John Scarabaggio almost didn’t live to see his 22nd birthday. In 2011, he was 21 years old and instead of going out and partying with his friends, Scarabaggio was deep in his struggle with prescription drug addiction, taking up to 50 pills a day to maintain his high. But he overdosed on July 21 that year, and took so many pills that he went into a coma for eight days.
“I wasn’t supposed to live, I wasn’t even breathing for myself,” Scarabaggio said. “All I remember was waking up eight days later on my mom’s birthday. It scared the hell out of me.”
Scarabaggio’s story is one that’s heard far too often on Staten Island, where prescription drug abuse is rampant. Since 2005, fatalities on Staten Island linked to accidental prescription drug overdoses increased by nearly 150%, more than double the rate of any other borough. But through youth organizations, rehab programs and a city-wide ad campaign aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse, Staten Island’s cry for help has been heard and young adults like Scarabaggio are able to get the help they need.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed legislation that would dedicate state money to equipping NYPD officers with FDA-approved anti-overdose kits and Police Commissioner William Bratton said officers would be trained in administering the naloxone nasal spray once the bill is passed. State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) was in full support of the bill.
"The epidemic of heroin use and abuse has devastated families across Staten Island. It is a dark and painful substance that drags our teenagers far away from the happy and purposeful life they deserve,” Savino said.
“I applaud the governor for recognizing that New York State needs to step in now to save more of our young people before it’s too late."
The anti-overdose kit has already saved more than 10 lives on Staten Island since June, and could have helped Scarabaggio avoid his eight-day coma. But the day he woke up from it marked a turning point in Scarabaggio’s life. He started the long process of recovering from his addiction, a struggle that lasted longer than the time he spent addicted.
Scarabaggio grew up on the South Shore of Staten Island where said he had a good upbringing.
“We were well-off, I came from a good family,” he said. “I had no worries in the world.”
He attended Tottenville High School, had an active social life and played on his school’s football team. When he was 20 years old, Scarabaggio started developing symptoms of a hereditary knee condition and needed surgery on both of his legs, keeping him on painkillers and in and out the hospital for almost a year.
“Before surgery, I always experimented with weed and pills, but I was never addicted,” he said. “But after the first surgery I was bed-ridden and it took four months for full recovery. Then after that, I had to go back for the other knee.”
Scarabaggio’s doctor prescribed OxyContin to help him deal with the pain from the surgeries.
“I started taking them because of the pain, but then I started abusing them and started getting high off them and then I got addicted,” Scarabaggio said.
Former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley was instrumental in launching the ad campaign aimed at raising awareness and preventing prescription drug abuse.
“Painkillers are very common drugs and their sales have been skyrocketing,” Farley said.
Painkillers, or opioid analgesics, include oxycodone (either Percocet or OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Chemically, Farley said they are similar to heroin and they’re just as addictive.
Scarabaggio can testify. He said that by the time he made a full recovery from both surgeries, he was so addicted he couldn’t stop. He kept lying to his doctor and said he was still in pain so he could keep refilling his prescriptions.
“It was so easy, I didn’t need to doctor shop. I’d just go to him and said ‘I need more, I’m still in pain.’ It was as easy as getting cold medicine.”
As Scarabaggio kept using, his tolerance level went up and the more careless he became. He was court-mandated to attend an outpatient rehab program in early 2011 after getting arrested on a drug-related charge. It was his first attempt at recovery. The program was 30 days long, but Scarabaggio left after two weeks.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” he said about getting clean. “You go through the withdrawal, you sweat, shake, throw up. You go through every feeling and all you can think about is ‘why can’t I keep getting high?’”
After the two weeks he spent in rehab, Scarabaggio went back home and was clean for only two days.
“My parents were happy that I was doing good, but I was a miserable person. I didn’t wanna leave my house, I didn’t care anymore,” he said. “I had no heart.”
But he had a change of heart after his overdose. Right after he woke up from his coma, he was transferred to the Dynamic Youth Community rehab facility in Fallsburg, N.Y., where he remained for 13 months.
“I became normal John again,” he said. “I found out things about myself that I never knew before my addiction.”
Last September, Scarabaggio was transferred to Camelot Counseling, a group home for young men at the Seaview Hospital campus on Staten Island, where he was closer to his family. He recently finished the last seven months of his recovery and is currently back home, working at his father’s steel company in Newark, N.J., and is looking forward to taking classes at the College of Staten Island this fall.
“I’m strong now, I have no desire to get high,” Scarabaggio said. “I’ve had opportunities when I came home, people who were supposedly my friends were like ‘wanna smoke blunts?’ and I’m like ‘nah, I’m good.’”
In the summer of 2006, Britt was awakened by a phone call with news that her 18-year-old daughter, Latina “Peanut” Bilbro, had been involved in a shooting. She descended the Redfern tower where she lived and discovered Peanut lying on the pavement with a fatal gunshot wound to her chest.
Five years later, across the city, Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, also 18, was shot and killed in a hallway of Harlem’s Grant Houses.
The children’s party where Murphy and Britt met was organized by Wrencher and the Far Rockaway Police Athletic League youth summer camp as both a celebration for the community’s youth and a forum for anti-violence education. That the two met at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event wasn’t out of the ordinary. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had, in some way, been touched by gun violence.
“We were all affected by violence in different forms,” said a former Redfern resident and activist known as Queen Esther. “I’ve had family members killed. Boyfriends killed. I used to be part of that dysfunction and I suffered so much.”
Redfern Houses have been quiet lately. There hasn’t been a single shooting in the past year according to crime data from the New York Police Department. But residents remember a time, only years ago, when weekend shooting sprees would claim several teenage victims in the area.
In 2008, an aspiring dancer, Brandon Bethea, 15, was shot and killed in a shootout between rival crews from opposing sides of the Redfern Houses. Bethea’s family had moved her out of Redfern to get her away from the violence that marred the hallways and courtyards of the complex. She was there celebrating a graduation party when she was gunned down in a hail of 30 bullets.
Days later another teen, Tyrese Johnson, was gunned down in the doorway of the Last Stop Deli, just blocks aways from the houses. The 16-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.
They say that they are still healing from those wounds.
“We’re just trying to come together as a community,” said Wrencher, who lost her son, Andre Saunders, a 32-year-old MTA bus employee, in a 2009 shooting. “I don’t want to see another mother cry out.”
Party-goers wore matching T-shirts with the likeness and nickname of a lost loved one. “For the Love of Dre” read some, in honor of Wrencher’s son. Some women wore pink T-shirts with the words “Stack’s Divas” on the front, in reference to Rayquan Elliot, also known as Stack Bundles, a Redfern resident and rapper who was gunned down in 2007 and transformed into a symbol of anti-violence in the community.
In some ways, the “Children’s Day for Peace” was a kids’ summer party like any other. Wrencher transformed a seldom-used courtyard, donated to the Redfern Houses in honor of a resident who was murdered while on tenant watch in 2000, into a colorful bash. There were balloons, a DJ, a smoking barbecue station, face painting and dance performances. Homemade posters with inspirational words and anti-violence messages adorned the walls. “Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace” read one.
But according to residents, something so simple as an outdoor gathering for the kids at Redfern is an infrequent indulgence for a community that is starved for resources and constantly concerned about public safety.
“The kids need it. It’s a free day. Just a party,” said Denese Mars, 48, the center director for the Police Athletic League youth camp.
“It’s good to see them at least have something like this,” said Spud “Sleepy” Josey, 32, a former Redfern resident and father of two. Josey decided to leave Redfern Houses seven years ago when, in the middle of the day, he heard gunshots as he was getting his infant son out of his car.
“I said, ‘you know what? I’m gonna get out of here,”’ said Josey.
The rare chance to have an outdoor party for the children of Redfern also carried with it an opportunity for many community members to heal from their losses and reinvest in a safer future in the next generation of youth.
“Just seeing the kids, I get so much out of it. It makes me happy,” said Shenee Johnson, 40, who lost her 17-year-old son, Kedrick Ali Morrow, Jr., when he was shot and killed at a high school party in 2010.
“There are two ways to grieve. One is being bitter and the other is to help other people,” Johnson added.
Taylonn Murphy, the father of Chicken, has also rededicated his life to helping young people so that they don’t share the same fate as his daughter. He would like to keep a piece of her with him, he said.
Under his shirt, Murphy wore a beaded basketball necklace along with a frayed, laminated picture of Chicken in her honor.
“We don’t want to see these young people another face on a laminate,” said Murphy as he looked out at the kids enjoying the party.
See more photos from the "Children's Day of Peace" on JJIE's art blog Here.
NEW YORK — It was the tail-end of rush hour on a Thursday in March, and commuters were packed tightly onto a Brooklyn bus in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Passengers included a woman with her two small children, a Brooklyn father on the way from one job to another, and a couple of kids from rival gangs.
Not all of them got out alive.
Kahton Anderson was near the rear of the bus when he spotted rival gang members in the front. He pulled out a gun and fired into the crowded bus, missing his intended targets.
But Angel Rojas, a 39-year-old father of two, was shot in the back of the head. He died before he made it to the hospital.
Lala Knight lives on the corner where the bus pulled to a stop. She said she saw people running off the bus, screaming, including the woman with her two young children.
“It was sad, it was horrible,” Knight said.
Stories like these of gun violence are common in New York City, and around the nation, but this one was notable for a reason: the accused, Kahton Anderson, was a 14-year-old boy.
“I can’t believe it was a 14-year-old that did this,” Knight said. “I’m glad they got him.”
Enter the Governor
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the members of the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, created in part to address raising the age of criminal responsibility. Today, New York and North Carolina are the only two states where young people 16 and older are automatically treated as adults.
“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address this year. “It’s not right, it’s not fair — we must raise the age.”
The commission is tasked with serving up concrete recommendations about raising the age and juvenile justice reform by December. Alphonso David, the governor’s deputy secretary of civil rights, said the commission has to strike a balance.
“When we think about criminal justice reform we are addressing two platforms: reducing recidivism and ensuring public safety,” David said. “We are very focused on advancing both objectives, so recommendations would likely factor in both goals.”
Supporters of raise the age groups, like Campaign for Youth Justice, have touted studies that conclude young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s, and therefore are more open to rehabilitation. Research has also found that juveniles in adult prisons have much higher rates of suicide and physical and sexual abuse, and are more likely to be kept in solitary confinement compared to those in juvenile facilities.
“We’ve done a lot of polling and it tells us that people don’t like kids being in adult court,” said Jessica Sandoval, Campaign for Youth Justice’s vice president. “My instinct is to say that there’s an understanding among Americans that this isn’t how we should do business.”
In addition to safety concerns for youth held inside adult prisons, these young offenders can also face tough barriers to re-entering society, something advocates say keeps them cycling back through the system. Youth Represent, whose board chair will serve on the governor’s commission, regularly provides legal representation to young New Yorkers after they’ve been released.
Alison Wilkey, Youth Represent’s legal and policy director, said young people prosecuted as adults have to deal with more challenges once they are released. Public housing authorities, for example, can try to evict their families if they’ve been tried as an adult. And for young people applying to college, the difference between a juvenile offense and an adult criminal offense can decide their futures.
“Colleges ask about criminal records,” Wilkey said. Young people from other states who were arrested at 16 have only juvenile records, which are usually sealed, while 16-year-olds in New York have to state on their college applications if they have a criminal record. Because of this, “New York’s young people are at a huge disadvantage,” Wilkey said.
Not Everyone Agrees
But with high-profile cases like Kahton Anderson’s making the news, public support of Raise the Age legislation isn’t unanimous. Right now in New York, someone as young as 13 can be tried as an adult for serious offenses, which is why 14-year-old Anderson’s murder charge will be heard in adult criminal court, and potential legislation may not change that. In Connecticut, where a Raise the Age bill was passed in 2007, an important stipulation of the bill’s passage was that youths 14 and older who commit serious crimes can still be sent to adult court.
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, the chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections committee, said the public’s perception of youthful offenders depends on the types of crimes they commit.
“Certainly murders, rapes, violent crimes are things that make people — the natural reaction from law-abiding citizens when they see something like that is they have very little tolerance and want them to be held accountable,” Gallivan said. “So the question is, do we treat those that commit violent crimes the same way as nonviolent offenders?”
Gallivan said he’s yet to decide his stance on raising the age, and he and the rest of committee are waiting to see the results of the governor’s commission before moving forward.
Cuomo’s raise the age commission is part of a broader criminal justice reform in the state. Since 2008, New York state’s Office of Children and Family Services has closed 21 juvenile facilities, and since 2010, the number of juveniles placed in residential care has dropped 20 percent.
With the success of Connecticut’s Raise the Age legislation, which resulted in fewer youth in the system even with the addition of 16- and 17-year-olds, advocates have this in their favor as the committee enters into deliberations on what reforms they should propose. Alphonso David, Gov. Cuomo’s deputy Secretary of Civil Rights, said that fewer youth in the system creates the challenge of successfully reintegrating them back into society.
“Prison populations are lower and crime is down,” David said. “As we reduce the numbers of people incarcerated, we need to think creatively and strategically about how we engage folks in re-entry.”
State Sen. Gallivan said the commission is not likely to come out of talks with a fully formed piece of legislation; rather, it will make recommendations and see if a legislator will initiate a bill to introduce. But he thinks the fact that New York is one of only two states to set the age of criminal responsibility at 16 will factor into lawmakers’ decisions about initiating and supporting legislation.
“If New York is an outlier, or one of two that doesn’t do something, why?” Gallison said. “Anytime you’re the outlier, there’s reason to determine why and either justify it, or not. I think lawmakers will consider that.”
Jessica Sandoval at the Campaign for Youth Justice is optimistic about a bill being passed, but understands these things don’t happen overnight.
“I think the ball is definitely rolling in New York,” Sandoval said. “These campaigns are long and arduous, and there’s a lot of compromise and dealings back and forth. Sometimes it takes several legislative sessions to work out all the kinks. But if this … comes out with some really strong recommendations, I think [legislation to raise the age] will happen in the next few years, absolutely.”
CHICAGO — “Vacant…vacant…this one’s got some people in it…there’s a liquor store over there.” Circling around the block on 51st & Ada on Chicago’s South Side, Xavier McElrath-Bey takes stock of the neighborhood where he grew up. Though Back of the Yards isn’t nearly as violent as it was back in the late 80s, when McElrath-Bey and his fellow gang members patrolled the block looking for fights, he can’t help feeling like the South Side neighborhood is a shell of its former self.
“Man, so many of these places are empty now,” he said. “You just have nothing going on here, nothing for anyone to do.”
He waves at familiar faces as he drives past each boarded row house, calling a few old friends over to the driver’s window of his car to ask how they’ve been. Somehow it’s as if he’s never left Back of the Yards, even though he hasn’t lived here since before his nearly-3-year-old daughter was born, before he moved to Logan Square and started working for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, before he served a 13-year prison sentence for the stabbing and beating death of a gang rival.
Now, in his late 30s, McElrath-Bey hops out of the car and stares down at the spot where he and his childhood friend had carved their gang nicknames in the concrete.
“All these little monuments to what I did, they’re everywhere–they still hang over me,” McElrath-Bey says between drags on his cigarette. “It’s strange to think that that’s who I was, that that’s what my life was.”
Since getting out of prison in 2002 McElrath-Bey has been on a mission to help youth in the area leave the monuments of their own violent lives behind them. Between touring different cities for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and helping gather data for a Feinberg School of Medicine study on street behavior, he volunteers with local teens at the Precious Blood Blood Ministry of Reconciliation here in Back of the Yards.
The sharp about-face in his life attracted documentarian Julia Peterson to begin producing a film chronicling McElrath-Bey’s life and his efforts to reform the criminal justice system for juveniles. Peterson said she hopes the documentary, called Born Bad? will “change people’s attitudes so they can understand stories like Xavier’s, so that kids who make these mistakes won’t continue to be demonized.”
The Chicago Bureau sat with both inside Precious Blood, and we asked McElrath-Bey about the system that landed landed him in prison, and the efforts his organization is making to try and reform it.
The Chicago Bureau: You’ve spoken about growing up in poverty with a mother suffering from mental illness and a violent, abusive stepfather. What kind of effect does that kind of unstable home life have on a child’s development?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Personally it gave me a sense of unfulfilled needs, and a lack of emotional connection to anything. I was always living in fear, like I needed a sense of stability that I didn’t have. Looking back I don’t think I can remember one time when my mother came and hugged me and told me that she loved me. It’s just something she didn’t ever do. I mean she tried all the time to protect us, and she always went above and beyond to feed us–sometimes she waited in welfare lines for hours for us–but fact that she was jobless and dealing with mental illness, and it distracted her from the emotional aspects of raising a child. With me, it’s not like I woke up one day and decided to join a gang…but I can see now in retrospect where I was lacking. I can see I never was a bad person, I was just in a criminal-centric atmosphere and never got that sense of emotional support at home.
Chicago Bureau: What kind of impact did foster care have on your life?
McElrath-Bey: Then when I was 6 they ended up taking us away–my little sister who was a baby went to a different home, they put her with a different family, me and my brother shared a room in foster care, and that was our life for two-and-a-half years. The woman we were with, I don’t understand why she had us in the first place. She got money I guess, but she wasn’t working. I have faint memories of going to school and stuff, but one thing that stands out was that we were constantly doing chores and stuff that was no fun. Y’know, when my [2-year-old] daughter verbalizes to me that she’s bored, I say “OK, let’s do something, let’s go to the playground or something,” but for this woman, she had no sense of that. There was nothing maternal toward wanting to give us fun, and most of my memory of her was actually her coming in and hitting us because we were making noise. And when you have a couple kids in a room with nothing to do and no entertainment, of course they’re going to make noise. Kids are going to look for fun and take risks no matter what, and you need to find ways for them to do that in a healthy way. You know when I look at it, no one is going to be able to care for a child more than their parent. So I really don’t think it was necessary for them to take us away just because my stepdad was abusive–he should have paid for what he did, they shouldn’t have put us into that environment—my mom made a lot of poor decisions, and she was in a desperate situation. I mean it’s just why like I joined a gang: when you’re falling down a hole, you’re going to grab onto anything you can to stop you. And that’s why when it came down to it my mom stayed with my stepdad I think.
Chicago Bureau: What makes gang life so attractive to so many youth in the South Side?
McElrath-Bey: You’ve gotta ask: What do children seek in life? Some things typical of all children is that they need fun, they tend toward risk-taking behavior, and a lot of times they’re really developmentally incapable of appreciating the consequences of what they do. I mean that’s why you see kids going on skateboards, trying to grind on railings and stuff like that. They need sense of adventure and fun. And there’s a point in your adolescence when your primary group you spend time with is your peers, not your family, and they’re going to start influencing what you do more. That’s why in some of best communities in the city they have programs for positive peer interaction–you know, boy scouts, organized sports, stuff like that–all these things reinforce positive development. So for me growing up in a neighborhood without any programs like that, I recognized the gang as wellspring for all things I yearned for. I keep saying, in a lot of these neighborhoods gangs are far more advanced than any other institution in terms of giving kids a sense of confidence, safety, self-worth…I mean as soon as I joined, I definitely felt safer. And I remember once I got a gun I would always make sure my stepdad knew I had it, like “you’re not gonna be hitting us no more, or there’ll be trouble.” It’s strange to think now how empowering it was as a kid to have that sense of belonging.
Chicago Bureau: What were the events that led to your murder conviction?
McElrath-Bey: Out of respect for the victim I don’t usually get into much detail about it, but he was about a year older than I was, and he was from Back of the Yards too. He was from our rival gang, and I had never seen him before, but our lives crossed when he was walking down the street, some incidents took place where he was taken into an abandoned building and beaten and stabbed to death. Now I wasn’t one of the guys who physically did it, but I played a crucial role in it, and in that way I’m just as responsible for his death as anyone else is. But to this day I tell people that his loss of life was is not in vain–I believe what I do today is because of him. I think to myself a lot that he was really no different from me, that it could have been me who was killed but that was for some reason it was him instead. So it’s my responsibility to know that I had a part, and if I cant stop the violence I need to try and address it.
Chicago Bureau: By your own admission you were pretty violent at the time you were incarcerated, but by the time you got out you had a bachelor’s degree under your belt. To what do you attribute your turnaround in prison?
McElrath-Bey: It was a combination of all the right things happening and all right people coming into my life. I truly believe that had my life never gone down that path, had I not gone to prison, I would have been dead. I mean I had been shot at so many times, it got to a point where I wouldn’t run anymore, I would just duck. I had gotten used to that life, and at a crucial point where my life could have been destroyed, it gave me time to look upon my life and gave me the opportunity to mature. I had this macho attitude that what defined me as a man was the ability to physically overcome others, and because of that I kept getting into fights in prison. At one point I assaulted an officer so I was transferred to Pontiac, which is the worst prison in our state, and I was kept in isolation. So now without anyone else around I was just reflecting on my life, and I was forced to face myself…I wasn’t distracted anymore by who’s saying what about you. And I remember going into yard–sometimes they would let us out into the yard for rec time–and right across from our yard there was another where I always saw this one man playing basketball by himself. I always asked why, who this guy was and why he couldn’t be around anyone, and I found out he was on death row. I looked at him and realized he wasn’t that different from me. I thought that’s where I was going next, not because I wanted to harm anyone, but one mishap, and that’s where I could have been. I realized I didn’t want to live like that anymore, and I was being surrounded by older guys always telling me to calm down, telling me to focus on my future, that [prison] is not the real world. Some of these guys were in for life and telling me I should be striving toward a future, that I should be wanting to go out and live a normal life. And deep down, I simply did want to live a normal life. So that led to some important decisions on my part.
Chicago Bureau: What is it about Chicago that makes it such a unique example of a failed criminal justice system for juveniles?
McElrath-Bey: Not only did we have very first juvenile court in 1899, but for the most part Chicago is a great example of how certain social ills can really lead to poor decision-making among kids. It’s no coincidence that the majority of kids going into detention in this city are mostly from the same impoverished disinvested communities. It’s all very black and white, and the needs we need to address in those areas are very clear: Kids lack meaningful programs and services, there’s a lot of unemployment and no jobs in this community–I mean you drive around here, and the majority of businesses are liquor stores. If you go into all these households and ask what they’re involved in, they’ll say nothing at all. In the summer you see kids running around without purpose, with a wealth of negativity surrounding them. A lot of people are homeless, or have untreated mental illnesses, and everyone is just doing what they can to survive. So kids have to grow up and bear witness to all this, they have to contend with forces that impress upon them that they’re not worthy of something better in life. They have no role models, and the majority of people you see with nice clothes and nice cars are those who are involved in drug sales, so what type of example are we setting? How can we expect children to be what they can’t see?
Chicago Bureau: A lot of people are resigned to the idea that some neighborhoods are just worse than others, and areas like Back of the Yards should just be avoided and put out of mind. Why should someone who lives in a more privileged part of the city care about the fate of kids in poorer neighborhoods?
McElrath-Bey: I sense that feeling too. Now I live in Logan Square, which is very different from Back of the Yards…we still have crime up there, but for the most part you can walk down the street and feel safe. But that’s why it’s so important for people up there to feel aware of the human aspect of it all, that these are real people who live down here. It’s so common for the media to shed light upon negative part of community, you know just showing violence and mug shots on the news, but no one knows details. In reality, what we’re really looking at here is children. If we morally and ethically treat children like adults, then these problems are on us. We know children are simply different, and we have to be responsible for them. I mean if I leave my daughter in the living room alone for an hour, there’s a possibility she can hurt herself, and I’d be responsible for that. So if we as a society are not invested in giving children in this area meaningful support, then it’s our fault that kids are going and harming themselves the way we are. It comes from our sense of responsibility as a society.
Chicago Bureau: What can people all over the city do to help break the cycle of poverty and violence in neighborhoods like these?
McElrath-Bey: Follow your heart and just do whatever interests you in the community. Volunteer or become a mentor, because relationships are crucial–decisions are based on our relationships, and our commitments to one another. If we’re expected to help kids we have to come with just as much willingness to invest in their lives as the gang leaders have. Just come into the environment and see where you can give assistance, whether you have job a opportunity, or work with the social service industry giving home visits, or going out to lobby and speak to legislators about easing punitive penalties for juveniles who commit crimes. We also have this program called the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), which is a group of people who just want to shed light upon the fact that there is a capacity for positive change among these kids. And it’s not perfect, but there are so many great examples of people who even come out of prison and lead positive and productive lives. Now we know 50-60 percent of people who get out of prison end up going back, but we need to focus on the 40-50 percent who come out and are making a real difference out here. In fact the majority of guys I served with are now out living positive lives…some actually work with City Safe Passage, some are youth development program coordinators, one is teaching foreign languages to students, another is a YMCA safety initiative coordinator. The point is that guys once locked up serving time are now living normal lives, and proving themselves to be an asset to society. I mean some guys I met who were serving life would be asset to society if they were realeased today, I have no doubt. We all have capacity for change.
Alan Mills is not one to make apologies for his beliefs – and one strongly held by the legal director of the Uptown Peoples Law Center is about America’s current drug laws.
“We’re locking up too many people for too long.”
Many laws, especially drug laws, have punishment lengths that do not fit the crime, he and other critics explain. In fact, a recent report titled “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” explains that unnecessarily long sentences contribute to America having the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration.
And these laws are harming youth in Chicago and across the country, which ensnare many youth in drug crimes early on, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
“This is a population of our society who have been neglected. We haven’t done right by them, there have been a lot of broken promises,” said David Kelly, the executive director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. “Too many young people live without possibilities and live for today because they have to live from one day to the next.”
The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation has been reaching out to those effected by violence since 2002. The organization frequently deals with youths in prison. Kelly explains that this day-to-day mindset is very harmful for youth, and many deal with the resulting pain by numbing themselves with drugs or trying to make money by selling drugs.
This can be particularly dangerous, as there is a lot of pressure from politicians and the police to arrest those who violate drug laws.
“In Chicago, we don’t have stop and frisk,” Mills said. “We have stop and incarcerate,” Mills said.
And these arrests have the potential to permanently damage a juvenile’s future.
“As soon as a kid gets a record, the pathway to more serious and adult arrests is there, so in a way it sets them up for further incarceration. And incarceration just inflames the problem,” Kelly said. “Kids come out more disconnected from their family and community and are behind in school. So we spend a lot of money incarcerating a kid and they end up worse than they went in.”
But the atmosphere of incarceration might change soon with the deliberation over the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, which has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, deals with drug sentences.
Among other things, the bill would allow judges to disregard mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant’s criminal history is not higher than category two and reduce sentences for crack cocaine passed before the Fairer Sentencing Act to be in accordance with that act.
This means that mandatory minimums will not be implemented if the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point and that the sentences for crack will now be in an 18:1 ratio to powder cocaine rather than a 100:1 ratio. The Fairer Sentencing Act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack.
Crack sentences have persistently been blamed for being discriminatory. Studies have shown that demographically, African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine while white Americans are more likely to use powder cocaine. Before the Fairer Sentencing Act, the sentencing for crack cocaine was much higher than that for powder cocaine even though they are pharmacologically the same drug.
The bill, introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Michael Lee (R-UT), now has 17 Democrat and 12 Republican sponsors in the House of Representatives.
“What we’re talking about here, is doing everything we could do, sensibly, to reduce the level of incarceration,” Durbin said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Our bill focuses on drug cases, and those represent about 50 percent increase in prison incarceration.”
In a statement about the bill, Durbin also explained that the bill could help ease overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and lighten the load on a budget that currently spends roughly $30,000 each year for one inmate.
There are currently 10,520 drug-related inmates in Illinois state prisons today. They make up 21.6 percent of the current Illinois state prison population.
According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, they support the bill because it will save billions of dollars typically incurred by incarcerating drug offenders, address over-criminalization and help ameliorate a longstanding racial injustice.
Further, complying with the Fairer Sentencing Act’s elimination of the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine and allowing re-sentencing would shift discretion in drug cases away from the prosecutor and return it to judges.
In the current system, the sentence largely depends on the charge with which the prosecutor charges the defendant. Since the prosecutor has a one-sided agenda in the case, returning discretion to the judge could result in a more appropriate charge and fairer sentences.
However, many other groups, such as the National Sheriffs’ Association, the National Association of Police Organizations and National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition oppose the bill.
“We’re looking right now at historically low crime rates across the nation,” said Bob Bushman, President of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “And that’s because of the good work of the police to get repeat offenders off the streets,”
Bushman also fears that reducing the sentence for drugs may send a message to Americans, especially juveniles, that drugs are not dangerous.
Many supporters believe that the bill is a start but does not go far enough in dealing with those struggling with drug problems. Proponents of the bill claim that drug addiction is a medical issue and should be dealt with in a medical fashion, such as replacing prison with rehab when dealing with drug abusers.
“We seem to have a problem grasping that drug addiction is in fact an addiction,” Mills said. “The analogy I use is that it makes no sense to lock somebody up if they have a fever. You have to treat the underlying disease.”
Some suggest the solution could be to destigmatize addiction and provide resources to often poor communities to help combat drug use.
“We need to have community based organizations and resources so the kids can access what they need in their own community and don’t have to be incarcerated at all,” Kelly explained.
Although the Smarter Sentencing Act does not deal with the underlying cause of drug use and its aftermath, the number of cosponsors in the House of Representatives is rising. It seems that this effort to reform drug sentences may be on its way to the White House.
Thousands of young adults in Cook County are missing out on getting a clean start in life by failing to take advantage of the state’s liberal expungement laws for individuals who’ve committed crimes as a juvenile.
In 2013 the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s office had 5,994 juvenile cases on file and only 661 sought expungement of their criminal records – with only one being denied.
Dorothy Brown, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, called it “abysmal” to have so few people seek and be granted expungement, “especially since it is so easy…I think the main thing is education,” about the simplicity of the process.
Many people, she said, may not know they can get their juvenile records expunged, or think they can’t afford it. But Brown said fees associated with the process can be waived. Fees typically are $64 for the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and $60 for the Illinois State Police.
And while the number of juvenile expungements is low, they are up from when Brown first took office in 2000. Of the more than 7,000 juvenile cases filed that year, only 46 cases were expunged.
Brown has begun an aggressive campaign to get the word out about the state’s expungement process including information on pardons and clemency petitions. Her office will host its annual expungement summit for both adults and juveniles on Saturday, June 7 from 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m., at Living Word Christian Center, 7600 W. Roosevelt Rd., Park Forest, IL.
The state’s juvenile expungement laws, which Brown said are “probably one of the best in the country,” make it possible for almost any crime committed as a juvenile to be wiped cleaned as soon as they turn 18 years old.
At that age, Class B and C misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting can expunged from their record as long as they have no other cases in juvenile or adult court. Similarly when juveniles turn age 21 – or five years have lapsed since their last juvenile case – everything committed as a juvenile with the exception of DUI, sexual assault and first degree murder can be expunged, Brown said. But most cases are the lesser offenses.
“Those are the only thing a juvenile can’t get taken off their record and they are records wiped clean as long as those offenses were done while they were juveniles,” Brown said. “That is why I say we probably have the best in the country because there is no excuse for anyone to have a juvenile offense on their record.”
Most individuals needing juvenile records expunged are for minor offenses such as for property damage, minor drug offense or for behavioral issues in schools, said attorney Anne Geraghty Helms, of the law firm DLA Piper.
Helms launched a pilot program with several law offices to hold expungement clinics in Chicago Public Schools. The program targets alternative high schools where students may have had contact with the criminal justice system. Two clinics were held so far this year. They hope to offer more before the school year ends.
She said most don’t take advantage of the process because they think it’s too cumbersome and then usually seek help when it catches up with them later in life when they’re denied an opportunity.
“Part of our message to them is that juvenile records aren’t great, Helms said. “It’s really bad when you get an adult record because some of those can never go away,” she added, noting that some adults have records from as young as 10 years old.
Juvenile offenders are now getting help from the state to put past mistakes behind them. State Rep. Art Turner Jr., and State Sen. Kwame Raoul have both sponsored legislation requiring the Illinois State Police to automatically expunge certain records on an annual basis if individuals meet certain criteria.
The bill would create a new process for juveniles who are arrested but not charged. Juvenile records would be automatically expunged when the juvenile turns 18 if the minor was arrested but not charged for a non-violent crime, and at least six months had passed since the date of the arrest.
Raoul said it’s a “no-brainer” that the expunging process should be facilitated. His bill passed the senate floor April 8 and is now in the House where Turner is the chief sponsor.
“Make sure that young people who’ve reached the age of majority and do what they need to do … aren’t saddled with the burden of it as they’re trying to start their lives out as responsible, productive adults,” Raoul said.
The bill streamlines the process to expunge juveniles records, Turner added. Previously individuals with juvenile records would have to hire a lawyer then secure a petition from each arresting agency. But this bill eliminates all that. The bill, Turner said, aims to reduce a backlog of expungement requests — many of them from juveniles — with the Illinois State Police.
“So we just like to get that out the way and get these juveniles who weren’t convicted of anything a second chance and a fresh start going into adulthood,” Turner said.
Many youth, he added, mistakenly believe that an arrest doesn’t produce a record, but it does and they often find out when applying for financial aid or a job.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is backing the proposed legislation that would automatically expunge juvenile arrest records in certain cases.
“A child’s mistakes should not follow them into adulthood,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Automatically clearing arrests for non-violent juvenile offenders is an easy way to remove barriers that precent our children from reaching their full potential.”
Anthony Lowery, director of policy and advocacy at Safer Foundation, agreed. A criminal record, Lowery said, “is life-long and everlasting.” It can lead to discrimination and can hinder a young person’s earning potential, he said, noting that those with a criminal record make 40 percent less than those with no record.
“Whatever you can get off your record, you got to get it off to increase you opportunity for housing, education, employment. In this age of Internet… anybody can get the record,” Lowery said.
Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of Juvenile Justice Initiative, said the bill is a good start, but doesn’t quite address the issue facing juveniles caught in the criminal justice system. JJI advocates for effective juvenile justice policies. Clarke noted that 70 percent of juvenile arrests, even in high crime areas, are misdemeanors, not felonies.
“So why are we even sending misdemeanor arrests to the state police,” Clarke said. “Before 1998 we didn’t, and we really shouldn’t now.”
She hoped the proposal is a beginning of a series of changes to juvenile justice, including creating more community-based alternative sentencing programs opposed to “warehousing” youth in detention centers.
DISCLOSURE: Past and current financial supporters of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.
For years, the sex trade was "their" problem, a heinous part of culture in poorer nations. But attention here to sex trafficking has slowly increased in recent years with the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and other federal state laws.
Still, males remain a largely invisible population within the dialogue on sex trafficking. According to a 2008 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in fact, boys comprised about 50 percent of sexually exploited children in a sample study done in New York, with most being domestic victims.
However, the percentage of male victims may be higher due to the underreported and subversive nature of the crime, said Summar Ghias, program specialist for the Chicago-based International Organization for Adolescents.
“We’re conditioned as a community to identify female victims more readily,” she said, “because that has been the more prominent focus of the anti-trafficking movement.”
Despite these high percentages of commercially sexually exploited boys, a 2013 study by ECPAT-USA indicates that boys and young men are rarely identified as people arrested for prostitution or rescued as human trafficking victims, and are arrested more for petty crimes such as shoplifting.
Experts say that the law enforcement’s attitudes toward male victims are still weighed down by gender biases in trafficking discourse, which pins females as victims and males as perpetrators. Therefore, male victims in custody often fall through the cracks of services that could be offered to help them because they are not properly assessed for sexual exploitation.
“Responses are more or less the same – how can a boy be trafficked, they’re much stronger than girls, they could get out of it if they wanted to so,” says Genna Goldsobel, state policy coordinator of ECPAT-USA, a national anti-trafficking organization based in New York.
Many people also mistakenly associate male prostitution with homosexuality, when a majority of the trafficked youths are not gay, said Steven Pricopio, program coordinator of Surviving Our Struggle, an aftercare center for young male trafficking victims.
“When people think about male prostitution, they think of it as gay phenomena, that [the boys] are in control of what they’re doing,” Pricopio said. “They don’t see them as victims … It’s not an issue of sexual orientation, it’s an issue of right circumstances which bring you to exploitation or the vulnerability that brings you into being sexually exploited.”
Male victims come from similar backgrounds as female victims, often raised in broken families with a history of neglect and abuse, with at least 70 percent having experienced sexual abuse as children, Procopio said.
A 14 year-old male from the John Jay study, who started prostitution at age 12, said that his family’s neglect contributed to his apathetic attitude toward his own life.
“My mother, she’s lazy; she wouldn’t care,” he said. “She would care if I
died, but that’s all she cares about.”
The extent of their trauma is amplified due to their previous experience with sexual violence from a young age, making it difficult for them to identify as victims.
LGBTQ youth, who are more likely to be kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, may comprise about one-thirds of this population, according to the John Jay study.
The other two-thirds are made up of non-gay youth and “gay for pay” victims, or young heterosexual men who have sex with other men, said Meredith Dank, Senior Research Associate at The Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
One 18-year old male from the John Jay study said that although he was heterosexual, he slept with men to sustain himself: “I just gotta do what I gotta do and so I can eat every day. I don’t like the fact that I have to be with another man, just to survive. That’s what I hate the most.”
Once on the streets, young men are often lured into prostitution not only by pimps, but also by friends through peer networks that may stand to earn cash for “helping them out,” which confuses the cycle of exploitation, Dank said.
A 15-year old male from the John Jay study said he was pressured into the work by his friends, saying that “I didn’t know my friends did that — that they sold their bodies.”
Boys are bought and sold in both online and offline venues such as clubs and bars and websites such as backpage.com. Buyers are mostly white and upper-middle class men, and are often professionals with lots of flexibility in their schedule, Procopio said. However, 40 percent of the boys in the John Jay study also reported that they had served a female client.
“It makes boys more distrustful of authority figures because [the buyers] are authority figures,” he said.
Identification of male victims is difficult not only due to the lack of awareness, or focus, from law enforcement and service providers, but also the reluctance of boys to speak up.
Victims are unwilling to come forward to service providers, which may include doctors, social workers, and probation officers, due to feelings of shame and stigma.
An 18-year old male from Bronx in the study reflected on the guilt he associated with his work: “My mother taught me a lesson. If you’re ashamed a sumpin’… don’t do it, you know? … but at the same time, when you’re in the position that I’m in, it’s hard to live by it.”
Others are concerned that the service provider will try to criminalize their social network, said Anthony Marcus, who helped draft the John Jay study. The paradigm of child sex trafficking is unappealing to many victims, who may have children themselves and use prostitution for survival, he said.
“A lot of them don’t see themselves as children and don’t see themselves as victims and don’t see themselves as having suffered abuse so it puts a damper on the desire to go to any service professionals,” Marcus said.
Illinois passed the Safe Children Act in 2010, which is meant to protect minors who have been forced into prostitution from criminal prosecution, and place them in the child welfare system instead of the criminal justice system. However, many victims are still reluctant to reveal their victimization because they are unwilling to enter the foster care system, Dank said.
Male victims of trafficking also face a severe lack of aftercare and reintegration services, which may include both short-term and long-term housing options, education and job placement programs, and mental health services. The youth from the study echoed this need for more long-term housing. An 18-year old male from the study described the process of going from shelter to shelter: “Them shelters are 90 days. So, I gotta crash at a friend’s house, stay in a open-door type, and get my name back on the list to get another 90 days.”
According to the ECPAT-USA study, out of the 40 informants contacted, only four out of 25 shelters for commercially sexually exploited children serve boys, leaving them no choice but to return to their homes or the streets where they face potential re-exploitation. The absence of services tailored for male victims stem from the lack of general awareness about their experiences and victimization, Procopio said.
Without more concrete numbers on male victims of trafficking, funders may be unwilling to donate to shelters specifically tailored for their needs, Goldsobel said.
“When you don’t have statistics, it’s hard to get funding. If you don’t have funding, then you’re not helping victims and they get re-victimized and it comes full circle,” she said.
NEW YORK — A woman pulls out a letter she has written to her younger self and dedicated to her daughter. The advice is sweet and maternal:
"You are a beautiful young woman."
But for Milan, the woman reading the letter, the source of her wisdom has an edge.
"I'm priceless yet I find myself constantly putting a price tag on my body.”
Milan is young, only in her 20s, the daughter she mentions is a teenaged friend whom she mentors. And the advice is based on her experience as a young trans woman and, for a time, as a sex worker. Milan and her four fellow cast members traveled from New Orleans to perform “Say My Name, Say My Name” at the New York Live Arts Center in Manhattan last week.
The piece transported the audience again and again to New Orleans. The city is the hometown of the five performers — and the focus of their work. The cast members are all part of BreakOUT!, a youth-led organization that works to end the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans. The words they speak on stage are all based on their lives. The stories they tell, of being beaten by a grandfather after coming out or of being fired after transitioning at work, are real.
“Say My Name, Say My Name” starts with a light question: what do people think when they think of New Orleans? One by one, the cast touches on the city’s hedonistic reputation, from Bourbon Street to Mardi Gras to boozing, before settling on a darker side of the city that affects the lives of LGBTQ youth daily.
New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world, according to a 2012 Times-Picayune series on Louisiana’s prison system. At the time of the series’ publication, reporter Cindy Chang wrote: “The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's, 13 times China's and 20 times Germany's.”
For the cast members, the New Orleans Police Department’s policies affect them daily. In one scene, they each speak one line to tell their collective experience: “I am black.” “And transgender.” “That’s two marks against me.” “And don’t forget I’m a woman too.” “That’s three.”
One of the cast members, Adore, then shares a story about police neglect. After being beaten by her partner, she calls the police who, when they see she’s a trans woman, tell her, “You’re the same gender, you can work it out.”
The piece was developed in collaboration with Ping Chong + Company, a New York-based theater company, as part of their Undesirable Elements series, which was created in 1992. The pieces in the series are not traditional plays but, as the company defines them, “community-specific, interview- based theater works that examine the real lives of people who in some way are living as ‘outsiders’ in their communities.”
Like other productions in the series, “Say My Name, Say My Name” uses threads of each cast member’s life story throughout the script. Mieke Dee and Sara Zatz of Ping Chong + Company gathered the material through interviews and workshops with eight members of BreakOUT! and then drafted a script that was then edited collaboratively with the cast.
But when the company first approached BreakOUT! to create a new Undesirable Elements piece, the organization’s members did not immediately accept the offer. They had questions about the process and the partnership, said Wes Ware, the director of BreakOUT!
“These are folks from New York, how is this going to work? They’re going to come down and get our stories and then what?” he said “We weren’t sold at first.”
The members of BreakOUT! had group discussions and eventually turned to online videos of previous Ping Chong + Company performances, which only led to more questions.
“We started watching some of their videos of their Undesirable Elements project, and honestly, I remember we were like, ‘That’s not theater! That’s people sitting in chairs, that’s not theater. We want song and dance and glamour!’” Ware said with a laugh.
But the members said they took a leap of faith and accepted the invitation. The collaboration process formally began in early October 2013 when Sara Zatz and Mieke Dee of Ping Chong + Company flew down to New Orleans for an intensive period creating the piece that would become “Say My Name, Say My Name.”
Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.
CHICAGO — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Adolfo Davis, who was 16 when sentenced to mandatory life without parole for murder, will be eligible for new sentencing in a ruling that cracks open the door for scores of other inmates convicted while young to potentially live outside of prison as free.
The court’s opinion, issued Thursday morning, also applies retroactively to former cases of inmates sentenced as minors to life with the possibility of parole, even in homicide cases. Retroactivity, which has been adopted by such states as Texas, was something the U.S. Supreme Court left unclear in its 2012 ruling.
Jobi Cates, director of the Human Rights Watch Chicago office, said in a statement: “Youth who commit crimes should be held to account – but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation…If something is wrong on Tuesday, it was also wrong on Monday. Applying the Miller decision retroactively will help some young offenders find a path to becoming productive members of society.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in making it’s 2012 decision, agreed with arguments that minors, despite the heinous nature of a crime, could not be held to the same standard and consequences as adults, for the reason that they had not matured emotionally or mentally to the capacity of adult offenders. The court had previously ruled against the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole for crimes other than homicide
The Illinois ruling in a case in which Davis, now 37, was accused of being an accomplice and not the actual shooter, means that about 100 current inmates serving JLWOP could get new hearings and new sentences. But extremely long sentences could still be handed down – just not as a mandatory sentence – if the judge in a case feels it is appropriate.
The fierce battle over how to apply Miller in Illinois – which never adopted a law to apply it and has therefore been out of compliance for almost two years – started even before the Miller ruling. Advocates for both victims of the crimes and minors who committed them – or were accomplices found guilty – fought over who deserved the greatest weight.
Those fighting the Davis ruling argued the victims’ families and loved ones would have endure and relive details of the crimes yet again in new hearings. Juvenile advocates argued for the young perpetrators whose age, combined with the sentence, amounted to what the U.S. Supreme Court said was a violation of the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.
HRW also noted in the statement that, “Sentencing youths under 18 to life with no chance of release is a violation of international law. No other country in the world imposes life without parole on people who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.”
“I wasn’t as bad as they say I was,” said disgraced former Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella, on his public perception in the wake of the Kids for Cash scandal.
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- After a few beers one evening in the mid 1960s, Mark Ciavarella, in high school at the time and applying the kind of inexplicable logic that experts say is typical of many teens whose brains have not fully developed, conspired to steal a car and go for a joyride with his cousin and a friend. A detective noticed the teenagers suspiciously lingering around the car and pulled over. Ciavarella’s friend and his cousin darted away, but Ciavarella was not so lucky. The detective nabbed him and threw him in the back of his police car.
The officer’s decision would determine the young Ciavarella’s future. Would he arrest and process the suspect, possibly derailing the young man’s promising future? A staggering number of young people who end up in the criminal justice system are more likely to end up in prison than they are to earn a college degree.
During the ride Ciavarella’s heart pounded. Instead of placing the young Ciavarella into the relentless teeth of the juvenile justice system he gave the young man a break and took him home. He was greeted by his hysterical mother screaming, “I can’t believe my son is a criminal!” His father’s feelings were equally clear; he reared back and punched his son in the face.
“Knocks me out cold,” Ciavarella says.
“I didn’t need the system to take care of my problems,” Ciavarella continues. “My parents took care of my problems.”
The tough love, however, did not work. Ciavarella, now a disgraced judge whose name is synonymous with one of the biggest judicial scandals in recent memory, will in all likelihood die behind bars. Ciavarella was a lifelong resident of Wilkes-Barre. Now, he is imprisoned in a federal penitentiary, inmate number 15008-067, more than a thousand miles away from his grandchildren. They will learn about their grandfather from the hundreds of news clippings that detail his breathtaking corruption, and in the movie about his exploits that he agreed to star in.
Ciavarella tells this story in series of riveting interviews -- conducted without the judge’s attorney’s knowledge -- in a new documentary directed by Robert May, called “Kids for Cash,” named after the scandal that dominated headlines, airwaves and dinner table conversations in this industrial town of roughly 40,000, the county seat of Luzerne County, near the Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s the story behind the story,” May said of “Kids for Cash,” which opens nationwide at the end of the month.
Ciavarella is doing time for his involvement in what prosecutors say was an elaborate kickback scheme for accepting what Ciavarella called “finder's fees” from Robert Mericle, head of the largest developer in Wilkes-Barre, which built two for-profit juvenile centers to replace the crumbling county-run facility.
Ciavarella proudly ran on a platform of zero tolerance in the mid 1990s. He ran ads during election season that promised he would teach children how to listen to rules if parents couldn’t. He kept a busy schedule on the lecture tour circuit, telling anyone who would listen that he would throw children in prison if given the chance. His message reflected what many experts say was the dominant one from law enforcement in the wake of the shootings in Columbine.
Ciavarella would put a child behind bars for an infraction as minor as cursing at an adult or having a slap fight in gym class. But here he was reminiscing to May about his time as a teenager, ready to commit a felony stealing a car, and given a break by a police officer.
He grew up to become a juvenile court judge who aped the ultra strict worldview of his father and ended up convicted on a laundry list of federal charges, facing nearly three decades in prison.
May, the Academy Award-winning producer of Errol Morris’s “Fog of War,” tried to point out the mindbending hypocrisy that Ciavarella displayed in recounting that story.
“He missed the irony of it all entirely,” May said as he talked about his latest movie in a Midtown film company office in New York City. “I literally tried to point out the irony on display there. He couldn’t see it that way. I think he was raised by strict parents. He took his father’s word like it came directly from God, and that’s what the judge’s belief system was. His kids said as they grew up, that’s how they described him, that’s what he was -- a zero tolerance father.”
May, who lives in Luzerne County with his wife and teenage son, 17, and daughter, 14, spent as many as 16 hours a day interviewing the subjects in the film. His aim was to tell the whole story, not just make an issues oriented film that preached to the choir, he said. He would have abandoned the project if he could not secure the “villain’s side of the story,” as he described it -- Judge Ciavarella and his accomplice, and once close friend, in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, Judge Michael Conahan.
“No one would ever look at the whole picture,” Ciavarella says. “They only wanted to look at a little bit of the picture.”
On some occasions, he would spend eight hours with a child who was thrown in a detention facility by Ciavarella, and for the next eight hours he would spend in intimate conversation with the judge who put the child there.
May’s “Kids for Cash” is not a polemic. It is filled with facts and figures that advocates and experts are all too familiar with, but they are not what drives the film’s tense, gripping narrative. It is the specific details of the characters’ stories from all sides of the scandal -- including the judge, the children and their families, scandal-hungry residents, and the diligent reporters who helped break the scandal wide open -- that makes it so engrossing.
His film explores the emotional inner-lives of all the characters whose lives were swept up in the controversy, most intriguingly former judge Ciavarella, who many locals here look at as evil personified.
The residents of the towns in Luzerne County had their first opportunity to hear their hometown villain, Ciavarella, for themselves when May screened the movie last Thursday night at the RC Theatres in the heart of downtown Wilkes-Barre. When Ciavarella became a Juvenile Court judge in Luzerne County he promised to mete out the kind of punishment that informed him as a child. If the parents of Wilkes-Barre could not raise their children then he would.
Whether in a genuine attempt to relate his story, which he feels has been twisted by a vulturish media, or an act of pathological narcissism, Ciavarella agreed to secretly meet with May and his producer Lauren Timmons and answer questions about the scandal.
“I have not told my attorney that I agreed to do this documentary, and maybe me doing what I’m doing is going to come back to hurt me,” Ciavarella says in the film. “But I felt this was an opportunity for me to let people know what really happened. I’m not this mad judge who was just throwing kids away and shipping them out and locking them up putting them in shackles.”
May does not use voiceovers in the film. He said it was both a storytelling decision and a journalistic one. He wanted his movie to feel more like a tense thriller instead of a gussied up newsy docudrama. But he also wanted to put the onus on the audience. He wanted them to draw their own conclusions of Ciavarella.
Ciavarella insists in one interview that he did not take a “penny” to throw children in detention center cells. And it’s in that comment that May tips his hand a bit as to where he comes down in the controversy. He seems to be saying the judge didn’t need money to throw children in prison. He was happy to do it for free.
“The way Ciavarella ran the courtroom,” said one defense attorney interviewed in the film, “you could have had F. Lee Bailey there and the kids were going to go away.”
The money and the implication of quid pro quo and corruption around investors, land developers and money laundering brought attention to what advocates and experts say was the real scandal that was happening in plain sight. Ciavarella, emboldened by the trendy policy initiative coined “zero-tolerance,” used his position of power to throw an estimated 3,000 children into juvenile detention centers, many of them for minor offenses.
More troubling, say experts such as Marsha Levick, is that this all happened in open court in front of prosecutors, public defenders, and other members of the court. Instead of stepping in to stop it they let it go on, while child after child was taken from their families and thrown into detention facilities like something out of an absurdist nightmare.
“I think there's a coziness that happens in courtrooms, particularly in small towns with the same lawyers coming before the same judge over and over again,” she said. “It’s a cocoon of silence; it’s a go-along-to-get-along situation. No one wants to challenge the judge.”
If Ciavarella is the villain in this narrative, then Levick is one of the heroes, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She helped bring to light the Ciavarella’s draconian system of incarcerating children for minor offenses with no legal representation. She helped get his first victim -- Hillary Transue, who Ciavarella put away for making a satirical MySpace page about a vice principal -- out of the county run juvenile detention center after she learned that the judge had denied her an attorney. The Juvenile Law Center reversed and expunged 2,480 of Ciavarella’s convictions.
Echoing one of May’s themes running through the film, Levick said the real scandal was how cavalierly and routinely Ciavarella violated thousands of young defendants' rights.
“We can hear the $2.9 million figure and most people think, ‘That’s unbelievable, that’s not happening here,” she said. “I think in Luzerne County you had this internal conspiracy of silence. There were professionals in the courtroom every day -- lawyers, probations officers, court officers, public defenders -- who could see every day the parade of constitutional violations that was going on in front of them.”
And the application of zero-tolerance fueled policies is not limited to the imprisoned disgraced judges of Luzerne County, Levick said.
“The day to day violations of the kids’ rights do go on all over the country,” she said. “The dynamics that were present in Luzerne County are present elsewhere.”
May says he is no longer any good at parties. The making of the film, which he started to film as the scandal was unfolding in real time in April of 2009, has transformed him. He cannot participate in a conversation without him dredging up some statistics about the pittance society spends to educate children versus how much it splurges to incarcerate them, or rattling on about the “school-to-prison pipeline."
“I’m serious about this,” he said. “I literally can’t stop talking about it.”
Even his children, he said, have gotten impatient with his newfound passion. After he recently scolded his son for some minor infraction, his son shot back: “It’s like you told me, Dad: my brain isn’t fully developed yet!”
May said he thinks his “a-ha” moment in shooting the film is when he started interviewing Charlie Balasavage, who was sent away by Ciavarella for possessing a stolen scooter. Balasavage wanted to go to school, May said, but he was scared to go because of the ridicule he endured for having a speech impediment.
“Ciavarella thought he knew all he needed to know about Charlie after he flipped through some documents,” May said. “But he didn’t know him. And that goes for this whole system of zero-tolerance. They don’t know anything about these kids.”
For many Luzerne County residents who attended Thursday night’s screening, watching the children describe in exquisite detail the fallout from Ciavarella’s abuse generated strong emotion. Viewers in Auditorium 7 gasped and expressed outrage in hushed tones as the movie delved into the stories.
There was not an audience in the nation who was more familiar with the details May chronicles in “Kids for Cash.” And yet it still stoked an irrepressible sense of rage in the audience similar to the incredulous reaction upon reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" -- if you reimagine Edmond Dantes as a chubby, babyfaced child with a speech impediment.
And May said that’s the point. He said the gasps of shock in the theater did not surprise him. As much as people thought they knew about the scandal, they didn’t know its human scale until they could hear those horror stories in the voices of the people who were affected by the judicial abuse that played out in the juvenile court.
Some of them in ways that could not be undone.
After the viewing, some of the children and parents featured in the film joined a catered after-party, with tables covered in black and white tablecloths decorated with flickering candles. A massive “Kids for Cash” poster of a child in a cage ringed with razor wire stood yards away from a display of Lego characters. A neon yellow sign announced the “Snack Bar” in the movie theater lobby. The concession stand was closed, but beneath the glass, the candy display was filled with a dazzling array of confections from Raisinets to M&Ms, and set on the counter a sign advertised a tub of buttery popcorn and free refills.
Above the carefree innocence associated with movie theater treats was a screen mechanically scrolling through grim statistics about the juvenile justice system.
If someone would have asked Sandy Fonzo what she thought about the juvenile justice system, criminal justice reform and zero tolerance she would have shrugged and looked back blankly at the questioner.
“I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I was absolutely unaware.”
She never considered herself a political person.
“But now I do,” she said.
When May screened the film for her for the first time, Fonzo learned that Ciavarella was also in it. Initially, she said, it felt like “a slap in the face.” But she eventually came to understand that the movie needed balance, and more importantly, insight into their decision making so hopefully what happened to her son wouldn’t happen to other children.
In the film, Fonzo explains how her son, Ed Konzakoski, ended up in front of Ciavarella in a misguided attempt by her son’s father to scare him straight.
“He went in there a free spirited kid,” she says, “and he came out a hardened man.”
Konzakowski shot himself in the heart after years wallowing in a system he was placed in by Ciavarella.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have to see this movie ever again,” she said.
Fonzo has dedicated her life to reforming the system that she blames for taking her son’s life. She runs a blog called Prison 4 Profit. Her business card has the words “Seeking the End of Modern Slavery” written on it in italics. She has lost her innocence, she says, and can no longer go back to the days when she had the luxury not to know what was going on election day.
“I’d never been to court,” she said. “I thought these were professionals, these are people who have the kids’ best interests at heart. They were going to fix things. I was naive. I trusted them. I don’t know that I’ll ever trust anyone ever again.”
Hillary Transue, now 22 and studying creative writing at a graduate program in nearby Wilkes University, said she is happy May’s film has given her and the other victims of Ciavarella’s zero tolerance policies a voice.
“That’s what has the power to make change,” she said.
She said she is used to talking about the inequities of the juvenile justice system.
“I’ve sort of been in this role as as a victim and advocate since I was 15 years old,” she said.
She said even before she was hauled in front of Ciavarella, there was a palpable sense in her community that teenagers and children were looked at warily.
“We didn’t have the words for it then, zero-tolerance, but there was always the sense in our community that we were not trusted by adults. After a while you get to the point where you don’t trust adults.”
Judy Lorah, aunt to Amanda Lorah who was put into a detention center by Ciavarella for fight during a volleyball game, smiled as she chatted with other members of the audience during the reception after the show. As the scandal unfolded, she brought a document to educational administrators showing a list of 153 children from Amanda’s school who Ciavarella had put behind bars.
“I’m proud of the movie, the kids’ story needed to be told,” she said. “I think it’s started the healing process. For all these years we’ve only heard the judges stories. They never really told what happened to the children, how it affected their lives, how it affected their family's lives.”
Amanda’s father did not have time to talk. He had to rush to the hospital. After Amanda had taken some promotional pictures she had been rushed off to the hospital. She had gone into labor. She was going to give birth to her first child.
Our Lady of Fatima Blessed Grotto is a clumsy jumble of religious iconography on North Street on the outskirts of downtown set in a horseshoe shaped space blasted out of a rocky hillside. Among the votive candles, cherubic winged angels and carved beatific lambs, there is a white statue of a child kneeling in supplication before a flesh-colored Jesus mounted on a low cliff where a visitor can take in the grandeur of the courthouse.
When it was built in the early 20th Century, the Luzerne County Courthouse was intended to be a soaring tribute to the success of Wilkes-Barre as a burgeoning powerhouse in the tri-state area, a monument to public pride. There are few streets in Wilkes-Barre where residents or visitors do not have a clear view of the majestic courthouse, which sits on South Main Street along the banks of the Susquehanna River. It is a towering beaux-art bulwark with an opulent marble dome buttressed by a series of elegant arches that towers above the mom-and-pop shops, university buildings and well-kept middle class homes that make up the town.
But now, with two of its once most respected judges in prison in the wake of the scandal, to many residents the majestic building is a reproach, a troubling reminder of what happens when absolute power goes unchecked, and how it can determine the fates of its most vulnerable citizens.
Just blocks away from the courthouse, looming on a hill, sits the shuttered county-run juvenile facility, closed to make way for the private detention centers at the heart of the scandal. It is where Ciavarella sent his first batch of zero-tolerance offenders. Approaching it at night beneath a full moon the padlocked mansion-like structure feels like an eerie set piece from a horror movie.
The new facility built, named PA Child Care, is difficult to find. It doesn’t show up on Mericle’s website along with their other properties. It’s four miles away from the courthouse and there are no signs leading visitors to it. It sits at the bottom of a lonely hill sandwiched between the train tracks and Grimes Industrial Park, also built by the same developer charged with paying off the judges. The building looks like it could fit in unobtrusively at a local office park.
“We lived in our own little bubble, all of us, living out our own little lives,” Fonzo said, a picture of her and her dead son engraved on a silver heart that hangs from her neck. “We weren’t aware of any troubles in our town. But now I am. And it’s a scary world out there.”