California Teacher Uses Writing to Inspire Incarcerated Youth

Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.
Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.

LOS ANGELES — The walls of California’s juvenile halls act as a barrier to a world most people will never experience or understand. More often than not, these halls are viewed as places of isolation and despair.

However, others, like Johnny Kovatch, see an infinite amount of potential and opportunity that can be found just on the other side of these walls.

Kovatch, a long-time juvenile justice advocate, volunteers at several of California’s most well-known juvenile halls and prisons, including Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, Ironwood State Prison and Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. He first began volunteering at these institutions as a way to connect with incarcerated youth around the state.

JJIE Los Angeles Bureau“I wanted to work with a population that was underrepresented,” Kovatch says. “These kids don’t know it but they represent truth and they represent purity.”

A personal tragedy in Kovatch’s own life also contributed to his desire to help reform the juvenile justice system.

“When I was in high school, my friend was murdered and robbed for $40,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what would cause a kid to do something like that. I wondered what was missing from that life, and whether it was a parental influence, a lack of love or a lack of support that was the incentive behind it.”

Kovatch first began volunteering in juvenile detention centers as part of a program called Restorative Justice, where he provided one-on-one counseling to juvenile inmates. During his time in the halls, however, Kovatch discovered a new passion: InsideOUT Writers.

Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.
Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.

“I saw a teacher named Todd Rubenstein teaching a writing class through the glass within one of the units,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what he was doing, and knew that I should be a part of that program.”

InsideOUT Writers is a nonprofit organization that uses creative writing to encourage personal growth and transformation within the California juvenile justice system. The organization is funded both by the county and private donors, and it ultimately aims to reduce the juvenile recidivism rates by offering a range of services to currently and formerly incarcerated youth.

The main focus of InsideOUT Writers is the Writing Program, which is open to students who are being held in various juvenile detention centers across Los Angeles County. Currently, there are 39 classes being taught each week by volunteer instructors like Kovatch.

“During my first class with InsideOUT Writers, what I discovered was that all of the students were extremely grateful that I was there,” Kovatch says. “At the end of class, every kid came up to me and said thank you, welcomed me back and asked if I would be there the following week.”

Carol Chodroff, who has been involved in juvenile justice issues for almost 20 years and is now a board member of InsideOUT Writers, has seen firsthand the positive impact that the Writing Program can have on students.

“The first time I sat in on a writing circle, I saw the kids interacting and the power of literature and poetry. I felt change happening in the room,” Chodroff says. “So many of the kids in the program have lives that are filled with sadness, obstacles, challenges and pain. Now, they have this opportunity to express themselves and to find their voices. Seeing them work together in class shows the best of the education process, the best of rehabilitation and the best of humanity, really.”

The classes and writing prompts address a wide variety of topics, but they all ultimately have one goal: to give the students the confidence to express themselves and get their thoughts and ideas out in the open.

“The biggest thing I encourage is when there’s something they feel like they don’t want to write about because it would too hard or too painful, then I tell them that’s exactly the type of stuff that they should write about,” Kovatch explains. “They write about everything. They write about how they grew up, they write about abandonment, their peers, maybe those who have been incarcerated or have died in gang related activities, and they write about wanting to have a better life.”

Participation in the Writing Program is completely voluntary, and it can often be challenging for students to first decide to attend a class.

Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.
Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.

Jaki Murillo, a former student in the Writing Program, was tried as an adult for attempted murder and robbery at the age of 15. After being found guilty, she began serving her prison sentence at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, Calif. It was here that Murillo first heard about InsideOUT Writers.

“My old roommate first told me about InsideOUT Writers and she told me I should go, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t get along with the other girls and wasn’t open to new people, so I didn’t go.” Murillo says. “Instead, I used to write by myself in my room, but I would flush it down the toilet because I didn’t want people to read it.”

However, one day after a yoga class that was being held in Murillo’s unit was cancelled, she decided to finally give the writing class a shot. That was when she met Kovatch for the first time.

“From day one, the way Johnny presented himself, the way that he cared, I had never experienced something like that before,” Murillo said. “He never gave up on me. He would always come up to my room and ask me to come out, and eventually I just gave in.”

Although it was not easy, Murillo slowly started to become more open with her teachers and her classmates.

“I started seeing everybody sharing and eventually you just start sharing yourself,” Murillo says. “I would write a lot about betrayal and drugs and drug addiction, and it helped me be more comfortable with myself. I went through a really deep guilt process about a lot of the things I’ve done and it really helped me heal. I was able to share with people from a whole other world and way of life.”

Kovatch continued teaching Murillo for the next year, and was constantly inspired by her both inside and outside of the classroom.

“She always showed up with a positive attitude, she was always smiling and she showed a courage and strength that inspired others to open up and be as honest and truthful as possible,” Kovatch says. “It was her vulnerability that gave others the courage to be just as vulnerable.”

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Learn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Murillo’s time with InsideOUT Writers did not end once she was no longer incarcerated. Now, she is part of the organization’s Alumni Program, which aims to transition former Writing Students into productive lives once they are released. She is also getting ready to begin classes at Los Angeles Mission College this fall, and she hopes to eventually pursue a career in the film industry.

For Kovatch, Chodroff and all of the other InsideOUT Writers volunteers, it is crucial that programs like this one continue expanding to juvenile halls across the country.

“In my mind, one of the biggest issues we have as a society is that we put our emphasis on the wrong end. All of the money gets thrown into putting a Band-Aid on the problem and paying or incarceration and giving kids long sentences rather than preventing them from ending up in that situation in the first place,” Chodroff says. “InsideOUT Writers really advocates for the kid when they’re on the inside. They try to help them survive in this culture that is really counter to everything children need. When they get out, InsideOUT Writers acts as a preventive measure for a new cycle, supporting their reentry and giving them new opportunities.”

No matter where the students and alumni are at now, what Jaki Murillo and many other InsideOUT Writers will remember most are the instructors that guided them throughout their journeys.

“Johnny has a tattoo on his arm that says ‘No estás solo,’ meaning ‘You are not alone’,” Murillo says. “No matter what the struggle, he never gave up on me and he always showed up. “

These three simple words written on his arm constantly remind Kovatch’s students that they will always have someone supporting them along the way.

“I want them to remember that they have their whole lives ahead of them,” Kovatch says. “Kids are redeemable and it’s important for them to understand that why they were incarcerated doesn’t define them. They are more than what led them in there.”


Federal Complaint Challenges Texas Town’s New Ban on Housing any Border Kids

texas_Border_control_housingFrom the Center for Public Integrity: 

Civil rights groups filed a federal complaint Tuesday challenging a Texas city’s ban on providing housing to “refugees” or foreigners such as the Central American children who’ve been turning themselves in at the border.

The complaint against an ordinance adopted July 8 by League City, a Houston suburb, was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and Appleseed, a Texas public-interest law group. Appleseed has researched dangers faced by Mexican and Central American migrant children.

The complaint argues that the ordinance — one of a number being contemplated in Texas — is discriminatory and violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “There is particularly ugly language about Muslims in this League City ordinance also,” said Maddie Sloan, an Appleseed attorney.

CenterForPublicIntegrityThe number of children from Central America showing up along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged this year.  Since last October, more than 52,000 minors, many of them without parents, have been detained, double the total number of such kids detained during all of last year. For some kids, a Department of Homeland Security assessment found, violence in their countries is so great that the risk of traveling alone “is preferable to remaining at home.”

Marisa Bono, a MALDEF attorney, said the complaint against League City “is a warning to other municipalities that are considering similar resolutions. Cities can’t accept federal funds, and then use them to discriminate.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and halt ordinances aimed at “vulnerable children.”

The League City ordinance, approved in a 6-2 vote, lists a number of allegations that elected officials say motivated them to outlaw the provision of housing for children.

Language in the housing ban makes the claim that illegal immigrants carry diseases “endemic” to their countries of origin — an allegation that international health experts say is factually unfounded, as the Texas Observer reported.

The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 93 percent of children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles, compared to 92 percent of American kids.

Federal officials have not approached League City about placing children there at federal cost, as they have in other communities with suitable shelters.

But supporters of the ordinance said they wanted to take a stand, and protect taxpayers from having to shoulder costs for schooling or other services for children. The ordinance also asserts a need for a ban because “radical Islamist terror groups continue to exploit the situation to infiltrate the United States” — an allegation that has also not been proved or linked to the influx of Central Americans.

“Be it resolved,” the ordinance says, that all agencies in League City are “instructed to refuse requests or directives by federal agencies to permit or establish any facility for the purposes of processing, housing, or detaining any illegal aliens, designated as ‘refugees,’ or otherwise.”

Heidi Theiss, the council member who wrote the ordinance, talked to KPRC television in Texas about why she proposed the housing ban. “We are a very safe city, here in League City,” she said, “and it’s that way because we’re proactive.”

Some minors taken into custody at the border say they fear gang violence and reprisals and other dangers in Central America, an impoverished region struggling with organized crime and drug cartels, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

Debate is on over whether to alter existing federal legislation so that Border Patrol agents can quickly deport more of the minors rather than put them in shelters where social workers can assess them and they can get immigration court dates.

Advocates for children argue that as children, the minors need a safe place to reveal their circumstances and talk about whether they might be eligible to seek asylum or another type of legal status, or agree to be returned to their home countries in an orderly fashion.


The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more stories on this topic go to

From Prison to Politics: Prophet Walker’s Journey

Former Juvenile Inmate Advances to State Assembly General Election

Prophet  Walker, left, in Los Angeles. Walker spent several years incarcerated for a crime committed at age 16. Now he's running for state assembly.
Prophet Walker, left, in Los Angeles. Walker spent several years incarcerated for a crime committed at age 16. Now he\'s running for state assembly.

LOS ANGELES — The walls of Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif., were hardly unfamiliar to Prophet Walker. As a teenager, Walker spent nearly half of his six-year prison sentence at Ironwood after he was convicted of assault causing great bodily injury and robbery at the age of 16.

This June, Walker, now 26, returned to Ironwood. However, this time it was not as a prisoner, but as a candidate for state office and a role model to the young men who stand where Walker stood just several years ago.

JJIE Los Angeles Bureau“When I walked in to Ironwood and they called my name to go up to speak, the entire place erupted with people screaming and cheering,” Walker recounts. “When I walked away, people were saying that I had inspired them. These are people who have life sentences and to have them say I inspired them was great. It was really moving.”

Walker has certainly had to overcome a fair share of obstacles in his life. He grew up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood known for its high crime rates. As a child, he watched his mother battle a serious drug addiction.

Throughout his teenage years, Walker got into fights often. During one particularly violent altercation, Walker broke another boy’s jaw and then took the victim’s CD player. Walker was tried as an adult due to the severity of the crime and ultimately received a six-year prison sentence.

Walker didn’t let these obstacles prevent him from striving for success. While he was in prison, Walker continued to further his education by participating in various academic programs, and he eventually received his high school diploma. After he was released, Walker attended Loyola Marymount University where he completed a degree in engineering and went on to find a job as a project manager for a California construction company.

Now Walker is taking on a new type of challenge.

With no previous experience in politics, Walker decided to declare his candidacy for the California State Assembly District 64 race. The seat is currently held by Democrat Isadore Hall, and the district represents parts of South Los Angeles and surrounding areas including Carson, Compton, Watts, Wilmington and North Long Beach.

In June, Walker placed second in the primary election for the 64th district seat. Walker took home 21.4 percent of the vote, while his opponent, Carson City council member Mike Gipson, topped Walker with 51 percent. Steve Neal and Micah Ali came in third and fourth respectively in the election.

All four of the candidates running for office, including Walker, were members of the Democratic Party. A recent measure approved by California voters in 2010 permits the top two candidates to advance from the primary to general election, regardless of political party affiliation.

“To come in second, we beat out two well-oiled politicians,” Walker says. “There was a strong showing, although not the best, and we have a lot of ground to gain between now and November.”

Walker will now be going head-to-head against Gipson in the November general election (Gipson's office has not offered comments after numerous requests for an interview.). Gipson has a more extensive political background than Walker, having won three city council elections in Carson. In 2009, Gipson even set a new city record for receiving the most votes of any municipal candidate in Carson’s 41-year history. Gipson’s past experience and wide base of support may prove to be an obstacle for Walker.

“It’s really important for us to continue securing more local and community support,” Walker explains. “We also are looking for more financial support. Both of these things will be huge.”

Walker has already gained the recognition of many community groups and organizations as well as several well-known figures in the entertainment industry.

While he was at Ironwood, Walker met former film producer Scott Budnick, who mentored Walker as part of an educational writing program called InsideOUT Writers at the prison. In addition, Walker has since gained the support of several Hollywood stars including Reese Witherspoon, Matt Damon and Tyrese Gibson.

Yet, despite the big names that are supporting him, Walker is undoubtedly the underdog in the upcoming election. Scott Lay, a political analyst specializing in California politics and publisher of, a site capturing headlines and opinions on politics and policy, says that it will be an uphill battle for Walker and his campaign team.

“Looking at the numbers, you have to assume that Prophet has to get every vote that Neal and Ali got and a few more in order to beat Gipson in November. June was a low turnout election and November will be higher, so that gives Gipson a little more of an edge as well,” Lay explains.

“Prophet has to find a way to get out his personal story and translate what that means for policy in Sacramento. His ability to transcend normal Democratic Party politics because of his personal story gives him a shot.”

No matter what the outcome of the general election is, Walker says he won’t forget the real reason he’s running for office.

“I want to constantly convey to young people that even if things are tough, you can accomplish things. It’s not going to be easy, but you still have to look yourself in the mirror and think you’re great and can do anything,” Walker says.

“On a more tangible level, I think my story can further discussion about the juvenile justice system and show why we should be encouraging our youth. People can say at 16, he was just thrown out, but look where Prophet is now.”

Walker also hopes that he can continue to bring a unique voice to legislators in Sacramento.

“I want my story to show that this is why we need to have more money and services put into rehabilitation programs and not into the mass production of more prisons,” Walker says. “My goal is to one day be doing pure prevention, and our kids won’t ever end up being incarcerated.”

Even though he’s busy working on his campaign, Walker never loses sight of what’s ultimately most important. Walker’s own daughter, Priya, will be going into fourth grade this fall, and is a constant source of motivation for the politician. In addition, he says all of the kids he meets every day continue to inspire him.

“Throughout the course of the campaign, one of the coolest things has been kids coming to the campaign office, making books and pictures for us and saying ‘Prophet believes in us’ or things like that,” Walker says. “Being able to have young people in the community come into the campaign office not only as a place of inspiration, but almost as a safe haven as well, where they can be protected is moving. It’s just overall very moving.”

Based on the support that he has already garnered so far, it is clear that Walker’s efforts will not go unnoticed. Lay says that Walker’s campaign will likely have a lasting effect on state policy and the mentality toward the correctional system in California.

“Regardless of what happens in this election, I think there’s a growing conversation about the rehabilitation element of the correctional system that he’s highlighting,” Lay says. “Gipson is a favorite, and even if he wins, Prophet might push Gipson to make rehabilitation more of a priority in Sacramento more than he otherwise would have on his own. Just getting Prophet’s story out there and getting people to think differently about how we treat people in the correctional system, whether they’re in state prison or rehabilitation getting a second chance at life, will have an impact.”

Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Reporter’s Notebook: Allegations Still Plague Religious Homes for Troubled Teens

Lester Roloff
The Anchor Home for Boys was one of many homes founded by a magnetic Baptist preacher and radio personality named Lester Roloff.

AUSTIN, Texas — While reporting recently on abuse allegations at a home for troubled teens, I realized that the article I was writing had been written before.

Sure, nobody had written about the Anchor Home for Boys, founded in Corpus Christi in the 1960s and reopened as Anchor Academy in Montana and then Missouri. Nobody had written about the boys who accuse the school of forcing them to spend hours exercising in freezing conditions with improper clothing, of barring them from speaking to anyone but a direct superior, of giving them nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to eat, of sleep deprivation and group beatings.

“Put your back against the wall and put your leg at a 90-degree angle and raise your arms,” one young man told me of a punishment he saw meted out. “If you drop your leg I’d punch you. If you drop your arms I’d punch you. If you say ‘no’ I’d punch you. I’d say that's torture.”

But I wasn’t the first one to find these sorts of stories, not by a long shot. Over the past two decades, dozens of unlicensed residential facilities for teens struggling with drug problems and various behavioral issues have been accused of physical and sexual abuse. A handful of these programs are based in Baptist thinking about the necessity of physical discipline in correcting a sinful path. (“Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them,” Proverbs 13:24). The Anchor Home for Boys was one of many homes founded by a magnetic Baptist preacher and radio personality named Lester Roloff.

A tall, skinny man with a warm smile and soulful voice, Roloff clashed with the state of Texas throughout the 1970s over licensing and oversight for his children’s homes. After his death in 1982, his successors continued to fight regulation. Over time, Texas grew inhospitable, homes directly or indirectly tied to Roloff’s legacy sprouted in Missouri, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

If you’ve ever heard of Roloff’s homes, it may be because of a wave of news coverage between 1999 and 2001. A newly elected President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which aimed to “eliminate unnecessary legislative, regulatory, and other bureaucratic barriers that impede effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems.”

A mouthful, yes, but in plain terms this often meant leaving church-run treatment centers to operate without much state intervention.

Opponents of this idea found ample ammunition in the stories coming out of Roloff’s homes, which Bush, while governor, had invited back to Texas. In the Washington Post, Hanna Rosin reported on Roloff’s Lighthouse, where two boys spent more than 10 hours digging in a dirt pit after being tied to a truck and dragged through brush.

In Texas Monthly, Pamela Colloff wrote about Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls (the sister school to the Anchor Home), where one girl was beaten, chained in a room alone and forced to listen to Roloff sermons. In The American Prospect, Maia Szalavitz wrote a column called “Why Jesus is not a Regulator,” in which she described how some children had died in poorly regulated facilities, and many more suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those stories faded away as 9/11 took over the news cycle. Then, a few years ago, they reappeared. In Mother Jones, Kathryn Joyce wrote about torturous punishments at the Roloff-inspired New Beginnings Ministries. The Tampa Bay Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune published long investigations on schools in their states. On CNN, Anderson Cooper ran a segment called “UnGodly Discipline.”

In almost every instance, administrators at these schools who go on the record argue that some physically demanding discipline is necessary to work with the most difficult-to-reach young people. At the Anchor Home for Boys and Anchor Academy, I heard numerous stories from young men who had a great time and believe that the abuse allegations are trumped up by men who, in the words of one former staffer, “never woke up to adult responsibilities.”

Though attitudes about appropriate disciplinary practices for children have certainly shifted over the last decade and a half, the debate on them is hardly closed. It is part of a permanently unfinished conversation about the best way to help children, one that reaches far past questions of state and federal oversight.

Urging that conversation forward, there will be journalists digging around, documenting stories of abuse. The homes of Lester Roloff will long be a place for them to look.

Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

JJIE Releases New Digital Magazine Telling Stories of Justice In US

On March 26 the JJIE released a new digital magazine featuring 10 stories about juvenile justice, substance abuse, and more.
On March 26 the JJIE released a new digital magazine featuring 10 stories about juvenile justice, substance abuse, and more.

In 10 articles, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s new digital magazine explores many of the key issues that come to play in youth justice, including mental health, substance abuse and the overrepresentation of kids of color in the system.

The digital magazine, which will be released on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, celebrates JJIE’s fourth year of niche journalism. is the only entity in the nation that covers juvenile justice every day with professional journalists. Leonard Witt, JJIE’s publisher, says, “The juvenile justice system is broken in many ways. We are providing high quality news, information and commentary for people who have the wherewithal to make sweeping legislative change or on-the-ground change to help make one child’s life better. It is a fulfilling mission.”

Combining video, text and photography, the new digital magazine offers a multimedia picture of the complexities of justice in the nation. In a heart-wrenching video, grown men weep about abuses suffered in detention four decades ago. In one piece, a young woman gives a candid account of her struggle with methamphetamine addiction, including giving up two of her children. In a story from Illinois, a mother attempts to explain the horror of watching her mentally ill 13-year-old son being sent to a detention center 500 miles away from his home.

“You can take a tough subject area like youth justice and if you tell stories that have depth, people will seek them out and learn from them,” John Fleming, JJIE’s editor, says. “We have built a coast-to-coast audience because we believe in solid journalism and practice it every day.”

In addition to its daily journalism, publishes expert op-eds and, on its Bokeh blog, justice-related photo series. And last year, with generous funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, JJIE launched the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub, which provides layers of research, resources, toolkits and expert advice for audience members who want to take a more in-depth look at the issues behind JJIE’s daily journalism.

This special digital magazine is made possible by support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Other funders include the MacArthur, Harnisch, Park and Tow foundations.

Juvenile Justice Resource Hub Adds New Section on Racial-Ethnic Fairness in the System:



Although white youth and youth of color commit crimes at similar rates, youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every point of contact with the juvenile justice system. This disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is often the result of crime policies and school, police and juvenile court practices. Youth of color, both boys and girls, are arrested, charged, and incarcerated more than white youth who have engaged in similar behavior.

Earlier this year, JJIE launched a comprehensive Juvenile Justice Resource Hub that offers engaging research and information on critical issues in juvenile justice. The new Juvenile Justice Resource Hub section on racial-ethnic fairness covers the persistent problem of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and details some promising reforms aimed at addressing this inequity. Check it out>>

  • Story Series: Youth of Color and the Juvenile Justice System

    • Why are youth of color overrepresented in the juvenile justice system? Does it stem from poor school discipline policies? Juvenile court practices? Economic divides? This series of articles will delve into the question of racial-ethnic fairness and highlight various efforts at reducing “disproportionate minority contact” (DMC) within the system. >>Read


>> Plus Sign Up Now for Continuing Racial Justice and Ethnic Fairness Updates from JJIE << 


Please spread the word to your networks about this important launch. has created sample promotional language, images and a blog for reposting to help you to alert your networks. Please customize as needed. Thanks for helping to spread the word about this valuable information hub!

Sample Social Media Posts

Below are sample posts to alert your social media networks on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Use these or write your own, using the suggested tags.

Twitter & LinkedIn Status Updates

  • Advocating for reduced racial disparity in the #juvenilejustice system? Get all the info @JJIEnews resource hub:

Facebook & LinkedIn Discussion Boards

  • @Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has compelling news, resources & commentary on juvenile justice reform trends to serve your best work. Check out the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub’s reform categories, including the brand new section on racial-ethnic fairness in the system:
  • Latino youth are 50 percent more likely than white youth to receive an out-of-home placement in the juvenile justice system or to be charged and tried in the adult system. Get more info at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub:

Website & eNewsletter Language and Images

    • Resource Hub Expands to Explore Racial Disparity in the Juvenile Justice System
      Over the next few weeks, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange will produce a series of stories that explores the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. This series of articles will delve into the question of racial-ethnic fairness and highlight various efforts at reducing “disproportionate minority contact” (DMC) within the system. >>Read

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Juvenile Justice Experts Scrutinize OJJDP’s Role

An 8-year-old boy found wandering the streets is sent to the Baltimore curfew center in Baltimore, Maryland. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
An 8-year-old boy found wandering the streets is sent to the Baltimore curfew center in Baltimore, Maryland. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

For more than a decade,  the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has been beset by inadequate funding and Congress dictating how it spends much of what it does receive, frequent changes in leadership, and waning influence.

Now the role, mission and funding of OJJDP have come under close scrutiny.

On Thursday and Friday, a committee that is to recommend ways OJJDP can be strengthened and realigned got an earful from experts in the juvenile justice field.

The committee is tasked with implementing key recommendations from a 2012 National Research Council report titled “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.”

OJJDP itself asked for the upcoming report, which is being funded by the agency and two influential foundations with strong backgrounds in juvenile justice, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At the two-day meeting, in Washington, the committee heard from panelists who spoke about the quality of counsel for juveniles; the role of State Advisory Groups (SAGs), which advise OJJDP;  family and youth engagement in the juvenile justice system; and racial and ethnic disparities among youth who become involved with the system.

The 2012 NRC report highlighted recent research showing adolescents are prone to risk taking and “novelty-seeking behavior” like alcohol and drug use and reckless driving; highly susceptible to peer pressure; apt to indulge immediate gratification; and less likely than adults to weigh long-term consequences of their behavior.

“A developmental approach to juvenile justice,” the report stated, “recognizes that illegal acts committed by adolescents occur at a time of life when individuals are more likely to exercise poor judgment, take risks, and pursue thrills and excitement.”

The report recommended that a “developmental approach” respond to such acts with treatment and services that enable youths to focus on “repairing the social injury or damage” caused by their behavior while making them understand how it has affected others and having them take responsibility for the behavior. The report also said the approach should provide activities, supports and opportunities for “normal emotional, physical and intellectual growth” delivered in settings appropriate to the ages and stages of the youths and in ways that are conducive to healthy development.

While states provide the bulk of the funding for juvenile justice, OJJDP helps set the agenda through grant-making, technical assistance and training and through its bully pulpit as part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

OJJDP’s authorizing legislation ties four core requirements to state formula funding: deinstitutionalization of status offenders, or those who commit offenses that wouldn’t be crimes for adults (like truancy or alcohol possession), limits on placing youths in adult jails and lockups, separation of juveniles from adults in secure adult facilities, and a reduction of disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

Panelists told the committee OJJDP has been hampered by, among other things, lack of congressional reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for more than six years, by sharp declines in appropriations and by severe limits in training and technical assistance the agency provides to programs in states.

Carmen Daugherty, policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, noted that OJJDP appropriations under the JJDPA have declined from more than $400 million in 2002 to less than $100 million today.

“I start at the most basic level – the need for JJDPA to be funded,” Daugherty told the committee. “Reauthorization is more than six years overdue, and funding has declined dramatically over past decade. States rely on these federal funds in order to leverage local dollars to [fund programs].

“Failing to reauthorize the JJDPA not only threatens the core protections that ensure that youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system and their families are treated fairly and  appropriately, it also disregards their communities’ interest in public safety and the fair administration of justice.”

The lack of JJDPA authorization also influences congressional lawmakers who set appropriations for OJJDP, said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, which OJJDP falls under, said the funding cuts have proved frustrating.

“At a time when we’re considering fundamental reforms, these cuts present a challenge,” Mason said. “We need to continue to raise awareness of the importance of these issues and to make sure the right people are getting the message out about the vital work that OJJDP does.

“So I’m hoping that people will eventually give us the resources we need to put into our young people, and then we won’t have to pay for it at the other end through our adult criminal justice system.”

Mason pointed out OJP and other federal agencies deal with juvenile issues on different fronts.

For example, the Department of Justice and Department of Education last month released guidelines on school discipline aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities in discipline and addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, chaired by the attorney general, brings together officials from numerous federal agencies along with others to help develop juvenile justice strategies.

But committee member Grace Bauer, co-director of the advocacy group Justice for Families, said she has tried unsuccessfully for 2 ½ years to have family and youth advisory group members appointed to the coordinating council.

“I’m just feeling a disconnect between what I’m hearing and what the reality has been for us as a group of families trying to work with OJJDP over the last 2 ½ years,” Bauer said. “We’ve come to that table willing to roll up our sleeves, willing to hunt down money to get things done, willing to be a partner in this, and I just don’t feel like we’ve gotten the appropriate response back [for] somebody who’s trying to partner up with the agency and help.

“It’s hard for me to figure out what recommendations to make if I can’t understand why it’s not happening now. That’s what I really want to understand. This isn’t about money. This is something more fundamental than that. This is about a culture change within your own agency…. This is a culture change that has to start at the very top.”

“I hear you that we’re not actively engaged with you in a way that you feel you got access to us and there’s open communication,” Mason responded. “Help me understand what that would look like.”

Committee Chairman Richard Bonnie, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a co-author of the 2012 report, said, “Sustained culture change is a hard job, and you have to be thinking about how to do that too.”

The report identified family and youth engagement as a key element of a juvenile justice reform approach informed by research about adolescent brain development.

Committee member Susan Badeau, who with her husband has adopted 20 children, many of them with special needs, said three of the couple’s sons became involved in the juvenile justice system and recalled how she was treated as a parent.

“It’s ‘you caused your child’s problem and you don’t even care and you don’t want to fix it and you don’t want to do what it takes to fix it.’ There’s almost no sense that you have any value at all,” said Badeau, also an author who has worked in fields serving children for more than 30 years. “It’s almost always that you’re treated as the problem.

“I’ve had times when I’ve showed up [at a juvenile detention facility] on a visiting day to learn that my child wasn’t there and that where he now was was two hours away and [was told], ‘By the way, it’s not visiting day there anyway, so you can’t see him.’ … My experience has been I often go back to my car and I just have to sit and cry.”

Badeau said she’s heartened by the committee’s focus on family engagement in juvenile justice reform.

She called on OJJDP to include families in juvenile justice reform, to link funding and resources to successful family engagement, and to provide peer-to-peer training to those working in the field to foster family engagement.

Other panelists at the meeting said OJJDP should provide states more of a mandate for reform.

In all 50 states, governor-appointed State Advisory Groups (SAGs) are charged with monitoring state compliance with the four core requirements of the JJDPA.

“SAGs don’t really have what they view as a clear mandate for reform from the federal government, so they’re monitoring very, very  specific requirements under the JJDPA,” said Marie Williams, executive director  of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, made up of the state groups.

“They don’t necessarily think of them as we think of them and speak of them at CJJ as core protections for young people … When you think of them as requirements, that’s more of a type of constraining type of concept: These are rules that we have to follow. When you think of them as protections, you know, you’re apt to be a little bit more innovative, a little bit more reform-oriented.”

Williams, like other panelists, also called on OJJDP to provide more training and technical assistance for juvenile justice programs.

Panelists told the committee OJJDP training and technical assistance often consists of a webinar or a daylong session when much more is needed to create and sustain meaningful reforms.

Panelists also told the committee OJJDP should collect and disseminate more research about successful juvenile justice reforms so they can be replicated.

One panelist, Susan Broderick, project director at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, called for more emphasis on drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

“The top of my wish list is always more attention to the issue of drug and alcohol use with the young people,” Broderick said. “And I feel that especially in the last few years … that issue has been put on the back burner, and in some ways there has been a bit of an overemphasis on mental illness issues, sometimes to the exclusion or really just ignoring the substance abuse disorders that we very often could have a key role in preventing or at least intervening much earlier than we’re doing right now.”


Editor’s Note: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the  Annie E. Casey Foundation are supporters of the JJIE.


Blood Feud in Harlem Takes Young Lives, Hurts Community

“A lot of parents out here are scared of their own kids”: Venus Singleton, the mother of a boy shot as part of the blood feud between rival houses in Harlem.

NEW YORK -- The killing of Tayshana Murphy on September 11, 2011 sparked a feud  between the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses in West Harlem, New York. A police van and security detail sit outside the Grant Houses.
NEW YORK -- The killing of Tayshana Murphy on September 11, 2011 sparked a feud between the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses in West Harlem, New York. A police van and security detail sit outside the Grant Houses.

From a Skirmish to a War

NEW YORK — The father of the dead girl takes a look at the brown painted door and shakes his head with contempt. He’s standing where his favorite daughter had danced moments before she was chased down and shot four flights overhead on a cool late summer morning.

new york logo 01“If that door was fixed,” he says pulling at the busted entrance door, “then none of this would’ve happened. She’d be alive. Playing basketball. My life would’ve kept going like it was. But that’s not what happend. It was broken. We’re talking two years later. How can these kids be safe?”

Taylonn Murphy ambles through the same door his daughter, Tayshana, ran through the night she was killed, and into the lobby of 3170 Broadway, one of the nine high-rise buildings that make up the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, near the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights.

“You can’t believe the emotion that I feel walking into this building,” he said, taking a deep breath, as if to steel himself.

He walks slowly through the squalid lobby. A message is scrawled on one of the mailboxes built into the wall to the right of the elevator. It warns the police to keep out. There are two staircases in front of Murphy marked with signs indicating well A and well B.

See more photos from Harlem on JJIE's Art & Photo Blog HERE.

Murphy chooses B, the one his daughter’s killers took the morning they shot her to death on Sept. 11, 2011.

He explains the details of the case the best he knows them, after sitting in on hours of hearings and court trials. There was a fight between groups of youths from the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses that night. Some youths from the Manhattanville Houses had vengeance on their mind.

“It takes a lot out of you,” he said, huffing as he climbed another of the 43 stairs, retracing the killers route one step at a time. “You try to do the best you can.”

According to the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, Taylonn’s daughter, known to her friends, basketball teammates and family as Chicken, was outside when two young men from Manhattanville came looking to settle the score. Prosecutors described it as a “cold and calculated hit.” The two men criminally charged with shooting Murphy reportedly said they did not “give a fuck” when she pleaded with them that she was not involved in the fight.

Taylonn Murphy stands at the site at the Grant Houses where his daughter Tayshana Murphy was shot and killed in 2011.
Taylonn Murphy stands at the site at the Grant Houses where his daughter Tayshana Murphy was shot and killed in 2011.

Murphy, a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, was considered one of the best players in the nation; a point guard. She had aspirations -- realistic ones according to scouts -- of starting for a WNBA team.

“Chicken ran up the other stairs,” her father said, trudging up the staircase. “Them boys, they came this way.”

Somewhere in the flights above, someone slammed a door sending a report echoing down the building. Murphy paused when he reached the spot where the gunman fired the shots that killed his daughter.

“He got here and at about the same time she came out of the other stairwell, and that’s when it happened,” he said. “He shot her. Pop. Pop. Pop. This is basically the spot where she died. This spot is where it went from a skirmish to a war -- to where we are today.”

THE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE SCREENINGGhostly tributes to Tayshana are barely visible on the dimly lit hallway wall. They show signs of being scrubbed off. One wishes the dead girl, a “Happy 20th BDAY.” Taylonn’s daughter was 18 when she was killed.

“Look at this,” Murphy says, clenching his jaw. It’s the one time he betrays any real anger during the tour of his daughter’s murder scene. “They’ll make sure they clean up a birthday message to my dead daughter,” he hisses through his teeth.

Somewhere upstairs a loud voice echoes in the stairwell. Murphy struggles with his emotion. Tears well for an instant. The moment passes and he finds his composure.

“But they can’t find time to fix a door,” he said. “A door. But they sure as hell make sure they clean this up. What does that say?”

A Broken Door Lets In a Killer and Lets Loose Vengeance

The entrance to 550 West 125th Street inside the Grant Housing Project where a recent shooting between the rival buildings took place.
The entrance to 550 West 125th Street inside the Grant Housing Project where a recent shooting between the rival buildings took place.

The crack in the dented metal door at 5170 Broadway in the Grant Houses is barely an inch wide. It’s hard to notice. The door is supposed to lock automatically when it slams shut behind you, but it hasn’t worked properly for a long time. On its own, nothing is particularly noteworthy about a broken door in a New York CIty Housing Authority property. Many of the doors in New York City’s housing projects are busted, and residents grow accustomed to it.

But shoddy door repairs and poor upkeep do not explain the role this run-down housing complex has in one of the bloodiest and most violent feuds in the city. Murphy’s killing on an early morning in the gloomily lit fourth floor hallway has led to a series of retaliatory beatings, stabbings and shootings. This historical beef between rival houses has turned into internecine warfare between the two sides since the morning of Murphy’s murder.

On the night she died, Tayshana Murphy was chased into her building by residents of the Manhattanville Houses and gunned down -- “smoked,” as the killer described it -- just feet away from the safety of her apartment and her mother. She was not the first victim to be hunted down, shot and killed in the long-standing feud between the residents of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, massive apartment complexes that sit across from each other like two ominous fortresses at the intersection between Harlem and Morningside Heights in the northwestern corner of Manhattan. And, judging by the fate of those who’ve been beaten or shot since, she won’t be the last.

“It’s called despair,” Taylonn Murphy said. “It’s not just this community, it’s all communities where young men and women are willing to stomp each other, stab each other, shoot each other. This is what things look like when hope is gone.”

Now, with the trial of Robert Cartagena, one of Tayshana Murphy’s accused killers, set to start, there is a palpable fear the violence will increase. Police who patrol the area say it’s just a matter of time until one of those bullets hits a vital organ and kills another teenager in this seemingly pointless warfare between Harlem’s own Montagues and Capulets.

“It’s not like they’re missing on purpose,” said a community affairs officer who works in the 26th Precinct.

No one can articulate why the blood runs so bad between the two houses. Old timers say that in the old days it was about pride, girls, boasting about who was tougher. Back then, fists, not guns, settled the score, residents said.

That is part of what makes the bloodshed so frustrating for people who are trying to stop it. It’s fueled by an almost inscrutable rage against people who live seven-tenths of a mile from one another; who are, they say, trapped in the same predicament of unemployment and listlessness, caught in the crosshairs of a crushing boredom.

“P” is 17 and was born and raised in the Grant Houses. The combatants in this homegrown strife struggle to give a meaningful explanation for their behavior, even though for many it defines who they are. They freely acknowledge that their foes are teenagers and children who, like themselves, have grown up on the same city blocks and have often attended the same school together as little boys. And as teenagers they have more in common, including a shared frustration at their neighborhood and dim prospects. Nevertheless, the rivalry persists.

“When you’re young, growing up, you don’t want to share the block with no one else,” he said. “I want it to stop, but I know it ain’t going to stop anytime soon. We have too much pride, you know? We don’t want them to have the last word. It’s a brotherhood with people you came up with. It’s not about the brick or the mortar, it’s not about the building. It’s about where you come from.”

“That’s what we like to do,” explained a tautological Naquan Brockington, 17, the brother of Tayshana’s killer. “There’s nothing for us to do. We don’t have nothing to do. If we’re not fighting we’re just hanging out. If we ain’t fighting we’re getting locked up.”

Last summer, when Tyshawn Brockington was sentenced to 25 years to life for killing Murphy, Justice Thomas Farber, the judge who heard the case, described the hatred between the two sides as motivated by “desire to create self-worth by creating a sense of otherness in people who should be your brothers and sisters. This is a cold-blooded execution — I can't think of any other way to describe it."

Derrick Haynes (left) and Taylonn Murphy sit on the steps of a building they hope to turn into a community center.
Derrick Haynes (left) and Taylonn Murphy sit on the steps of a building they hope to turn into a community center.

In the months after the verdict, Chicken’s father took that message to heart. He reached out to Arnita Brockington, the mother of his daughter’s killer, and Derrick Haynes, whose brother was the first fatality in the feud, and asked them to help him bring an end to the blood feud that cost his daughter her life. The three have started an anti-violence campaign in the two houses. They have done everything from holding rallies to looking for jobs.

“A lot of the children from the Grant Houses are still angry over what happened to Taylonn’s little girl, Chicken,” Arnita Brockington said. “And a lot of kids from Manhattanville are angry my son is under arrest and in prison. There’s still a lot of hurting on both sides.”

Murphy and Haynes have physically intervened in the feud. They have put their bodies on the line. Pacing the courtyards and streets of Harlem, they reach out to teens who are on the verge of violence, making efforts to negotiate a peace. For a while they were successful. A truce held, but it has since fallen apart.

An Old Feud Fueled By Desperation and Made Deadly by Guns

A man walks past the 125th Street Youth Center in Harlem on a recent evening.
A man walks past the 125th Street Youth Center in Harlem on a recent evening.

Dedications to the dead like those to Chicken are familiar in the Grant Houses, as they are less than a mile away and just across Broadway at the Manhattanville Houses. The two apartment complexes sit on superblocks on the northwest corner of Harlem, just a few blocks from Columbia University, which is in the process of building a new science center right in between the houses.

Like much of gentrified New York, the neighborhood has recently transformed in ways that are hard to believe. But even as newer and richer residents have moved in, the prospects for the teenagers in the houses have remained stagnant at best. Occasionally a side street shuts down and some do-gooders roll out a lopsided basketball hoop on wheels, or a scuffed ping pong table or some other ramshackle distraction. But most of the time, it’s a life of monotony. School and the streets, streets and school. No community center, no programs.

“Myself, and Arnita and Taylonn, we’re adamant about this,” Haynes said. “We have a big issue here. Kids are going to die. We negotiated a truce, we got these kids to put their guns down for a while, and check their bad attitudes and be neutral. But there’s only so much we could do.”

Police patrol outside 3170 Broadway at the Grant Houses where Tayshana Murphy was shot and killed.
Police patrol outside 3170 Broadway at the Grant Houses where Tayshana Murphy was shot and killed.

The violence can break out anywhere. Haynes and Murphy recalled an incident at the pool over the summer. Some Manhattanville youths saw some Grant youths in the public pool and the two groups collided at the fence and threatened each other through the fence. The violence grew so bad at the juvenile detention facilities that the arrestees from the two houses needed to be sent to different boroughs to keep them from fighting while in custody.

The most recent incident reported to police in this boredom-fueled blood feud occurred a few weeks ago. Some teenagers from the Grant Houses attacked a 17-year-old boy from Manhattanville near a store on Old Broadway.The victim was beaten with an unknown object and suffered cuts to his head and chest. Javon Peterson, 16, and Terrance Milton, 21, were arrested and charged with second degree gang assault, according to police.

A trip to the Lincoln Fried Chicken near Old Broadway, a contested neutral zone where much of the violence occurs, can lead to a brick attack, or a beat down. Often, the victims of these non-life threatening attacks don’t even bother reporting these incidents to police. They bring them back to their people at the houses.

Haynes and Murphy said the local children are indoctrinated into the feud at younger and younger ages. They said boys as young as 11 and 12 are recruited by the older teenagers to start scrums with the children from the other complex. They’ll have them collect rocks, bottles, and any projectiles they can find on the street or rummage from a city garbage can, and go and throw them at their rivals. These lead to fights that lead to beatings that lead to retaliation until the violence ends at the end of the barrel of a gun. And then the cycle of vengeance starts up again.

A Killer’s Mother, A Victim’s Father and a Desperate Plea

It all started with a dance.

Eli Haynes Jr., a 15-year-old, had attended a party one summer night in 1972. He would not make it home to his apartment in the Manhattanville Houses. A trifling dispute over a girl and a dance that lasted too long led to a gun brandished by one of the boys. Eli ran to break it up and was shot. He bled to death on the basketball court. Haynes was 10 when his brother was gunned down. He remembers the frantic moments when the news reached his house, even now as he tries to end the violence that some residents say started this rivalry.

“This right here, we’re two minutes from Ground Zero, so put your helmets on,” Haynes says with a smile.

On the route from Grant to Manhattanville he gives a running commentary of the rivalry.

“A boy was stomped there,” he said pointing to a stretch of wide sidewalk. “Over there one was attacked with bottles. They’ll move from their fists to bottles, from bottles to bats, from bats to knives, and from knives to the gun.”

Mighty Mike Cee speaks about the feud in the neighborhood.
Mighty Mike Cee speaks about the feud in the neighborhood.

On the way he runs into an old friend. The Mighty Mike Cee started his rap group in 1972, the same year the feud caught its first body, Haynes’s bother Eli. The band was named the Fearless Four, and it featured two members from Grant and two from Manhattanville. Back then it was no big deal. Now the Mighty Mike Cee, a father of two daughters in Manhattanville, said such a thing would be unimaginable.

“These same kids who are firing at each other and whatnot are the same kids who are going to school with each other,” he said. “It’s about the kids. Ever since that night Chicken got killed there’s been major beef. These kids hope to harm each other.”

Haynes continues his routine patrol, walking back and forth between the Grant and Manhattanville houses when a young man catches his eye. Earlier in the year, Haynes met this boy after he had been arrested and brought into the Bronx juvenile correctional facility where Haynes works. The boy, 16 and a resident of the Grant Houses, recognized Haynes as a prominent resident from Manhattanville. The boy made Haynes a promise that night. He told Haynes that as soon as he got out he’d take care of him on the street.

Now, months later, he is walking along Broadway with a friend near 126th Street. This is the first time they have seen each other since the boy made the threat. Haynes pulls him aside.

“Hey,” he calls out. “You remember me,” he asks with a knowing smile.

A look of recognition flashes on the boy’s face. Haynes approaches him.

“How you doing?”

“Nothing,” the boy responds sullenly.

“What are you doing?”

“You know, chilling,” he responds.

They exchange a few words. Haynes asks if he needs anything. The boy shakes his head sheepishly.

“A job,” he answers without hesitation.

“We’re working on it,” Haynes said, clasping the young man’s hand and pulling him affectionately into his chest . “We’re working on it.”

Both Sides of the Gun

Haynes and Murphy envision turning Old Broadway, the ground zero of all the violence, into a demilitarized zone -- a permanent “play street.” They want to convert two abandoned, shuttered beauty salons into youth community centers, staffed with mediators, intervenors with moral authority, seen by youths from both sides as credible.

“We all are coming together to try to get this thing squashed,” Haynes said. “It’s rare to have parents from both sides of the gun to come together and and bring a message of peace to the community.”

The young people tell Brockington and Haynes and Murphy that they respect what the three survivors are doing. But they add, they need more than three symbols; they need something to do.

Taylonn Murphy, father of the slain Tayshana Murphy, with Naquan Brockington, the brother of Tayshana's killer. The two have been trying to show solidarity in the hope it will end the violence in the community.
Taylonn Murphy, father of the slain Tayshana Murphy, with Naquan Brockington, the brother of Tayshana's killer. The two have been trying to show solidarity in the hope it will end the violence in the community.

“These programs do more than just get them off the street,” Murphy said. “It does more than give them opportunity to get employment. It gives them something else they need -- to show them that someone out there cares,” he said as he walked through the courtyard of the Grant Houses, nodding and making himself visible to anyone who might need his counsel.

While Arnita and Taylonn have been able to set aside their differences, their children have not. Naquan Brockington, Arnita’s son and Tyshawn’s younger brother, and Bam Bam Murphy, Chicken’s younger brother, still resent each other.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are willing to do it, I caught a lot of heat for it, from my mother and my children, but they’re coming around slowly but surely.” “Once we start thinking this is a normal way of life then we’re basically committing to genocide.”

A Passport For Success

It was cramped and hot in the Community Board building. Members from both houses, some of whom had fought in the past, sat scrunched together around a small office table. Outside, Old Broadway had been converted for the day into a “Play Street” with a basketball hoop rolled out for the local youth to shoot around.

A mix of community affairs officers and patrol cops from the 26th Precinct lingered at the end of the street. Inside, Theodore Gershon, an adviser in his 60s from Columbia University’s community affairs office, led a jobs seminar organized by Murphy and Haynes. They described it as a “baby step,” a way to get the two sides to sit down and focus on something other than revenge. Gershon would later comment on how he had never felt so much tension in a room before.

A play street along Old Broadway set up by the community board and local police station.
A play street along Old Broadway set up by the community board and local police station.

Gershon explained to the teenagers and young adults in attendance, among them Tayshana’s brother, that this was a long step in the often frustrating process of just being able to get a chance to get an opportunity to get in a line for a job. He handed out some forms and leaflets. One of them read: “My Passport For Success” and had bullet points of advice on how to secure and keep a job: “Attitude and Behavior, Initiate and Seek Opportunities, Adapt to change.”

As Gershon walked everyone through what to fill out and where to send it, Bam Bam, 17, noticed through the window that Tyshawn Brockington kept riding and popping wheelies on his bike to get his rivals attention and glowering at him. Bam Bam’s friend elbowed him and motioned with a meaningful expression to Brockington’s display. Their eyes met through the window. Bam Bam exploded.

“This is bullshit man,” he barked. “We need jobs now. Not these forms,” he said slamming his fists on the table.

He got up and headed for the door with his friend in tow. Taylonn hustled after him. Father and son, exchanged heated words. Bam Bam tensed up. Across the street, Brockington kept staring. The young residents from both sides were waiting for something to happen. Police noticed the tension and got ready to move.

Taylonn calmed his son down enough to send him in the direction of the Grant Houses and away from Brockington. He stalked off agitated, but he left without incident.

Afterward, Taylonn was in good spirits.

“That was the first time they’ve been together since Chicken was killed where they have gotten into a physical confrontation,” he said beaming.

We Ain’t No Gang

After Bam Bam left, Arnita led her son over to Gershon. The two had a long conversation, and Brockington took his card with a promise to call him soon.

Bam Bam has a disarming, wide smile and a tattoo that runs the length of his arm that reads “Loyalty Over Love.” It took awhile, he said, for him to come to terms with his father’s mission to embrace the mother of the rival who murdered his sister. And there are times when it’s harder to accept than others.

“At the end of the day we took a loss, we lost my sister, and people have a certain feeling over that,” he said.

He said he is frustrated that outsiders see him and his friends as irredeemable thugs. He says he is just as frustrated by the violence.

A sign on the elevated subway line on 125th Street asking for help in a recent attack.
A sign on the elevated subway line on 125th Street asking for help in a recent attack.

“We’re out here strong,” he said. “They labeled us a gang. We ain’t no gang. We just grew up together. We don’t have secret meetings or talk about stuff like that.”

Bam Bam made a motion with his fingers indicating money.

“Listen, man, if we had some money, if we had jobs,” he made a sweeping gesture with his arms taking in both projects. “This whole thing, this beef? There’d be no beef. No one would care.”

Naquan Brockington, although he would never admit in front of Bam Bam, agrees.

“I don’t know why we’re fighting,” he said after a long pause. “We don’t know what we’re fighting for really. Hopefully before someone dies again this thing will be squashed. Nobody knows. Maybe if we had some jobs out here, something to do, we wouldn’t be fighting.”

Brockington said his brother gave him a message to deliver to his people in Manhattanville.

“He tells them all to stop fighting. He gave the call to stop fighting. He don’t want them to be where he’s at. He looks at it, like, that his life is already gone, it’s over. He doesn’t want me or his friends in the situation he in -- behind bars facing 25 to life.”

He talks about his brother obliquely, without explicitly mentioning the killing.

“It’s stressful,” he said about his brother in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. “I’m sad. I’m missing him. I hate that he put himself in that predicament. He don’t really talk about it. When I see him he says he just wants to come home.

“They be trying to stop it, but there’s nothing they can do. They can’t stop it. The only way it’s going to stop is if we stop it. Some of them is listening, but I can’t stop tell them what to do, they’re the same age as me.”

“I want to go to a safe place”

The last thing Venus Singleton remembers hearing as she sat on a bench outside of her building on 550 125th St. in the Grant Houses before the gun shots was her son LaQuint’s voice. He was warning her and his little brother to get inside.

“He went to the little chicken place around the corner,” she said recalling the evening. “He yelled, ‘Mom! You and Karron get back in the building!’ I wasn’t confused. I saw like nine of them together. I yelled at my little son to get back in the building and that’s when it happened.”

Bullet holes on a pillar outside the Grant Housing Project where a recent shooting between the rival buildings took place.
Bullet holes on a pillar outside the Grant Housing Project where a recent shooting between the rival buildings took place.

She heard five shots. The dents from the bullets are visible on a column above her head where she stands and recounts what happened that evening. Everybody was running up the path toward the building in a frenzy, but not LaQuint. She pushed past the frenzied crowd and headed toward the sound of the gunfire.

“Everybody was running one way and I was going the other,” she said. “Where the hell was LaQuint at? That’s all I was thinking. I needed to see where my son was at.”

When she saw him, at the spot where the pathway meets the sidewalk, lying in a burgeoning pool of his own blood, she thought he was dead.

And then he lifted his head.

“‘Mom calm down,’ he told me,” she said. “‘It don’t hurt that much. I’m money,’ he told me.”

Singleton saw the gunman and his accomplices running across the street toward Old Broadway and the Manhattanville Houses. Someone nearby flagged down a patrol car and paramedics were called. While he was lifted into the back of the ambulance, LaQuint confided to his mother: “I can’t cry, mom. I can’t cry. I can’t cry.”

“It was a lot of pride,” she said. “He wouldn’t drop a tear.”

Singleton said she does not know what the answers are. She said the inexplicable feelings these children have toward each other show no signs of letting up. She wants someone to do something, but isn’t certain what that is.

“In the last few years there have been more shootings, more gunshots, it ain’t getting better, it’s just getting worse,” she said. “A lot of mothers are going to cry if we don’t do something about this. It’s a life or death situation for my sons and I want to go to a safe place but I don’t know where that is.”

A lot changed for Singleton after the shooting. The light went out in LaQuint’s eyes, she said. He used to be full of energy. Now, she said, he just sits and stares. She had to learn how to change a colostomy bag. She consults a sheet obsessively to make sure she is properly following the instructions.

She has learned that the type of bowel movements her son has and the type of bag he uses affects how long to keep the pouch on. He doesn’t have the disposable bags. So she needs to be attentive to wash them out thoroughly. She made an anguished sound trying to explain the sense of shame she felt being disgusted having to handle her son’s excrement.

At first, the process would make her dry heave, but she has started to get used to it. She still calls the nurses several times a day to make sure she doesn’t make a mistake. She worries if she does, that he’ll get an infection. Then, she’ll make things worse than they already are.

Victim of Sex Trafficking in U.S. Tells Her Story

Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.
Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.

It’s part of the game. Because you got to establish a certain thing. You got to establish some fear in that female in order to get that respect. You have to really show that girl — if you told that girl you was gonna kill her, when it come time to [fighting], you have to almost kill her, to beg her to say, “Daddy, no please don’t kill me.” You have to be that serious.

— Bishop Don "Magic" Juan, interview with, April 2013.

(*Editor’s note: “Laura Abasi,” “DJ,” and “Quinn” are not the characters’ real names. All other names in the story are real.)

In early spring of 2004, Laura Abasi stepped out the passenger side of a white Mercedes coupe and onto a red carpet. Laura, 21, didn’t have much time to get ready for the event, an album premiere party at an entertainment studio on Manhattan’s west side.

new york logo 01It didn’t matter. DJ had walked into her room about 30 minutes before they had to leave and thrust a shopping bag at her. She slipped on its contents — a knee-length, multi-colored, long-sleeved wrap dress and strappy black stiletto heels. Both items fit perfectly. DJ knew her size — her body — better than she did.

At the party, DJ strode into a thicket of artists and music industry execs flitting around the crowded studio. DJ was Laura’s pimp, and he had purchased her outfit for the occasion. He knew some of the famous faces at the party through his boss, a Billboard chart-topping rapper. DJ introduced Laura to his boss and his wife, and maybe two other men in suits. Of course, DJ referred to Laura as “Amber,” her professional alias. She hadn’t heard “Laura,” her given name, since she was a teenager.

DJ’s boss knew he was a pimp. He had even cast DJ as a pimp in a recent music video, but MTV cut the scene when producers realized DJ wasn’t acting. If anyone else at the party understood or even wondered about DJ and Laura’s relationship, they didn’t indicate it.

“This is Amber,” DJ said.

Laura had turned her first trick on February 1, 2000, for a pimp named Quinn. The Kenyan-born, 5-foot-11 high school dropout thought she would become a model. At 18, she was old for a “green” prostitute — pimps usually “break” girls before they reach 14. And, with her doctor father and middle-class upbringing, Laura had seen more Volvos and college pamphlets than most trafficking victims ever would. Laura’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby and eventually settled down in a suburban part of Queens.

Laura was a high-worth prospect, so Quinn didn’t rush the “seasoning” process. Laura was 15 when Quinn, who was in his 20s, stopped in the market where she worked after school. He posed as a hopeful suitor, and then a trustworthy boyfriend, until Laura believed her captor was her soul mate. Once Laura moved into Quinn’s apartment — just a few subway stops away from her parents’ house — the road from impressionable teenager to brainwashed chattel proved to be short. Laura went into hibernation and out popped Amber, a hardscrabble bitch who could tell an eager john by his gait.

sex_trafficking_seriesBut Amber really took over when DJ entered the picture. They met in late 2000, when DJ’s Escalade rolled up next to her on Broadway and 55th street.

“Bitch, you mines now,” DJ had said.

When Laura didn’t hop in the car, DJ opened the back door to offer proof of ownership. Laura saw everything she owned strewn across the back seat, indicating that Quinn had traded her. She understood that DJ was now her pimp, so she acquiesced and moved into his New Jersey McMansion that night.

Since then, Laura had dangled on DJ’s arm at a number of industry parties. She knew she wasn’t a guest, so she never acted like one. As usual, she didn’t take hors d’oeuvres from trays or even go to the bathroom. Instead, she stood in a corner while DJ sidled up to celebrities.

Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.

Like thousands of other American girls, Laura gave up control of her mind when she fell into pimp-controlled street prostitution, a rampant form of human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a type of modern day slavery and, according to New York State Law, occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others through sex. The idea that street prostitutes exercise free will is a lie, according to advocates and former victims. Pimps target vulnerable girls — often runaways, foster children, undocumented immigrants, and victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Laura’s story, as bracing and violent as it gets, is not uncommon in New York, the country’s fourth-largest hub for human trafficking. Until 2007, sexually exploited children like Laura were criminals under state law. But in the past seven years, through anti-trafficking legislation and judicial reform, activists and lawmakers have worked to change the laws so that sexually exploited youth are treated as victims, not criminals.

Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.

For instance, DJ often said, “I love you so much, you’re gonna make me kill you.”

Wow, he loves me that much, Laura would only think in reply.

Although Laura stood in silence, the party itself was loud. Bass-heavy tracks competed with the din of conversations that surrounded her. She watched hip-hop artists toss back champagne and throw up crossed, sideways peace signs for photos. She might have ordered champagne herself, but DJ prohibited alcohol — he thought drunkenness was unladylike.

DJ did, however, endorse drug use, and dispensed generous helpings of whatever his girls needed to meet their nightly quotas. Some girls liked the hallucinogenic haze of an ecstasy-and-weed cocktail. Others preferred to turn tricks on a cocksure cocaine high. And then some girls liked the hard stuff. But drinking enabled sloppy behavior that threatened DJ’s control, and he didn’t tolerate it.

After a few hours of partying, DJ collected Laura to leave. They stopped at a diner in Weehawken, N.J. on the way home for a late night snack. DJ talked, cracked jokes and shared observations.

Laura ordered her favorite treat, pigs in a blanket, and responded when summoned. She knew to limit her contributions to conversations.

“Yes, Daddy,” and, when appropriate, “No, Daddy.” And after five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

After five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.


In late spring 2004, about two months after the rap album party, DJ called Laura and told her to cut the night short. Laura usually got home from work around 7 a.m. and flopped on her bed to watch reruns of the family sitcom "Home Improvement." DJ occasionally joined her. But that night, Laura walked through the door around 1 a.m. and found DJ sitting on the living room couch with a piece of loose-leaf paper in his hand. It was Laura’s to-do-list, which included a reminder to send her mother $2,000.

DJ just stared at Laura when she refused to give him a straight answer about the $2,000 on the list. He looked stunned. Until that night, he trusted her more than anyone — more than his mother Lil’ Ma; even more than his now dead attorney, Russell Paisley, who kept DJ, and a lot of New York pimps, out of jail and in the game year after year.

DJ’s steady timbre escalated into a gravelly bark and Laura, wise to his temper, took off. She dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. Although her room provided little refuge, Laura didn’t consider going anywhere else. By that point, she had been arrested on prostitution-related charges over 20 times. To the justice system, she wasn’t a girl in need — she was just a criminal. And to the outside world, she was a whore going nowhere.

Laura waited at the far corner of her room, bracing for DJ’s attack. Like all pimps, DJ had strict rules. The handful of girls who rotated through DJ’s house couldn’t leave without permission or keep the money they earned from prostitution. Laura, in particular, could make over $10,000 a week — sometimes, she made that much in one day. Every penny was supposed to go to DJ. He bought everything Laura owned or used, from floor-length furs she wore while turning tricks to Tylenol and tampons.

But Laura had secretly held on to some of her earnings. She had hidden rolled-up bills in condoms, and stashed the condoms in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes scattered around the house.

While Quinn avoided Laura’s face when he beat her, DJ didn’t care. DJ was a “Gorilla Pimp,” a distinction reserved for pimps who dole out near-fatal beatings on autopilot. DJ even preferred to have sex with Laura right after he beat her, before the slippery blood in her weave dried into clumps. She called it “grudge-fucking,” but it was textbook rape.

DJ kicked open Laura's door and stood in the doorway. His rabid gaze said he was angrier than usual. He’d ditched Laura’s to-do list and grabbed tools from his arsenal: his “nookie,” a whip made from twisted clothes hangers, and a metal bat.

He rushed at Laura, hurling his fists into her head. He swatted at her face until her eye sockets and lips swelled into bloody pillows of flesh. Then he proceeded to ransack her room for the money. Laura knew that she didn’t leave her to-do list lying around. Another girl in the house had found it while rooting around her room, and then gamely placed it in DJ’s hands.

He cut open her pillows and mattress, and pulled apart her dresser. Oh God, don’t tip over the baking soda, Laura thought. But, when he came up empty-handed, DJ turned on Laura again.

DJ beat her until after the sun came up, making sure to immobilize her so she couldn’t grab the hidden money and flee. Laura fought back until her kneecaps gave out, and screamed until blows to her face rendered her mute. But she didn’t cry. She never cried during beatings, even when DJ left her with “tiger stripes,” lines of open wounds in her back.

Grueling sensations hit every nerve ending in her body. She couldn’t distinguish stinging lacerations from throbbing joints. She assumed this was the feeling of dying. As hours passed, she grew numb to the deafening pain.

Sometime that morning an older white man entered Laura’s room, where her swollen body languished on the bed. Swaths of blood had turned the white wall beside her into a grisly canvas. Laura recognized the man as a doctor who sometimes visited the house after beatings. DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.


DJ stood at the door while the doctor poked at Laura’s eyes and palpated her bruised neck. Although she wouldn’t walk for two months, and a broken rib made it hard to take even shallow breaths, the doctor decided she wasn’t about to die. So the two men left the room.

Laura had seen DJ morph into a monster many times since receiving her first beating at 18. Usually, she just vied harder for his love. But that night changed things. For the first time, DJ questioned her loyalty — and so did Laura.

Six months later, in October 2004, Laura tore away from the curb of the Plaza Hotel in the royal blue SUV DJ had bought her to use in "the life." This was her first chance to escape since she tried to leave DJ two months earlier. Her first attempt failed because DJ had secretly put GPS tracking devices on her car and phone.

Laura enjoyed three days of freedom before DJ captured her and left her naked and penniless in a hotel off the highway in southern New Jersey for four days. Then, he brought her to his house and locked her up again — for a month. DJ eventually released Laura to go turn tricks, but only under supervision of Kimmie, another girl in the house.

Laura and Kimmie went out together the next day. Laura tricked Kimmie into leaving her alone in the car while Kimmie met a client at the Plaza. Once Laura felt that Kimmie’s date was well underway, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took off.

Laura called her friend Tonya to meet her at the Queens Midtown tunnel, trembling as she coordinated her getaway. Laura decided to ditch the car and her phone across town from the tunnel because she knew DJ tracked them. So she drove to a garage by the Westside Highway, handed the car to a valet, and threw out her phone. Then she trekked back across Manhattan in four-inch heels to meet Tonya.

After moving onto Tonya’s couch, Laura burned all reminders of DJ — clothing, underwear, photos, and tchotchkes. But she didn’t cut ties with the life. Prostitution provided fast, easy money, and Laura had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that minimum wage work couldn’t support.

She feared DJ, not the johns, or “tricks,” whom she considered easy to manipulate. Sometimes, her clientele of mostly middle-aged and older white men paid $3,000 a night for intricate dry humping. Laura didn’t see any reason to get a regular job.

Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.
Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.

In August 2010, almost six years after leaving DJ, Laura walked into a Manhattan holding precinct on Varick Street in a lightweight work dress and heavy handcuffs. Once inside, the officer hollered that he had “another body coming downstairs.” Laura realized she was the body.

Can’t they use any other word?

She began to scream at the officer.

“My name is fucking Laura,” she said. “Laura Abasi, motherfucker.”

Laura didn’t know why she had to sit in the precinct in the first place. If she had one person to blame, it was Norma Platt. Too bad she didn’t exist.

When Laura started turning tricks in 2000, Quinn told her to identify herself to police as Norma Platt. When Laura moved in with DJ later that year, he gave her fake identity documents bearing Norma’s name. Because she incurred all 24 arrests as Norma, Laura technically fled DJ with a clean record.

Norma’s checkered past, however, caught up with Laura at JFK airport in the summer of 2008, on her way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Kenya.

JFK customs officials took her fingerprints and Norma’s criminal record popped up. This detainment triggered two years of court date postponements that Laura didn’t take seriously. Getting caught, however, compelled her to quit the life for good.

Eventually, on an August morning in 2010, Laura’s court date arrived. She expected to get a fine, at most. Instead, she ended up handcuffed in the back of an unmarked Chevy Impala. Immigration Customs Enforcement officers whisked her to the Varick Street holding Precinct. Later that night, ICE hauled her off to Monmoth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, New Jersey.

Six months later, on December 18, 2010, Laura milled around the prison common room after dinner.  She wore long underwear below her burgundy standard-issue jumpsuit to keep warm. She knew ICE sent her to prison for “crimes of moral turpitude,” but she wasn’t sure what moral turpitude meant.

Previous experiences made her wary of lawyers, so she didn’t seek out any representation. Lawyers, however, came to her. In October, two Legal Aid attorneys visited the prison and told Laura she may get deported based on her prostitution history.

Laura didn’t know when her sentence would be over, but she hoped it wouldn’t last too long. So she sat tight and waited to bid goodbye to the 149 other female inmates to whom she spoke as little as possible.

Around 8 p.m., Laura heard a prison guard bellow her name from across the common area.

“Pack it up,” he said, without further explanation.

Laura didn’t comprehend that she had been discharged until the other inmates started clapping.

Packing didn’t take long. Laura retrieved the dress she’d worn to jail and threw books in a plastic bag. On her way out, the prison guard handed her a bus ticket, and pointed her towards a station across a wooded area. The temperature lingered somewhere below freezing and the air assaulted her bones, but she didn’t care.

Following the guard’s directions, Laura ambled through the brush in the general direction of a bus station. After about 45 minutes, she reached a thoroughfare lined with stores. A middle-aged man asked her if she had come from jail, and told her she missed a bus to Manhattan. Then, she heard someone yell her name.


Just a hallucination, she thought.


She turned around and saw her best friend Natalie’s Chinchilla jacket. She had no idea how Natalie knew she was there, but she didn’t care. They hotfooted towards each other, shrieking with delight.

On Laura's way to the car, the middle-aged man asked for her bus ticket.

Why the hell not, she thought, and handed it over.

Almost a year later, in November 2011, Laura walked down a cobbled side street in lower Manhattan with one of her Legal Aid attorneys, Meredith Ryan. Laura had an appointment at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provided counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ryan had reached out to Dorchen Leidholdt, a sex trafficking expert and the legal director at Sanctuary, to prepare for Laura’s deportation hearing.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.


Leidholdt had reviewed Laura’s case and determined she was a clear victim of sex trafficking. She saw Laura as a potential candidate for a New York State court process called vacatur, which could expunge her prostitution arrests. Vacatur entailed a separate legal proceeding because prostitution fell under state jurisdiction, whereas federal law controlled immigration.

The idea of another hearing exhausted Laura, but what choice did she have? The past year had been a whirlwind of setbacks. Laura moved in with Natalie after she left jail, and spent a month in a depressed haze. She lost her car and apartment from delinquent payments. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She didn’t have a job. And deportation still loomed on the horizon.

At Sanctuary’s unmarked offices, Laura met Leidholdt and Emily Amick, a young staff attorney. Laura told Amick her story through DJ’s eyes — a beautiful girl lured into a fast life of glamour and money. Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.

After Laura finished relaying her saga, Leidholdt and Amick said a lot of things that Laura didn’t understand. She cringed when they called her a victim, but she tried to suppress her frustration. Laura wanted to grab a cab home to Queens and sleep off the meeting.

She agreed, however, to join the three attorneys for lunch. Laura normally shied away from groups of women — flocks, she termed them. But she figured she’d be seeing these women a lot. So, she tried to get comfortable with them.

In April 2012, Laura, now 30, woke up in an Albany Ramada Inn well before her alarm blared. She’d spent many nights in hotel beds with clients, but this time she shared a suite with her attorneys. She had packed black business attire because the occasion called for it, not because men fawned over a hooker who looked like a CEO. Laura had agreed to tell her story at the state legislature to support the latest bill in a wave of anti-sex trafficking legislation.

New York State made sex trafficking a crime in 2007. The Legislature passed a law to recognize children and teenagers inveigled into prostitution as victims of trafficking. Before then, they were criminally liable sex workers.

Amick begged Laura to prepare remarks for her speech, but she decided to wing it. She performed better off the cuff. Laura hadn’t shared her story in public before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But, she knew that lawmakers needed to understand why sex trafficking was so lucrative and hard to curb.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp just so he could have that control, that mind control.”


Laura knew from experience that a female body was a more valuable commodity than any illicit good. DJ could have moved several kilos of high-grade heroin a week or sold shiny black Colt 45s by the trunkful, but pimping was a better bet. Higher earnings, lower penalties — the career criminal’s dream. Laura felt a duty to help squash that squalid dream, even if deportation followed.

Laura approached the podium around 9 a.m. and stood before about 30 elected officials. Her name-tag said “Kenya,” the name she chose when her attorneys said she needed a protective alias until her cases ended. Laura locked eyes with Amick and Leidholdt when she started speaking. When she felt tears forming, she tilted her head towards the ceiling. She no longer sounded like DJ’s publicist.

“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp,” she said. “Just so he could have that control, that mind control.”

She described a law enforcement system that didn’t try to protect her.

“I was a child,” she said. “I didn’t know any better. I had no one to assist me. I had no one to go to. The police failed me. The judge failed me. Everyone around me failed me. The only one I thought was there for me was my pimp.”

She lamented the label “prostitute.”

“I’m at the point where I just feel worthless because I have this word “prostitution” follow me everywhere. I’m not a prostitute. I’m a good woman.”

The label would follow her for at least another year, until her vacatur hearing.  Laura was among the first persons who could request to vacate prostitution arrests based on her trafficking status. A 2010 bill made vacatur an explicit legal recourse for trafficking victims — which meant sex workers who could show that their pimps kept them in prostitution through coercive tactics that included supplying drugs, withholding identification documents, lying, and threatening physical injury, deportation or public exposure.

Bill by bill, statute by statute, the state Legislature created a new legal system. It not only decriminalized prostitution for trafficking victims, but also gave girls like Laura the chance to re-enter society without stigma.

These anti-trafficking efforts were a huge coup, yet the laws still had gaps and loopholes. New York State was the fourth biggest hub for an industry that dealt primarily in young girls. Slavery was a bustling business, in New York and elsewhere.

When Laura finished speaking, Amick paraded her through a receiving line of lawmakers. In Amick’s eyes, Laura had graduated from survivor to leader. But Laura didn’t see it that way. She was just a woman telling her story, and she was exhausted.

A year later, in June 2013, Laura stood before a judge in a midtown courtroom for her vacatur hearing. Her legal team included Leidholdt, Amick, Ryan, and two more pro-bono attorneys from the white shoe firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After months of arduous prep, the hearing only took 10 minutes. Laura’s attorneys presented documents. Then the judge shuffled the documents and struck her gavel against the wooden bench.

“Judgment granted.”

The judge vacated all 24 prostitution arrests, which meant that Laura would likely get to stay in the country. ICE had moved to deport her based on crimes of moral turpitude. Her newly clean record, however, bore no signs of moral turpitude. So ICE had no reason to send her back to Kenya.

Laura breathed a loud sigh of relief. She had lived in a daze for two years. Without any way to orient herself in the world, nothing quite made sense. But now, with a clean record, Laura could restart her life.

After hugging her lawyers outside the courthouse, Laura left by herself. She wandered into a restaurant on Broadway for a sit-down lunch. She liked dining alone.

Three months later, Laura arrived at the midtown offices of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell for The Abely Awards, an annual event to honor domestic violence victim advocates. She walked over to the sign-in table to get her name tag, which said, “Kenya” in black lettering. The Kenya era, however, had ended on August 15, when Laura won her deportation hearing.

With both her prostitution offenses vacated and her deportation order reversed, Laura could resume control over her life. She could call herself whatever she wanted. Laura didn’t fear rebuke from DJ, but her attorneys considered him dangerous and wanted Laura to keep her protective alias. So, she was Kenya for the night.

Women dominated the event, but Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, was the man of the hour. A week earlier, Lippman had announced the creation of 11 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to handle all prostitution cases that went past arraignment. The statewide system would be the first of its kind.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.


Specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors would jointly evaluate cases with a focus on providing defendants with social services rather than prison sentences. The creation of the courts reflected the basic tenet behind anti-trafficking legislation: the criminal justice system should treat people charged with prostitution as victims, not defendants.

Social services, including shelter, therapy, job training and immigration support, could help people leave prostitution for good. Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.

Judge Lippman’s announcement came as a surprise, even to insiders like Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who authored New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, among other anti-trafficking legislation.

After Lippman accepted his award, Laura joined Leidholdt to introduce another honoree and one of Laura’s pro bono attorneys, Samidh Guha. During his short speech, Guha told the audience how Laura turned herself into the police when she didn’t meet her nightly quota. She knew DJ would beat her if she didn’t bring home enough money. Jail was a less daunting prospect.

Laura pointed her phone at Guha and joked about Instagramming the event. But as he shared snippets of her trafficking experience, Laura’s face gelled into a sober stare, and she looked up. She had never heard someone else tell her story. Coming from Guha, whom Laura regarded as a legal shark with deceptively sweet blue eyes, the details of her life sounded savage.

She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.

“OK, I think I deserve some wine now.”

It was Thanksgiving day, and no one ordered the turkey dinner. As usual, the smell of drawn butter clung to Laura’s apron as she carted around platters of battered shrimp. Laura scanned the few occupied tables in her section and wondered why she agreed to work on Thanksgiving.

Laura began waiting tables at a seafood restaurant after she got out of prison. In the summer, tourists filed into the kitschy eatery for jumbo portions of deep-fried seafood, but cold November weather brought sparser crowds. At times, when Laura collected checks, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when she made $30,000 in one sleepless weekend.

She didn’t mind waitressing. She was good at it, and her coworkers treated her like family. But Laura couldn’t deny that she missed the rush of cramming stacks of hundred-dollar-bills into her purse.

People who weren’t in the life — who didn’t understand the life — were “squares.” Laura knew she could never make it as a square. She tried to leave Amber behind when she left DJ. It didn’t work. At 32, with a clean record, Laura felt ready to start over. But this time, she accepted that Amber was part of her.

Once Laura recognized some of Amber’s contributions to her personality — brazen, strategic, unfazed by attention — she realized she needed to make use of them. Laura used to dread talking to strangers about her past, but she’d come to enjoy it. In the coming months, Laura would appear on the CW news to talk about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. And in March, she’ll participate in a United Nations panel about prostitution as sex work.

Laura wanted to choose a career that would enable her newfound interest in public speaking — law seemed like a good fit. She once thought of lawyers as paid liars, but then they became her liberators. Some attorneys, she learned, worked hard to do good. Laura now thought she might want to be one of them.

This story produced by the New York Bureau. 

NCCD Receives Grant to Explore Juvenile Justice Funding Model

The California Endowment awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant.
The California Endowment awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant.

The California Endowment on Dec. 16 awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant to conduct feasibility studies evaluating the viability of the Pay for Success (PFS) model as a funding mechanism in both California’s juvenile justice and foster care systems.

Caroline Whistler, advisory services co-founder and partner for Third Sector, said the PFS model represents a new type of government performance-based contract.

“The general purpose of this grant is, really at a high level, to engage potential government partners at the county-level, and engage and educate them about the Pay for Success opportunities in these two areas,” Whistler said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]“So rather than putting the kid, the victim and the community through the entire traditional justice system these kids, these youth, have an opportunity to do something different, and as a result, they’re not going to jail, they’re not being placed in custody.” [/module]

PFS programs are outcome-centered, with most of the financing coming from non-foundation or agency streams. Under the model, local governments only pay for services if the programs yield positive outcomes.

“Because governments don’t have to put up the money initially, you’re able to think about innovation and differentiation from what is traditionally being done,” said NCCD President Alex Busansky. “And it helps out with some of the frequently upfront costs of any kind of innovation that might be too onerous for many jurisdictions to take on.”

The traditional juvenile justice system, he said, displaces far too many young people from their homes, schools and neighborhoods. One area the NCCD is focusing on in the feasibility study is the development of restorative justice alternatives.

“So rather than putting the kid, the victim and the community through the entire traditional justice system,” he said, “these kids, these youth, have an opportunity to do something different, and as a result, they’re not going to jail, they’re not being placed in custody.”

Another focal point of the PFS grant is improving outcomes for the state’s foster care youth, primarily through targeting interventions to reduce placement disruptions.

“You’re going to see an average of around seven moves during a typical span of time in foster care,” he said. “For many kids, after the second or third move, they’re not going to another family, they’re going into congregate care.”

The PFS model, he said, may draw new funders and investors into areas like child welfare and juvenile justice, which many are not currently participating in.

“When we look at Pay for Success, I think we’re looking at a space that is ripe to bring new people in,” he said. “And I want to do it in a way that’s replicable and imitable by other jurisdictions across the country, and not just in California.”

The PFS outcome-based contracting model encourages social innovation financing (SIF), whether from philanthropists, impact investors or commercial lenders, Whistler said. Successful PFS-funded pilot programs could encourage county-level governments to make new investments in juvenile detention alternatives and prevention programming. And in areas where governments are already investing, the model could help agencies become more performance-driven, she said.

“It could really encourage governments to sort of take the risk of this pilot,” Whistler said. “And if these programs, through social innovation financing, prove successful, it could actually convince government to reallocate more dollars.”

Working in tandem with the NCCD, she said, allows Third Sector to share child welfare and juvenile justice data. In turn, that information can be used to help construct performance-based contracts.

“The intent of the California Endowment is that we’re going to focus now on two really critical areas for pilots,” Whistler said. “But the hope is that we will create models that can be replicated across counties -- certainly in California, and potentially outside the state as well.”