Illinois High Court Opens Door to New Sentences for Juvenile Lifers

Adolfo Davis, currently in custody in Stateville, Illinois, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v Alabama in his case.
Adolfo Davis, currently in custody in Stateville, Illinois, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v Alabama in his case.

CHICAGO — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Adolfo Davis, who was 16 when sentenced to mandatory life without parole for murder, will be eligible for new sentencing in a ruling that cracks open the door for scores of other inmates convicted while young to potentially live outside of prison as free.

The court’s opinion, issued Thursday morning, also applies retroactively to former cases of inmates sentenced as minors to life with the possibility of parole, even in homicide cases. Retroactivity, which has been adopted by such states as Texas, was something the U.S. Supreme Court left unclear in its 2012 ruling.

Jobi Cates, director of the Human Rights Watch Chicago office, said in a statement: “Youth who commit crimes should be held to account – but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation…If something is wrong on Tuesday, it was also wrong on Monday. Applying the Miller decision retroactively will help some young offenders find a path to becoming productive members of society.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in making it’s 2012 decision, agreed with arguments that minors, despite the heinous nature of a crime, could not be held to the same standard and consequences as adults, for the reason that they had not matured emotionally or mentally to the capacity of adult offenders. The court had previously ruled against the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole for crimes other than homicide

The Illinois ruling in a case in which Davis, now 37, was accused of being an accomplice and not the actual shooter, means that about 100 current inmates serving JLWOP could get new hearings and new sentences. But extremely long sentences could still be handed down – just not as a mandatory sentence – if the judge in a case feels it is appropriate.

The fierce battle over how to apply Miller in Illinois – which never adopted a law to apply it and has therefore been out of compliance for almost two years – started even before the Miller ruling. Advocates for both victims of the crimes and minors who committed them – or were accomplices found guilty – fought over who deserved the greatest weight.

Those fighting the Davis ruling argued the victims’ families and loved ones would have endure and relive details of the crimes yet again in new hearings. Juvenile advocates argued for the young perpetrators whose age, combined with the sentence, amounted to what the U.S. Supreme Court said was a violation of the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.

HRW also noted in the statement that, “Sentencing youths under 18 to life with no chance of release is a violation of international law. No other country in the world imposes life without parole on people who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.”

Juvenile Life Without Parole: What Will Miller v. Alabama Mean For Adolfo Davis?

Adolfo Davis, currently in custody at Stateville, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama in his case.
Adolfo Davis, currently in custody at Stateville, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama in his case.” credit=”

CHICAGO — In 1990, Adolfo Davis and two other members of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples were involved in a shooting with a rival gang that left two people dead. Although Davis never fired his gun, he was charged as an accomplice and sentenced to life without parole, the mandatory minimum sentence in Illinois.

At the time, Davis was 14. He has since spent more than two decades in prison. However, after a June 2012 Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles, Davis is appealing his sentence. The SCOTUS decision was made under the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” punishment prohibition, which “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.”

The Miller v. Alabama ruling

The Miller v. Alabama case involved the petitioner, 14-year-old Evan Miller, who along with a friend, had beaten Miller’s neighbor and set fire to his trailer. Miller was tried as an adult and sentenced to a mandatory punishment of life without parole.

chicago logoThe Supreme Court ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional after examining other cases that set precedent, including Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida.  Roper v. Simmons barred capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida said, “…The Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense.” Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion, stated “Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty itself.”

These cases tie into the psychological state of juveniles – the underdeveloped brains and lack of maturity that juveniles tend to exhibit subjects them to take more risks and be more impulsive. The Roper and Graham cases show that juveniles have differing characteristics than adults, which then make it harder to justify harsh penalties on juveniles, regardless of the severity of the crime. In the end, Kagan wrote that all juveniles convicted of murder should be given a sentence directly related to their age and their involvement in the crime.

Varying states’ responses

According to the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), the Miller ruling created four issues for the states. The states had to address “bringing their sentencing statutes into compliance with the ban on mandatory sentencing, determining whether the ruling is retroactive, providing youth with a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release, and reforming their juvenile-to-adult court transfer processes in general.”

Two of the main points are the changing of sentence statutes and the determination of whether applying the ruling would be retroactive. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at least 27 states were affected by the ruling.

California, Wyoming, and Delaware immediately recognized the differences between adults and children and eliminated juvenile life without parole completely.

In Pennsylvania and North Carolina, juveniles convicted of second-degree murder can no longer be sentenced to life without parole.

Connecticut is also working on House Bill 6581, which would ban life without parole sentencing for youth, and increase the opportunities for parole for those who had served “prison sentences of more than 12 years for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays.” Although the bill was not voted on in the Senate before the legislative session adjourned, supporters anticipate action on the bill in the 2014 session.

Another state that responded swiftly to the federal mandate was Iowa; a week after the Supreme Court made their decision in Miller v. Alabama, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad reduced all juvenile life without parole sentences to life without parole after 60 years. However, some argue that this reduced sentence may be almost equivalent to a life sentence.

In August 2013, a Michigan judge also upheld the life-without-parole sentencing ban for juveniles, which meant that over 350 prisoners became eligible for parole hearings after being sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. This is also significant because Michigan has the second-highest number of juveniles sentenced to life in prison, following Pennsylvania.

Looking at Illinois, in terms of the Adolfo Davis case, the biggest question remains: is Miller v. Alabama retroactive? Because the court did not specify in the ruling whether the decision should be applied retroactively, Davis’ case will be the first to be examined by the Illinois Supreme Court and could set precedent for the close-to-100 other inmates in Illinois serving a mandatory juvenile life without parole sentence.

The retroactivity of Miller

During the January opening oral arguments in Davis, prosecutor Alan Spellberg argued that the Supreme Court’s decision should not be applied retroactively on existing sentences. Spellberg said that those who are currently serving juvenile life without parole sentences should appeal Gov. Pat Quinn for clemency; Davis requested clemency two years ago and still has not received a decision.

On the other hand, Davis’ attorney Patricia Soung told the Chicago Tribune that she believed the large “watershed” effect of the law meant that the state needed to review current juvenile life without parole sentences.

Jobi Cates, the director of Human Rights Watch in Chicago, agreed with Soung, saying that juvenile life without parole cases do need to be reviewed.

“It is difficult to look at these cases and reevaluate things that happened…you have to weigh the horrific harm that was done to an individual against individuals whose rights are being violated [by juvenile life without parole],” Cates said. “What’s worse?”

Cates also stated that the Adolfo Davis case and other juvenile life without parole cases meet the Teague exceptions. The Teague v. Lane case did bar retroactivity, but the Supreme Court also gave two exceptions in which retroactivity may be applied. The court said that a new law may be applied if (1) “it places ‘certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe’” or (2) “requires the observance of ‘those procedures that . . . are ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’”

According to these exceptions, juvenile life without parole sentencing goes against the “observance of ‘those procedures that…. are ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,’” since the mandatory sentencing procedure does not take into account the age of the offender or circumstances of the crime.

Therefore, retroactivity in these cases can be applied because the petitioner was once denied a form of due process since the sentencing was ruled unconstitutional.

The United States is the only country to ever have a life without parole sentence for a juvenile. Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, believes that the juvenile life without parole sentence is also “…violative of international human rights as it is expressly prohibited in the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” and that the Miller case should be applied retroactively to fight against the injustice.

With the Adolfo Davis sentence appeal set to be decided at any time, the fate of the others serving juvenile life without parole sentences in Illinois will fall into the hands of the precedent set by the case.

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau

White Paper: Need to Reform Mental Health Treatment for Incarcerated Youth

Up to 70% of youth involved with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder
Up to 70% of youth involved with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disordercom

CHICAGO — National mental health organizations and experts are calling for reforming mental health services for incarcerated youth after recent reports revealed startlingly high numbers of mental health disorder in the population.

Up to 70 percent of youths who come in contact with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to a Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change white paper published Thursday. On average, up to 600,000 youths are in detention centers and 70,000 youths are in correctional facilities every day. Many of those youths are in detention for committing minor, non-violent offenses, according to the white paper.

But once inside detention and facilities, youth do not receive proper treatment for mental health disorders. To address this, the white paper reports the MacArthur Foundation created reform models for the juvenile justice system, implemented in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, Washington, Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio and Texas, that successfully “held young people accountable for their actions, provided for their rehabilitation, protected them from harm, increased their life chances and managed the risk they posed to themselves and to others.”

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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:

The reforms put forward by the MacArthur Foundation were aimed at community-based treatment for youth that circumvented the juvenile justice system. The MacArthur Foundation also created the  Collaborate for Change with the goal of implementing these reforms on a nationwide scale.

As a starting point for change, the white paper offers up these three points.

-There are large numbers of youth with mental health needs involved with the juvenile justice system.

-Many of these youth would be better served in community-settings with access to effective evidence-based treatments.

-Some of these youth will not be appropriate for diversion to the community but still deserve access to effective treatment while they are involved with the juvenile justice system.

To view the full report ‘Better Solutions for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Juvenile Justice System’ , click here.

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau

Illinois Riddled With Issues of Juvenile Access to Counsel, Fair Representation

CHICAGO — In 2007, Northwestern University Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center and the National Juvenile Defender Center collaborated to identify key issues in Illinois with juvenile access to counsel and representation in proceedings.

Seven years later, it is still unclear whether the state has found solutions to any of those problems. Rather, Illinois has found itself riddled with additional challenges as its juvenile prisons came under fire for numerous reports of sexual assault.

Julie Biehl
Julie Biehl”

“I think it’s hard to bring [this study] up to date because I don’t know that anyone’s followed up,” said Julie Biehl, director at the Children and Family Justice Center.

The report’s major findings included untimely appointment of counsel and pressure for children to plea guilty without complete understanding of the consequences. Many of the issues correlated with the volume of cases despite inadequate number of public defenders available for them.

“Public defender offices are always underresourced,” said Anne Helms, pro bono counsel with law firm DLA Piper. “There are people out there every day doing amazing work. Unfortunately, after a while, it almost becomes routine and you operate with the expectation that the person is guilty.”

Helms said this is a problem that extends beyond overworking public defenders. Due to time constraints, defenders don’t even have the chance to meet their clients before appearing before the judge. The judge, on the other hand, is also forced to make “split second decisions” given the high caseload.

As a result, lawyers cannot best represent the youth’s interest, which means the judges do not have that information on which to base their ruling.

Print“There are high school kids that come through who need to finish exams to graduate, or enroll in college, but the judge gets none of that information,” she said. “The kids don’t get another chance to reargue. By the time they’re out, or get to the next hearing, they can already be so behind in school they have to repeat a year.”

Moreover, youth are still unable to have weekend detention hearings in Cook County, a policy afforded to adults, Biehl said. This means if juveniles are detained before the weekend, their first hearing comes after more than the standard 24 hours. They would also have to miss time in school to attend the hearing.

“It’s so important that kids are schooled of the importance between being tried as adults and tried as juveniles,” she said.

This is not the only time that juveniles experience greater negative impact in the justice system than adults. Because lawyers and administrators alike sometimes adopt the attitude that they “know best” for children, it is not the child’s expressed interest that is represented, but rather, what the adults believe to be in the child’s interest.

“There’s an instinct as an adult, ‘well I don’t care what you want, this is what’s best for you,’” Helms said. “But when you take on the representation of a child, your role has to be different. This is juvenile justice 101. You’re supposed to fight for what your client wants.”

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Learn more about juvenile indigent defense at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about juvenile indigent defense at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Yet, lack of resources means children aren’t even informed of their choices, Biehl said. The fact that youth have the right to petition to get off the sex offender registry but need an attorney to do so is an egregious access to counsel issue. Helms said juveniles also are unaware of how to navigate the record expungement process, which is critical in helping youth exit the system.

However, the problem continues well beyond what should be the extent of juvenile justice, said Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative just north of Chicago.

“A year ago, there was a bill that said kids can’t be on parole or aftercare for longer than an adult would,” she said. “Yet, kids are given a list of conditions that they have to do on parole, but aren’t told when they’ll be done. We still have people saying ‘we gotta keep the kid on parole longer.’ Fundamentally, the process should say, this is how long you have, if you comply, you finish.”

Clarke said everything boiled down to lack of due process and transparency, both of which should be solved with a different model.

For example, she pointed to talks of creating an ombudsman position to better hear grievances of youth in the system as a way to alleviate the transparency issue, but said it won’t solve the problem.

“Fundamentally, we have the wrong model here,” she said. “The states that have the right model have facilities that aren’t prisons, but are community homes. When all you have are prisons, a bulk of the resources are burned out on the staff and not on in-community alternatives for the kids.”

This story was produced by the Chicago Bureau.


Childhood Early Aggression More Related to Genes Than Earlier Thought


CHICAGO — Childhood aggression may have more to do with a child’s genes than his or her surroundings, a new study has found. But environment and parenting remain key factors in the upbringing of young children, according to child development experts.

Montreal researchers claim that genetic factors may contribute more to a small child’s tendency to be physically aggressive than environmental factors.

To arrive at the root causes of physical aggression in young children, researchers at the University of Montreal conducted a study and posted new findings that could help clear up the perennial nature-versus-nurture debate.
Their findings: that the genetic makeup has more impact than does surrounding environment on whether a child likely will act out aggressively toward other children, adults or possessions.

“Quite surprising,” remarked University of Montreal researcher Eric Lacourse.

PrintAs part of the study, Lacourse, an associate professor in the school’s sociology department, and his team of researchers followed 667 pairs of twins, identical and fraternal, for three and a half years. Tendency toward physical aggression, or PA, “was assessed for each twin as part of a large questionnaire administered to mothers” at key points in the children’s developmental process; ages 20, 32 and 50 months.

The study then took the mother’s reports and used three different models to calculate shared and non-shared environmental factors. There was no direct observation of the individual home environments, (i.e. shared environment,) of the twins, however.

“The statistics we derived always depends on the type of environments we find in the sample. For instance, because we are dealing with a population sample, the environments of the twins may not be as adverse as those we find in more at risk sample,” said Canada Research Chair in Child Development and co-researcher Michael Boivin.

Identical twins, with identical genetic makeup, tended to display similar tendencies toward aggressive or non-aggressive behavior. But fraternal twins, sharing the same environment, often showed different tendencies toward aggression, a way of suggesting genetic influence.

“At first we thought that it would be even,” Lacourse said, commenting on the influence of genetic factors versus environmental ones. Identical twins were used as a comparison group. They share 100 percent of the same DNA while fraternal twins share about 50 percent. Within both the identical and fraternal twin sets, every twin lived in the same, shared environment as their sibling.

“We expected more correlation of similarity among the fraternal twins,” Lacourse said. But the scientists were surprised to discover that shared environments “had no effect on the stability, initial status and growth rate of PA,” the study noted.

Based on the mothers’ completed questionnaires, Lacourse was quick to clarify that young children often grow out of their physically aggressive behavior. PA “[is] normative and can be frequent during this age period,” Lacourse said.

“I do not want to make parents not responsible for their parenting,” he said. Even if a child is genetically prone to PA, there are ways parents and caregivers should react to decrease the likelihood of continued PA in later years.

“If parents respond badly, it will make PA worse over time,” Lacourse said.

Denise Duval Tsioles, a child psychologist at Child Therapy Chicago, also emphasized that parent involvement is crucial, and her experience leads her to slightly different conclusions.

“What I tend to see is a lot of environmental factors. They play a huge role,” Duval Tsioles said. Children may have “similar genetic backgrounds but depending on certain factors their emotions come out differently.”

How children develop a sense of self plays a large role in their ability to control their emotions. Children who have caregivers that “help them regulate their emotions by being physically and emotionally responsive to their needs are more capable of modulating their emotions and are able to begin to internalize” the correct behavior that is expected, Tsioles said.

“The bottom line is that very early risk factors (of genetic origin) are at play that makes it more likely (it’s not destiny!) that some children will use physical aggression over time early in life,” said Boivin. “These findings militate for an early prevention approach to physical aggression, before other factors (some environmental, others, of genetic origin) kick in to reinforce this behavioral tendency.”

This story was produced by the Chicago Bureau.

Obama Administration Calls Out School-to-Prison Pipeline

Graphic showing the tough path facing minors who drop out of school or work and the high racial disparity among those arrested. Courtesy of Project NIA.
Graphic showing the tough path facing minors who drop out of school or work and the high racial disparity among those arrested. Courtesy of Project NIA.

CHICAGO — The White House sent a message to schools across the country Wednesday to abandon severe discipline policies shown to criminalize students for infringements that could be handled without law enforcement.

A series of guidelines issued Wednesday on behalf of the Obama Administration recognized a phenomenon advocates of school discipline reform call the school-to-prison pipeline.

PrintThe theory goes that when schools employ zero-tolerance policies on wide-ranging behavioral infractions including truancy, drug use, fighting and weapons possession, they may choose to suspend students or charge them with criminal offenses rather than mediate the problem in school. These strict sanctions interfere with students’ potential to succeed academically and increase their chances of running afoul of the law.

According to the Department of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline also disproportionally affects minority students, with black children more than three times more likely than their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended.

At the same time, a letter that the Department of Education sent to schools along with the proposed policy changes noted that research has shown minority students do not misbehave more frequently than white students.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, according to a news release.

schoolppipe_seriesThe guidelines for a more progressive discipline policy call for re-educating school officials about how to handle disputes themselves rather than delegating the job to law enforcement. They advise administrators to distinguish the exact responsibilities of school security officers and mark the difference between minor infringements and major security threats. Schools should also supervise law enforcement aggregation of student data, according to the nonbinding recommendations.

After the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999 and more recently the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings last year, schools across the country have heightened their police presence. The Obama Administration’s new guidelines on disciplinary measures seek to relax the punitive power of these security forces.

This story produced by The Chicago Bureau

Holder Calls for Fewer Drug Indictments; Suggests Overhauling Sentencing Laws

Click for a summary of the August 2013 report, "Smart on Crime."
Click for a summary of the August 2013 report, "Smart on Crime."

From The Chicago Bureau 

In a major national policy shift, the Obama administration has moved to lessen overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to sidestep federal laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses by omitting the quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the new policy as part of a “Smart on Crime” initiative at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday.

“As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective,” Holder stated. “With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.”

chicago bureau logo_JJIEwideAccording to varying estimates, the prison population has swelled by 600 to 700 percent over the past 30-some years. Get-tough-on-crime laws originating in the 1980s reduced crack and gang wars that had spiked crime and violence rates, but organizations such as the juvenile justice nonprofit W. Haywood Burns Institute have argued the harsh laws of the period targeted mostly people of color and youth used as runners for drug dealers.

In fact, Holder’s speech specifically mentioned youth violence, stating the need “to better understand, address, and prevent young people’s exposure to violence,” as well as “those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system.”

He emphasized: “A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal’s office and not a police precinct.”

States have been retreating over the past few years from tougher sanctions on minor infractions – a New York federal judge just ruled unconstitutional the city’s Stop-and-Frisk policy – and even the United States Supreme Court has delivered rulings aimed at a more restorative and rehabilitative model of justice.

Federal and state officials, including Illinois governor Pat Quinn and Robert Listenbee, director of the Office on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, have also recently examined ways to combat the high recidivism rates that are often tied to minor offenses, sending former inmates back to prison.

“Federal prosecutors cannot – and should not – bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law,” Holder said. “Some issues are best handled at the state or local level.”

The Obama administration also plans to tackle issues such as sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence.

A document detailing the Smart on Crime initiative was released online on Monday, listing the initiative’s five principles as:

1.     Prioritizing prosecutions to focus on the most serious cases

2.     Reforming sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overburdened prisons

3.     Pursuing alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent crimes

4.     Improving reentry to curb repeat offenses and re-victimization

5.     ‘Surging’ resources to violence prevention and protecting the most vulnerable populations


Lawmakers Call to Arm Prison Rape Victims with Legal Aid

Protestors outside a panel discussion on youth prison rape.
Protestors outside a panel discussion on youth prison rape.

From the Chicago Bureau: 

Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, panned one glaring contributor to Illinois’ soaring rates of sexual abuse in youth prisons: the lack of advocacy on the part of incarcerated children.

“Although the public is not aware of this,” she said, “Illinois does not provide attorneys for incarcerated youth.”

chicago bureau logo_JJIEwideWithout legal representation, young people “have no one to turn to whom they trust” in matters ranging from unwanted advances from prison staff to guidance in parole hearings that have the potential to determine the course of their lives, Biehl said at a hearing by the state’s Restorative Justice Committee this week at the James R. Thompson Center downtown.

“Imagine for a moment you’re a teenager,” Biehl continued. “You’re incarcerated. You may be learning disabled; you may be traumatized; you probably don’t read at your grade level. Your release, your re-incarceration and your discharge from parole is at the discretion of the correctional officers. Maybe… you’ve been raped. There is no one to advocate exclusively for your rights, safeguarding your welfare and telling your story.”

Julie Biehl speaks at a panel at the Restorative Justice Committee this week at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Il.
Julie Biehl speaks at a panel at the Restorative Justice Committee this week at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Il.

Democratic Rep. LaShawn Ford of Chicago convened the meeting of lawmakers, the state Department of Juvenile Justice and watchdogs to address the findings of the a prison rape study published last month by the federal Department of Justice.

The study, which examined nearly 9,000 anonymous surveys conducted at 336 facilities nationwide, highlighted Illinois as one of four states with the highest rates of reported sexual victimization.

Of the state’s 451 respondents, 15.4 percent claimed to have experienced sexual abuse — 6 percent more than the national average. IYC Joliet in particular reported that 21.1 percent of those surveyed had been victimized.

As a result of the study, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, a state advisory group established to administer funding and study issues affecting youth prisons, offered recommendations to the DJJ to curb the “unacceptably high rates” of sexual violence in the state’s juvenile justice facilities.

Lisa Jacobs, IJJC vice chair, urged the DJJ to comply fully with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, maintain connections between incarcerated youth and their families, create meaningful grievance report processes and develop trauma care programs and other mental health services.

Yet above all, lawmakers agreed that the state stands little chance of denting its soaring rates of prison rape without forming an independent monitoring system, such as appointing an ombudsman or outfitting inmates with personal attorneys.

Mariame Kaba, founder of the restorative justice network Project NIA, spoke from her own experience as a rape survivor when she denounced the idea that young prisoners can report personal violations in a place where those in authority are the ones violating them as “hilarious in an awful way.”

“Rape is soul killing in ways you can’t imagine, that it takes years of healing to be able to stand and speak to that in a real way,” Kaba said during her testimony before the Restorative Justice Committee. “Young people need someone within the system they can honestly believe will actually do something about [their complaints].”

Assigning that personal advocate to inmates is indispensable, she argued, because youth wouldn’t feel safe reporting victimization any other way.

Arthur Bishop, the head of Illinois' juvenile justice system, listens to concerns over prison rape at the Restorative Justice Committee this week at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Il.
Arthur Bishop, the head of Illinois' juvenile justice system, listens to concerns over prison rape at the Restorative Justice Committee this week at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Il.

In what committee members lauded as a transparent display of collaboration with watchdog organizations on the issue of making prisons safer for youth, DJJ director Arthur Bishop responded to IJJC’s complaint and identified ways in which he has already tried to reduce sexual violence.

Flanked by his legal counsel, Bishop ensured the committee that DJJ has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse, and that it has implemented PREA standards over the past year. An independent review team is currently assessing policies and procedures for reporting rapes and will publish the results of the investigation this fall, he said.

Bishop added that as of last month, DJJ has built in an automated 24/7 hotline for incarcerated youth to report sexual assault, drawing ire from Democratic Rep. Mary Flowers of Chicago, who questioned the reasoning behind depriving callers of immediate support by hotline operators.

Maintaining that the DJJ is doing more now than ever to decrease prison rape, Bishop called for communities of Illinois’ incarcerated children to realize that it’s not his job to parent.

“We need to look at families as a community-based resource, and that’s the model we’ve created in the department over the past six months,” he said. “[Youth] come to us scarred. We don’t want to become the de facto treatment. Sometimes youth come to us because the local community didn’t have any particular treatment programs so they thought, ‘Well, there’s always the Department of Juvenile Justice, so we’ll send him over there.’”


The Chicago Bureau Takes a Look at Prospects for a ‘Promising’ Bill for Youth

Steve LIss-1

Steve Liss

First introduced to Congress in 2007, the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education – or PROMISE – Act was reintroduced in March by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Va.

The legislation, which is backed by 250 government and civic organizations, would allocate federal funds to communities that establish local councils to address youth violence.

Despite widespread support from advocacy groups, previous versions of the bill failed to pass in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

chicago bureau logo_JJIEwideIn this two-part package, The Chicago Bureau takes a look at the newly reintroduced legislation, analyzing both its prospects for Congressional passage this time around and the concerns raised by some juvenile justice experts, who say that the violence prevention and intervention strategies favored by the Youth PROMISE Act will be of limited effectiveness.

Click here for news analysis of the act in Youth Violence Prevention Bill Idles in House Committee; and click here for a feature on The Potential Perils of the PROMISE Act

The Potential Perils of the Youth PROMISE Act


Reintroduced in Congress this March, the Youth PROMISE Act has been advertised as a common-sense, cost-saving measure to reduce the U.S. prison population by focusing on youth violence prevention and intervention.

But some juvenile justice experts express concern about the impact the Act could have on policing in black and Latino communities and how effective the bill could be in the absence of broader structural change.

chicago bureau logo_JJIEwideWhile sympathetic to the Act’s stated goals, these experts say that the legislation is likely to achieve only limited results in the face of pervasive police misconduct, economic inequality and racism.

Potential for Police Abuse

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”…there’s a cadre of police officers that nobody will do anything about that hide exculpatory evidence, intimidate witnesses, do all kinds of stuff, and are viewed by the citizens, particularly in poor areas, as the enemy.”[/module]

The Act would provide federal funds to communities that establish local councils to assess the needs of at-risk youth and implement anti-violence strategies. Section 102(d) of the Act specifically prohibits information collected by these councils, which would include law enforcement personnel, from being used in criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Andrea Lyon, director of DePaul University’s Center for Justice in Capital Cases, doubts, however, that such restrictions will be observed by the Chicago Police Department.

“There’s plenty of really good police officers, but there’s a cadre of police officers that nobody will do anything about that hide exculpatory evidence, intimidate witnesses, do all kinds of stuff, and are viewed by the citizens, particularly in poor areas, as the enemy,” she says.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Chicago Police Department
Chicago Police Department

John Márquez, an assistant professor of African American and Latino/a studies at Northwestern University, shares Lyon’s skepticism. In the early 1990s, Márquez says, he worked as a violence interrupter in Houston with a government-sponsored program formerly called Gang Activity Prevention, which is similar to Chicago’s Cure Violence program.

During his time there, one of his friends was murdered by a GAP co-worker, who was later convicted.

“The police were very much involved with the GAP program and they began to use our employment status as a way to gather information about the things that were transpiring, so that police used the GAP program as a way to arrest this guy,” Márquez says.

Now involved with Chicago’s Violence Prevention Committee, Márquez continues to participate in anti-violence initiatives, hoping to shape the conversation. But he worries that such initiatives may also function as mechanisms of social control in black and Latino neighborhoods.

“It’s often a frustrating conversation for me to participate in, primarily because my message is always that we don’t need funds, or we don’t need the state to have conversations amongst ourselves in violence-stricken communities about why we are so violent towards one another,” Márquez says.

“And,” he adds, “one of the fears that I have is that by being able to manage these types of conversations, the state also uses that as an extra form of surveillance or as part of the law enforcement apparatus itself.”

Rob Vickery, the program director for juvenile justice programs at the Chicago-based advocacy group Illinois Collaboration on Youth, is more optimistic about the effect the Youth PROMISE Act will have on policing.

“If anything it’s probably a more positive youth-oriented framework for police to get trained in and use,” Vickery says. “I work with a couple young men who, when they tell me their stories of interactions with the police, they’re treated roughly, unfairly, on a regular basis. And I don’t think that’s helping us as we try to address youth violence.”

The continuation of these practices would complicate the implementation of PROMISE Plans by the local councils.

“Look, any program you design can boomerang,” Lyon says. “And if this program becomes something that looks like and acts like a way of the police getting inside information on drug dealing or other kinds of criminality as a way to effectuate arrests, it’s going to fail.”

The Limits of Community Engagement 

Lisa Jacobs, vice chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, the Chicago-based state advisory board, says that the potential for net widening is best addressed at the local level.

A September 1999 bulletin from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention describes net widening as a phenomenon in which a program intended to divert youth from the juvenile justice system ends up drawing more youth into the system than would have occurred otherwise.

“I think we’re always concerned about net widening when we work on juvenile justice issues,” Jacobs says. “And the best way to prevent that is again at the local level and again making sure that we’re building opportunities to divert kids from the formal juvenile and criminal justice systems and to again get that support they need in the community.”

Vickery agrees, saying that the councils of local stakeholders are one of the bill’s strong suits.

“I think local communities probably know best what their needs are and what some good solutions would be,” Vickery says.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“It’s so glaringly obvious that there is a racial dynamic to this issue,” Márquez says.[/module]

Márquez, for his part, emphasizes that communities of color must mobilize independently of the government. Wary of what academic and activist Andrea Smith calls the “grassroots-industrial complex,” he says that government programs in black and Latino communities since the 1970s have co-opted local dialogues and foreclosed radical possibilities.

“The neoliberal state really wants to institutionalize everything,” Márquez says. “It’s like, ‘Well, if you’re saying that injustice exists, we’re going to launch a new program to address that for you.’ They do that spin over and over again.”

Márquez says that this co-optation has discouraged critical discussions of race. In his work with Chicago anti-violence initiatives like the Violence Prevention Committee, he has noticed a deep reluctance to address the racial and gender dimensions of a conflict in which black and Latino males are the primary victims and victimizers.

“It’s so glaringly obvious that there is a racial dynamic to this issue,” Márquez says. “And if we can’t speak about the very condition that we are trying to organize against, then we’re just playing politics, basically.”

Ebony DeBerry, chair of the Violence Prevention Committee, says in an e-mail that the initiative is still evolving.

“The Violence Prevention Coalition (VPC) addresses issues that [are] brought up by the community residents in Rogers Park,” DeBerry writes. “The VPC is in the process of identifying a new issue, as this is only the second campaign the Violence Prevention Coalition has ever embarked on since its restructure. To look at violence through a wider lens is the VPC mission. The topics of race, education, poverty,  housing, and mental health support are causes that often times lead to violence, and the very Foundation from which the VPC looks to pick its issues.”

Intervention programs can also disempower the populations they claim to uplift, Márquez says. As part of the GAP public speaking team in the early ’90s, Márquez and a friend paralyzed in a drive-by shooting spoke to audiences of predominantly white businessmen, standing before them as “emblems of chaos and pathology” and asking them to cut checks for the program.

“The more we engaged in that practice, the more I would go up and spin this narrative and tell people about how savage we are, the more I felt disempowered,” Márquez says.

Much like race, economic inequality is often overlooked by intervention programs, says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. He says that while the programs supported by the Youth PROMISE Act will likely have some positive effects, they are not a long-term solution.

“I think that any kind of intervention program that doesn’t deal with the underlying economics of the issue, of the communities, is at best going to have limited impact,” Siska says.

Community engagement, by itself, can only accomplish so much, he says.

“I don’t think it makes much of a difference how much they partner with the community,” he says. “They’re still only dealing with the surface issues and not the root causes, and that’s going to be any of these intervention programs. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means they’re going to have a limited effect.”

Root Causes 

Siska has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Cure Violence, formerly known as CeaseFire, and its promoters in the political and media class.

In a five-part blog series in 2008, Siska argued that the program’s claimed successes in Chicago could not be validated by a Northwestern University evaluation due to intervening variables. Siska maintains that there has been no convincing social science research since then to support Cure Violence’s claims, saying that “it’s very hard to validate a negative,” in this case violence that did not occur.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Márquez locates hope for the future in the affected communities themselves. He notes that gangs, often blamed as the root cause of the problem, also present some of the solutions.[/module]Northwestern political science professor and Institute for Policy Research fellow Wesley G. Skogan, one of the authors of the 2008 evaluation, disputes Siska’s assessment. He says that the team accounted for external variables by analyzing three streams of evidence from control and comparison neighborhoods:  long-term trends in monthly crime rates, shifts in gang homicide networks and the mapping of crime hotspots.

Siska’s assertions are “flat-out inaccurate,” says Josh Gryniewicz, Cure Violence’s communication director, who points to evaluations of the Cure Violence model in Baltimore and Crown Heights, Brooklyn that support Skogan’s findings. He adds that Cure Violence has made The Global Journal’s international Top 100 NGOs list two years running, ranking ninth overall in 2013. On both the 2012 and 2013 lists it ranked first among conflict resolution organizations.

Despite questions about their effectiveness, intervention programs like Cure Violence have enjoyed overwhelmingly positive media coverage.

“That’s a solution that makes sense to them because no one wants to deal with the underlying issues, which are racism, classism, the complete devastation and total ignoring of these communities,” Siska says. “And most reporters are white.”

Siska calls for increased investment in schools and community-based institutions. For Márquez, though, economic investment only goes so far. The psychosocial effects of racism and colonialism must also be addressed.

Racism was central to the development of Chicago’s gangs, he says. He wrote in anAmerican Quarterly article last September that the first black and Latino “gangs” emerged in the 1940s and 1950s to defend their communities from white ethnic gangs that violently enforced segregation.

Drawing on the work of Frantz Fanon, the French-Algerian anti-colonial theorist, Márquez argues that oppressed peoples internalize their own dehumanization, coming to view their own lives and the lives of their peers as without value. This “racial state of expendability,” coupled with the inability to challenge their oppressors directly, leads to crippling intra-group violence that delays liberation.

“Fanon really talks about these fits of what he calls inter-tribal warfare and violence toward peers because people don’t know what else to do with that rage derived from expendability,” Márquez says.

This critique unsettles the assumptions behind intervention programs.

“It almost makes violence prevention a kind of schizophrenic practice, primarily because you’re asking if the state itself is responsible for the colonial segregation that has produced violence, how then therefore can the state step in to be the remedy for that violence?” he says.

A New Model 

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“The only people who can save us from us is us.”[/module]Siska says he has no confidence that politicians will address underlying issues like racism and classism anytime soon. He points to Chicago’s recent school closings, which he says will “absolutely” exacerbate violence, as one example. Communities must alter their voting habits if anything is to change, he says.

“Well, I think that you can look at the support of tax increment financing districts and where that tax, TIF money gets spent, and how it gets spent,” Siska says. “And then each community should look at how their alderman or their state rep or whoever it is votes on those things and whether or not that actually helps their community or not. And if it doesn’t, vote them out.”

Márquez locates hope for the future in the affected communities themselves. He notes that gangs, often blamed as the root cause of the problem, also present some of the solutions.

“I think that if you look at the history of Chicago, the history of any city in the country that has experienced these types of conditions, you’ll see that the only social units that have been able to deter ghetto violence or deter gang violence have been gangs,” Márquez says.

In the 1960s, for example, Chicago gangs influenced by the anti-colonial politics of the time entered a truce brokered by Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton, who organized a “rainbow coalition” of blacks, Latinos and working-class whites before his controversial 1969 death at the hands of the FBI and Chicago police. These gains were lost by the 1980s, when the crack epidemic fueled a massive rise in gang violence.

While Márquez cautions that no historical model can be repeated, he emphasizes the need to build coalitions across racial lines and open up the conversation to the body politic at large. Ultimately, he says, communities must act on their own behalf. To this end, he quotes Jose Cha Cha Jimenez, founder of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican nationalist group.

“The only people who can save us from us is us,” he says.