, the chief-of-staff for the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, who just joined the District’s advisory group this month.
The conference comes at a critical time for state agencies, many of whom are struggling with cuts in federal funds of up to 50 percent for many programs, such those that address disparities in detention rates for minority youth, said Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
“In many ways children’s issues and juvenile justice issues have been a lower priority for both the administration and the Congress in past years,” Hornberger said. Deep cuts to funding make it very difficult to implement strong programs, yet Congress continues to make more cuts while criticizing programs for being ineffective, she said.
Conference attendees were encouraged to visit their state legislators earlier in the week and ask them to reintroduce the OJJDP Act, which first passed in 1974 and was last reauthorized in 2002. Some attendees reported back that their legislators appeared wary of promising anything related to funding, Hornberger said.
“Congress will have to make some very definite choices,” Hornberger said. If federal representatives stand by and allow their state’s programs to be defunded, it could mean higher juvenile crime in their communities down the line, she said.
“If the federal government abdicates its role, that’s just an enormous loss at a time when really what should be happening is greater federal leadership,” Hornberger said.
A high-ranking official in the state’s Department of Corrections, a man named Dr. Allen Ault, spearheaded a drive to address numerous allegations of sexual abuse against women in the DOC. His good work led to the departure of the agency’s commissioner and Ault’s appointment to the job. He ended up running the DOC from 1992 to 1995.
And he might still be there today, had he not run afoul of politics.
Ault was known for his progressive views, and at the time prisoners and many staff were hopeful he would bring much needed changes. He advocated for a refocusing of corrections toward rehabilitation, in the face of much internal resistance, and slowly the system began to improve.
Then he ran head on into Zell Miller, our conservative Democratic governor. Miller, who would go on to speak at the Republican National Convention, could not countenance Ault’s commitment to changing the system. Gov. Miller, one of the worst “tough on crime” alarmists of the 90s, put in his place a former state senator and funeral home director, as chronicled by Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group, who instituted a series of reactionary draconian measures that set the system back 20 years.
It was all done in the name of politics. I am not so naïve as to imagine that politics and sheer greed won’t enter into policy decisions, but still find myself disheartened by how often it is the driving factor.
For example, the Miami Herald reported last week that Mike Haridopolos, the state Senate president, personally intervened to avert bidding for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s programs to monitor youth diverted away from incarceration and towards community-based solutions.
This action, to the tune of almost $16 million, was taken despite the DJJ’s acknowledgment that it wished to receive bids for the service, and that the company had not fully met its previous obligations. The company that was given the contract, Evidence Based Solutions, employs a lobbyist who happens to be a close friend of Haridopolos.
In Georgia HB 641, a complete rewrite of the juvenile code, passed the state House, had the support of the governor, but never made it to the floor in the state Senate. Despite estimated savings in terms of lives and money, many district attorneys opposed the bill because of what they said were higher costs. This, despite five years of work, happened in the last few days of the session. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, opponents moved to have the effort tabled until next year. Here we have a case not of corruption, but of ineptitude.
In California, Jerry Brown’s bold plan to eliminate the Youth Authority’s last three prisons has run into trouble. The governor now plans to leave the prisons open and charge the counties more to house their inmates there. The powerful guards’ union, a group that is invested in maintaining the status quo and has the political clout to back up its desires, opposed him.
The bottom line is that we as citizens need to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. Whether it is corruption and cronyism, ineptitude and back room dealing, or lack of commitment, we have the power to put those in office who will do what is right, both fiscally and morally. We owe it to these kids to provide the best options available, and we deserve to have it done in a responsible way.
WASHINGTON - While most of the nation anxiously awaits a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the federal health care law, juvenile justice reform advocates are on tenterhooks over a ruling expected next week over mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole.
At stake is the question of whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to put minors in prison for the rest of their lives without any possibility of release, even if they killed someone or were involved in a murder, without considering their age or circumstances.
The court’s ruling will be on two separate but related cases involving two 14-year-old boys sentenced to life without parole under mandatory sentencing laws in their states, Alabama and Arkansas.
On two previous occasions, the Supreme Court has affirmed that under the Eighth Amendment, juveniles could not be given death sentences or life sentences without parole for crimes other than murder because to do so would be excessive. Now, it must decide whether it is excessive for states to do so even in the case of murder or manslaughter.
The Court has released opinions on all but five cases argued before it this term, according to the website SCOTUSblog. Juvenile-justice watchers hoped that Thursday would be the day they’d get the court’s rulings on Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the cases involving the two 14-year-olds, but those were not among the four decisions released this morning.
The court never announces in advance which rulings it will release. Monday is the next day for rulings, with Thursday, June 28, likely to be the last day for remaining rulings to be made public.
In the last 40 years, about 7,000 children have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, of which only 79 have been sentenced to life without parole, making such a sentence very rare, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who argued on behalf of the boys in both cases, told the court in oral arguments in March. Nationwide, only 41,000 people are serving life sentences without parole, making those 79 children a miniscule percentage of the total, he said.
“This is an exceedingly rare sentence where the majority of states have never chose to impose it,” Stevenson said. “That would provide a basis for this Court to conclude that it is cruel and unusual.”
My husband, Steve, and his first wife, Laurene, moved to Eastern Europe shortly after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The day before they boarded the plane to move to Bratislava, Slovakia, Steve and Laurene discovered that they were expecting, unexpectedly, twins! Since Bratislava’s medical care was still behind those of Western Europe and the birth of twins is a higher risk pregnancy, they chose to go to Vienna, Austria for the pregnancy care and birth.
Early one morning Laurene’s water broke and they made a harried run across the Danube River for the Slovakia/Austria border. Before long David and Paul made their dramatic debut about a minute apart via C-Section.
Steve and Laurene planned on living there long-term, but a breast cancer diagnosis short-circuited those dreams. At six months of age, the twins were brought to America for the first time. Since then, they’ve lived, gone to school, and looked for jobs in America, which is as much home to them as any child born in America.
What if the Immigration police showed up one day and looked at their Vienna, issued birth certificates and passports? Would the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents send them back to Austria, a country where they’ve never actually lived and where there are no relatives and where they don’t speak German? David and Paul would be lost.
Now this can’t happen to David and Paul since they were born abroad to U.S. citizens. If their parents had not been U.S. citizens, the twins would find themselves in the same situation facing almost a million young people who were brought to America. When you’re a toddler you go where you parents take you. You live where your parents live. When you grow older, according to the law of your new land, you attend school and eventually graduate.
That’s the point where the one million Dreamers’ lives have stalled. They cannot attend college, apply for a scholarship or even obtain a job to support themselves. And, the shadow of fear of deportation stalks them. College student, Jessica Colotl discovered this in 2010. She was attending Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., when she was arrested on campus for driving without a proper driver’s license. She was exposed as an “illegal immigrant” even though the migration occurred when she was ten years old, well before the age of informed consent. This honor student quickly found herself in handcuffs and behind bars after being transported to an ICE facility in Alabama.
Her experience has been shared by many young people who were brought -- much like David and Paul -- to this country, were raised here and consider America their home. Last week, President Barack Obama spoke a message of hope to the Dreamers who are stuck in this Catch-22 immigration situation.
In Obama’s address to the nation from the Rose Garden he said, “Effective immediately the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”
The president said, “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.”
Even before he finished his speech, the wails of protest began from those who oppose giving grace to those young people who are stuck in this flawed immigration system.
There are restrictions on who can apply for a work permit or scholarship for college. The new policy states that a young person would be immune from deportation if they arrived in the United States when they were younger than 16, have been in the country at least five years and are under the age of 30. They have to have graduated from high school or earned a GED and have no criminal convictions in order to be eligible to apply for this exemption. Since this policy change was made by executive order it goes into effect immediately.
Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King echoed the cry of the Dreamer’s hearts when he said, this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring..."
...And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
I'm well aware that many argue this will encourage an increase in illegal immigration or that Dreamers would drain federal programs of funds but, I agree with the president on this one. Tempering the joy that his executive order brought to the families affected, he said, “Let’s be clear, this is not amnesty, this is not immunity…this is not a permanent fix. This is the right thing to do.”
The Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case has shone a harsh light on the limitations of the child protection policies put in place by youth-serving organizations. Sandusky, who served for years under Joe Paterno as Penn State’s assistant football coach, is currently on trial, facing 52 counts of sexually abusing young boys.
“Based on our 12 years of working with youth-serving organizations, it’s clear that most aren’t doing enough,” said Cindy McElhinney, director of programs for Darkness to Light, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse. “And this is evidenced by the stories playing out in the media right now, including the Sandusky case. Some organizations take it very seriously and are doing a great job, but many still act like it won’t happen to them, that the children they serve aren’t vulnerable.”
A state-of-the-art abuse prevention policy is not only critical to protecting the youth you serve, but also your organization from liability, McElhinney said. “Unfortunately, in addition to having that ‘not me’ attitude, many youth-serving organizations lack the information and know-how to put together an aggressive, comprehensive, zero-tolerance policy,” she said.
The following are six keys for crafting a sound child protection policy, according to McElhinney and other experts Youth Today spoke to:
1. Make protection your prime concern.
Keeping the youth you serve safe should be your No. 1 priority, no matter what your organization’s driving mission is, said Les Nichols, national vice president of club and child safety for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Detecting and preventing child molesters from gaining access to children is a tough, demanding, full-time challenge that requires unwavering diligence and commitment,” Nichols said. “Molesters don’t fit into a convenient stereotype and everyone —administrators, employees, volunteers, parents and even the children themselves — must be taught to have the courage to speak out if something seems wrong or out-of-place and to follow-through by reporting it to the appropriate authority.”
Making your commitment to child protection known to potential employees and volunteers will help to scare away would-be perpetrators. “Pedophiles and child molesters look for organizations where polices are lax,” McElhinney said. “A strong commitment and strict policies presents a considerable barrier and limits their access to children.”
2. Give every adult a background check -- and not just when they join.
It’s standard industry practice for youth-serving organizations to check the criminal backgrounds and references of employees and volunteers, and screen out those with a history of violence or abuse. However, your protection policy should not stop there.
“We do not make exceptions for people known to our organization,” said Amy Charles, associate director of Mission Kids, a Pennsylvania-based child advocacy center. “All of our vendors who visit our center, such as the cleaning service, copy machine repair staff and I/T support, also must undergo criminal background checks before being permitted entry.”
And the background checks shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence. Many organizations such as Mission Kids conduct background checks every few years or so. Some do even more.
“Every Boys & Girls Club professional and volunteer who has direct access to children is required to undergo a thorough background check every year, meeting or exceeding industry standards,” Nichols said.
3. Limit (or prohibit) one adult/one child interactions.
“Grooming is a systematic attempt by a pedophile or molester to establish friendships, develop trust and solidify relationships with children,” said Dr. Michael Ian Rothenberg, clinical director and founder of the Center for Counseling and Sexual Health of Winter Park, Fla. And grooming almost always happens when the adult has opportunities to give gifts, time and attention while slowly increasing the level of both physical and sexual contact with vulnerable youth, Rothenberg said.
“If you reduce one-on-one interactions between adults and children, you greatly reduce risk,” McElhinney said. “More than 80 percent of sexual abuse occurs in one-adult/one-child situations.”
If one-on-one interactions are necessary, McElhinney said, they should always be at a time and place that is observable and interruptible by others in your organization.
Prohibiting adult access to youth outside of your organization and its programs is also critical.
“Child abuse by an employee or volunteer of a youth-serving organization usually won’t happen at your facility or during one of your activities, but rather offsite and after hours,” McElhinney said. “It may seem innocent to allow an employee or volunteer to do something as basic as driving a child home, but you can’t open that door of opportunity no matter the circumstances. There’s always a safer, better way to do it. And it should be clearly spelled out in your policies.”
4.Train your staff to spot behavioral red flags.
As an expert on the grooming behaviors of child predators, Rothenberg believes that everyone in a youth-serving organization should keep their eyes open to what can appear to be an unusual interest in a child.
“This includes the people that we know and, seemingly, trust,” Rothenberg said.
Perhaps the biggest red flag is inappropriate touching -- which could include tickling, lapsitting, horseplay and even hugs.
“It’s often difficult to identify what is inappropriate,” McElhinney said. “And that’s why it’s important to have rules for touching clearly written down for all your adults to read and understand.”
Giving preferential treatment to a child is another, more subtle behavior that is often used by child abusers.
“Offering gifts, keeping secrets and actively seeking one-on-one time is cause for alarm,” McElhinney said.
Sometimes, predators may try to build trust with youth, especially teens, by treating them like adults.
“They may expose them to explicit language, dirty jokes, alcohol and even pornographic material,” McElhinney said.
It’s also important to closely watch the children in your programs that may be the most vulnerable and isolated, added Rothenberg. They are the ones who will likely be targeted for sexual abuse and molestation.
5. Make the incident reporting process clear.
If you have set very clear and strict rules about what behaviors and actions aren’t allowed, it should be very easy for an organization’s staff to report violations, McElhinney said. “Ideally, there should be no gray areas and zero-tolerance for breaking these important rules that protect the youth you serve.”
But it’s also vital for your organization’s staff to have a clear understanding of who they can talk to about their concerns and suspicions, said Lisa Friel, vice president, sexual misconduct consulting and investigations at T&M Protection Resources.
“Ideally, there should be more than one avenue for reporting concerns and suspicions,” Friel said. “We hear all too often that employees are not comfortable sharing such matters with the person designated, and for a variety of reasons – one of the most prevalent being that the person they are to report to is friends with or close to the person being reported.”
Mission Kids’ Charles agrees. “It’s important to create an environment in which your employees and volunteers feel comfortable raising questions and concerns,” she said. “It reduces barriers to coming forward, reporting and being proactive about preventing and responding to child sexual abuse.”
6. Communicate your policies to employees, volunteers, parents and youth.
“All adults who work with youth should undergo rigorous training about healthy relationships with children, the policies that a youth serving organization has in place and about reporting anything that seems strange, unusual or just plain unsettling,” Charles said.
Unfortunately, parents and their kids that they entrust to you are often left out of the loop, McElhinney said. “Parents need to know about your commitment to protecting their children, and they also need to play a role in your organization’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse,” she said. “The youth you serve need to not only know the rules that they need to follow, but also why. After all, a potential perpetrator is far less likely to abuse a child who is confident and aware.”
The Centers for Disease Control, in collaboration with groups such as Darkness to Light and the Boys and Girls Club of America, has put together a comprehensive guide to help youth-serving organizations start building policies and procedures for preventing child sexual abuse. It’s available for free online.
Photo by Daily of the Day
This past weekend I made a trip to Kentucky with my girlfriend, and on the way back we travelled through the north Georgia mountains. Not far from our route was Lee Arrendale State Prison, in Alto, Georgia. I was incarcerated there from 1985 to 1989, and it was by far the worst prison I did time in. Today it is very different, housing women instead of male teens, and with only a few of the buildings left that I knew.
As I neared the prison my body grew cold and numb, my heart rate and breathing increased, and I seemed to have trouble thinking straight. I observed these changes from a distance, watching my body and mind react to a place that I hadn’t seen for 23 years. Suddenly, it appeared on our right. My dissociation reached a peak, with a low buzz seeming to fill my brain. There was the main building, where I had lived and often worked. Memories suffused me, flickering from one to the next without seeming connection.
I drove on, but turned around to make another pass. Turning the car down a side road I could see a different section of the compound. In my day it housed the Annex, the worst part of the prison. There I had seen the most violence: beatings, stabbings, sexual assaults. We were 20 yards from where “dead man’s curve” had existed, a notorious spot for armed robberies and assaults. Turning around again, we drove away and resumed our journey home. The tension slowly left my body, replaced by relief and an appreciation for living in a different world now.
I recalled the last time that I left the prison. I was being transferred, sitting in a van, bound by shackles, cuffs, and a waist chain. Even though I was in chains, it was as if a huge weight was being lifted off of my body. For nearly four years I had lived in a state of almost constant vigilance and fear. A fierce joy filled me as the prison van pulled away that day in 1989, and I raised my bound hands as high as I could, flipping two birds and cursing that piece of hell for all I was worth. I never expected to see it again.
Since my trip I have been considering with surprise how much I was affected by seeing the old prison. I do not think every day about what happened there. Like everyone else I am caught up in my current life, and I would not have predicted the response I had. I have been wondering and researching what underlay my reaction. I have also been thinking about young men incarcerated today, and wondering what horrors are going on right now in their world. These are places where trauma is a near daily occurrence.
There is reluctance in society to think of prisoners as victims, and people resist hearing that message. This reluctance accompanies the belief that the people there deserve what they get. They are, somehow, disqualified from the moral sphere of protection because they broke the law, perhaps even harming an innocent person in the process. It feels right that they are there, and any indication to the contrary is met with resistance.
It seems to me that these two issues are often confused. The first issue is what should happen to juveniles who commit crimes. There is a wide spectrum of opinion, with some thinking that they should be sentenced without regard to their age and others advocating for consideration of juvenile malleability and a focus on rehabilitation. Let me set aside for a moment my own opinion of whether children should be imprisoned and for how long. I recognize that certain crimes will call for separating the juvenile from society; whether that happens for safety, justice, treatment, or any other reason doesn’t really matter to the second issue: what form should that separation take?
In the current system the norm is a dangerous and abusive environment. Like my own early days in a youth prison, juvenile facilities today remain filled with assaults, sexual violence, intimidation, dehumanization, mental and physical deprivation, lack of decent medical care, little support for maintaining or developing family connections and poor opportunities for personal development. Is this the way that we want it to be? Do we want prisons to be filled with pain? Are we really saying that kids should have to face the possibility of being beaten, raped, or stabbed as a consequence of their actions? If that is the case then let’s just say so. At least that would be better than indifference and feigned ignorance.
Forcing kids to live this way, even ones convicted of crimes, is wrong. Failure to change this situation is the same as endorsement. Even those who advocate for toughness, if they took a moment, would realize nothing good can come from this type of treatment. Most of these kids will see the streets again. How they live while on the inside can have a big impact on how they act when released. Subjecting kids to further harm, who in many cases have already experienced a lot of trauma in their young lives, is extremely unlikely to bring about the kinds of change that we want to see. Deprivation of liberty, no matter how “soft” critics think it is, is already punishment, it doesn’t need to be enhanced.