Interview: Leaving Violence Behind

This anti-violence mural was painted in 2010 inside an underpass on 49th street, on the border of two rival gang territories in Back of the Yards. Since the mural was painted, McElrath-Bey said, fewer skirmishes have broken out at the site.
This anti-violence mural was painted in 2010 inside an underpass on 49th street, on the border of two rival gang territories in Back of the Yards. Since the mural was painted, McElrath-Bey said, fewer skirmishes have broken out at the site.

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.”

chicago_bureau_logo_final_webHe 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.

McElrath-Bey uncovers the spot where he and his childhood friend carved their gang nicknames into concrete more than 25 years ago. “It’s strange to think that that’s who I was, that that’s what my life was,” McElrath-Bey said about the spot.
McElrath-Bey uncovers the spot where he and his childhood friend carved their gang nicknames into concrete more than 25 years ago. “It’s strange to think that that’s who I was, that that’s what my life was,” McElrath-Bey said about the spot.

“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.

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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. 

OP-ED: ‘Those Kinds of Kids’: Meeting the Needs of LGBTQ Youth of Color Charged with Status Offenses

Bernadette Brown
Bernadette Brown

Jay is a 16-year-old black lesbian. [Editor’s Note: “Jay” is based on a composite of real stories of LGBTQ youth garnered during the author’s research interviews.] She was suspended for aggressive behavior when she stood up to defend herself against another student who harassed her because of her haircut and the baggy jeans she likes to wear. At home, Jay’s dad complains about her “looking like a boy.” Soon after, Jay begins skipping school because she is tired of being harassed by fellow students, and is arrested for truancy.

The school arranges for a social worker to visit Jay’s home. The social worker determines that Jay’s dad is homophobic because he says things like “I have a daughter, not a son.” Feeling dejected, Jay goes to the local LGBTQ community center to look for support to cope with her dad’s attitude and the school harassment. She finds herself surrounded by mostly white kids and staff. The center has no programs specifically for youth of color. When Jay mentions that she was arrested, a white staffer responds, “Oh, we don’t deal with those kinds of kids.”

Because of her arrest, Jay is put on probation. She tells her probation officer (PO) about a friend who has an adult mentor who helps her “deal with being black and gay.” Jay wants to meet the mentor, but her PO questions her hanging out with a gay adult and wants to know why this person wants to mentor her.

Jay doesn’t know where to turn. She’s left feeling sad, confused, and alone.

The irony is, Jay’s situation isn’t uncommon: LGBTQ young people are twice as likely to be detained for status offenses as straight youth. Sadly, the lack of culturally relevant services and possible racial discrimination, combined with her father’s lack of understanding and the PO’s lack of support, all pose hindrances to Jay’s healthy development and success.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s (CJJ) “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses,” issued in December 2013, creates a roadmap to improve the lives of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth like Jay. Here are some of the report’s recommendations for how service providers can work together and with LGBTQ young people to improve young people’s lives.

Cultural Competency

Humans are integrated wholes, not disaggregated data points. The majority of LGBTQ youth in detention are youth of color; thus, both race and sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression (collectively known as “SOGIE”) influence what support these young people need and how service providers treat them. It’s important for service providers to acknowledge all of a young person’s identities to be able to give effective support.

The Standards recommend that all services be “culturally competent and sensitive to gender, race, and LGBTQ issues.” While homophobia in communities of color receives media attention, racism in the LGBTQ community rarely does, though its existence is well documented, including in the Black, Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. If LGBTQ programs are ill-equipped to serve youth of color, this increases the chances that these young people will not receive needed support. Without support, past trauma from system involvement or other causes may go unaddressed or even continue to accumulate.

Juvenile justice stakeholders must also move past the stereotype that communities of color are profoundly homophobic (see Juan Battle’s “Sexuality Social Justice Project” for research to the contrary) and ask youth of color organizations if they have, or are willing to include, programming for LGBTQ youth. By addressing the intersection of young people’s identities, service providers are better positioned to help them succeed.

Family Engagement

The Standards emphasize that “families should be treated as potential allies in supporting LGBTQ youth.” Just as social workers address factors like parental substance abuse when working with families, they should also address factors like a parent’s homophobia, which can have a significant adverse impact on the child and family. Research demonstrates that when parents become even a little more supportive, it can have a beneficial impact on the child. If Jay’s dad refuses to attend LGBTQ programs with Jay, but he stops haranguing her about her gender expression, that is progress.

Positive Youth Development

The Standards “encourage youth relationships with adults other than parents who can serve as positive role models and advisors.” Yet many LGBTQ youth do not have access to LGBTQ role models because of discriminatory attitudes of some juvenile justice stakeholders, exemplified by Jay’s PO. Given that LGBTQ youth often experience mistreatment related to their SOGIE by adults who are supposed to care for them, it is critical that juvenile justice stakeholders work to facilitate these mentee-mentor relationships, not impede them.

When juvenile justice stakeholders prioritize advancing their practice around these issues, Jay and other children like her are afforded the same chances for success as all of their peers. For more information, visit the CJJ Standards’ website.


Bernadette Ebony Brown, JD, is a senior program specialist at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and the project manager for Improving Permanency for LGBT Youth.


Former Youth Inmate Overcomes the Impossible to Run for California State Assembly

Prophet Walker
Prophet Walker

LOS ANGELES -- When he was a teenager growing up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, Prophet Walker hardly seemed destined for success.

His mother was a heroin addict, and his neighborhood was filled with racial strife between blacks and Hispanics. Walker, the son of a white mother and black father, got into fights often, believing that physical violence was the key to his survival. One day while ditching school, Walker and his friends got into a fight with a group of Hispanic teenagers. Walker fractured another boy’s jaw, and was arrested. Then 16, he was tried as an adult and convicted of assault causing great bodily harm. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

JJIE Los Angeles BureauBut this is a story of hope and redemption, not despair, one that links the disparate worlds of Los Angeles’ ghetto neighborhoods with the glamour of Hollywood. It is the story of how Walker, with the help of movie producer Scott Budnick (“The Hangover”) and his own fierce determination, overcame his difficult circumstances and transformed his life into a success story.

“Prophet is truly an extraordinary person,” says Carol Oughton Biondi, a commissioner of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families and a director of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund. “He will excel at anything he wants to do. He is the real, real deal.”

Prophet Walker at work.
Prophet Walker at work. Mark Lawson Shepard / JJIE

Walker’s transformation began while still in prison. With Budnick as his mentor, he participated in a program called InsideOUT Writers, which uses creative writing to help currently and formerly jailed young adults transform their lives. He earned his high school degree while behind bars, but that was only the beginning.

He helped devise a Youthful Offender Pilot Program to allow juvenile offenders to pursue an education in safer settings, such as medium-security prison, rather than being thrown in high-security prisons that offered few opportunities. Budnick helped persuade state prison officials to adopt the pilot program, which has since been expanded.

After being released from prison, Walker graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in engineering, helped design an innovative robotic garage in Santa Monica and became a project manager for Morley Builders, a prominent southern California construction company. And today Walker, now 26 years old and the father of an 8-year-old daughter, is running for the California state Assembly from the 64th district, which represents Carson, Compton, Watts, Wilmington and North Long Beach.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"] Learn more about InsideOUT writers in an op-ed HERE[/module]

“I’m hugely impressed with his desire to give back” to his community, says Anne Devereux-Mills, an advocate for improving children’s health and a key member of the team that helped pass Proposition 36, which reformed California’s “Three Strikes Law” for non-violent felony convictions. “He is unique in his ability to rise above his circumstances and become a role model for youth.”

Todd Rubenstein, a Los Angeles attorney and chairman of InsideOUT Writers, agrees. “What Prophet represents is that if you put your mind to something and work hard, you can achieve anything. You are not defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

Walker, an articulate, energetic and charismatic man, recently discussed his journey of redemption, the people who influenced him and his goals for the future in a lengthy interview with JJIE.

Like many others, Walker was unprepared when he was thrust into an overworked and flawed justice system after he was arrested for assault at 16 and tried as an adult.

“What I thought was going to be an unfortunate fight, an unfortunate reality of urban living, turned out to be me being picked up for assault,” Walker says.  “I went to court and tried fighting the case and was tried as an adult.

“I had a young lawyer who was not very well prepared for the case,” Walker says. “I got a six-year sentence and had no record before that. The judge in fact thought that it was too harsh and did not want to sentence me, but his hands were tied by the mandatory sentencing.” He adds, “I hadn’t been to college yet and didn’t know that there was a theory called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ that said if you just shut up you have a better chance of never being incarcerated.”

Prophet Walker.
Prophet Walker. Mark Lawson Shepard / JJIE

While in juvenile hall, Walker met Budnick, the Hollywood producer who would have a major impact in helping Walker turn his life around. Budnick, the president of Green Hat Films, which produced the hit movie “The Hangover,” was working with young inmates in a program called InsideOUT Writers. The program uses creative writing as a catalyst to empower young inmates and help them transform their lives.

“He was a great teacher, and when I say teacher I mean facilitating conversation about your goals, your personal beliefs and your sorrows,” Walker says. He remembers one conversation with Budnick as particularly important.

“I remember talking to him one day crying,” Walker says. “I was saying ‘I shouldn’t be here. I should be doing something else and this was not my life.’ Scott’s famous words were, ‘Stop crying and do something about it.’”

Walker says that he was also influenced by the guards in juvenile hall.

Walker had passed his GED, or high school equivalency test, but he hadn’t gotten his certificate yet. When he asked one of the guards about this, the guard gave him some advice that stuck with him. “He told me that, ‘You don’t speak loud enough, that’s why you don’t have your paper.’  I said I have an innately soft way of speaking. He said, ‘It’s not talking loud; it is standing up for yourself. When people have a job you need to make sure that they do those jobs. Likewise, you make sure that you do your job throughout life.’”

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]"I’m coming out with a 3.8 GPA and a prison record. I remember her believing in me.”[/module]When he was 18, Walker was transferred from juvenile hall to Ironwood State Prison, an adult facility in Blythe, Calif. He says he was terrified, but he was able to find a college program to continue his education. And once again, he got help from someone who believed in him: his grandfather, Richard Jones, who sent him books, including the works of Socrates and “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini.

After two years at Ironwood, Walker persuaded prison officials to transfer him to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif., a lower-security facility with an education program. “I was stoked,” Walker says. “I had just visited hell for the last few years of my life. This prison was Disneyland; that’s what it felt like. We were able to talk to other races and they had typewriters,” Walker says.

When Budnick came to visit him at Norco, Walker said, “Any kid who gets tried and sentenced as an adult should come to his place. They should never have to deal with the madness that I had to deal with on higher levels.” Budnick told Walker to come up with a plan and that he would take it to prison officials if it was good enough.

Walker put together a proposal that revised the scoring system used by state corrections officials so that it enabled young prisoners with good behavior to be sent to lower-security facilities, according to an account on the website of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Budnick took the proposal to state prison officials in Sacramento, who embraced the idea and put it into effect.

By this time, Walker had decided he wanted to become an engineer, and he was determined to get into Loyola Marymount University, calling the school’s admissions office repeatedly whenever he was allowed to make a phone call.

“I remember talking to an admissions director saying I need help,” Walker says. “Other kids are coming out of high school with a 4.0 GPA and a slew of community service. I’m coming out with a 3.8 GPA and a prison record. I remember her believing in me.” He applied and was accepted.

In his quest for the state Assembly, Walker has been embraced by a combination of Hollywood figures and advocates for juvenile justice. In October, Carol and Frank Biondi held a fundraiser for Prophet’s campaign at their home in Brentwood, an affluent neighborhood on the Westside of Los Angeles. Frank Biondi is a former chief executive of Viacom Inc., the New York media company, and Universal, the Los Angeles movie studio.

The hosts also included Budnick and Rubenstein; Lucy Firestone, an entrepreneur and producer whose great-grandfather founded Firestone Tire & Rubber Company; Nancy Ozeas, director of programs at the Milken Institute and a longtime supporter of humanitarian causes; and Javier Stauring, co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Prophet Walker. Mark Lawson Shepard / JJIE

Despite some influential backers, Walker’s election prospects are uncertain. He is facing formidable competition in the race to succeed Assemblyman Isadore Hall, III. Hall, first elected to the California state Assembly in November 2008, cannot run for re-election under term-limit restrictions, approved in 1990, which limited California lawmakers to three terms in the state Assembly and two terms in the state Senate. (In 2012, California voters approved Proposition 28, which allows state legislators to serve a total of 12 years either in the state Assembly, state Senate or a combination of both. The new rules only apply to legislators first elected after Proposition 28 was passed.)

In addition to Walker, the Democratic Party candidates running for the Assembly seat in the 64th District are Carson Councilman Mike Gipson, Long Beach Councilman Steve Neal and Compton Unified School board member Micah Ali. According to the latest filings available, all three of Walker’s opponents have so far raised more money than he has. A primary is scheduled for June.

Unlike many states in the South, which effectively disenfranchise young people who have gotten into trouble by preventing them from holding office or even voting, Walker’s criminal record isn’t a barrier to him running for the state legislature in California. California law only states that candidates for state Assembly and Senate cannot have been convicted of a felony involving bribery, embezzlement of public money or extortion or theft of public money.

Carol Biondi says that Walker’s background – and the fact that he has overcome his past – could actually be more of an asset than a liability in his race for the Assembly seat in the 64th District.

“I honestly think it’s mostly an asset because the mass incarceration of men in his district is out of control,” says Biondi. “The fact that he went [to prison], and really shouldn’t have for a fight, is outrageous. He was never gang involved. It was his first offense. He was an honor student. He holds absolutely no bitterness or anger about it and takes responsibility for his action. And he showed courage throughout his time there. But most important, he triumphed over the experience. Every mother either has a son who is or was on probation, is or has been locked up or lives in fear he will be. They all have husbands, brothers or cousins that are in the system. He is the hope for all of them.”

Whatever the results of the Assembly race, Walker is looking ahead.

Asked about his ultimate dreams and goals, Walker says, “Professionally, it’s to build one of the tallest buildings in the world. Family-wise, to make sure my daughter is extremely well taken care of and successful in whatever her dreams are. Socially, to bring about true justice and a level playing field.

“In an ideal world, the amount of money we spend on incarcerating juveniles would be re-allocated to college funds. And we’d have fewer kids in jail and more kids in schools. Every kid -- no matter what race, no matter what socio-economic status -- can actually have a chance at a college degree and a chance at true success in life,” he says.

This is the Beginning: An Interview with William Lopez of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition

"Being in the cell for 24 hours a day, I had plenty of time to think and really want to make that change..."

After losing his brother to gang violence, during his incarceration William Lopez began to turn his life around through education. He worked to receive his G.E.D and eventually acquired numerous A.A degrees -- all while behind bars. Towards the end of his sentence, Lopez met Scott Budnick, the producer of the Hangover movies and a prison reform advocate. "He helps individuals while they are in prison, once they come out," Lopez states of Budnick. "Jobwise, mentorship, pretty much supports you all the way through."

Watch JJIE's interview with Lopez at the 2013 MacArthur Models for Change Conference: 


Now, Lopez is out and works alongside Budnick as a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He says, "This is the beginning, I'm grateful to be home, everyday is great for me, I'm so happy to be here."

Videography by David Kindler. 
Watch more JJIE video interviews from the 2013 Models for Change Conference:

DRUMBEAT Program Provides a Safe Space for Rhythmic Reflection

DRUMBEAT Festival 2010 010

This article originally appeared in Youth Today.

MELBOURNE, Australia-- Cindy Mathers found herself at a loss. Tasked with engaging a group of young teenage boys identified as at-risk of transitioning poorly to secondary school, the community health nurse, who works with aboriginal communities in West Gippsland, Australia, was worried that conventional talk-based techniques would fall short with the boisterous boys.

DRUMBEAT, a group program that uses hand drumming to create a fun, safe space for social learning and self-reflection, provided her with a solution.

“Trying to contain those boys was like trying to contain a cyclone. Methods entirely based on talking wouldn’t have been effective,” said Mathers, who was able to successfully connect with the teens through this interactive program.

JJIE Resource HubRenowned for its success in Australia as an innovative approach to juvenile justice and an effective intervention initiative for youth at risk of negative social outcomes such as substance abuse, criminal activity or isolation, DRUMBEAT (Discovering Relationships Using Music – Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes and Thoughts), has been trialed in Florida and will return to the United States this October and November. Three-day training sessions will be run in Minneapolis, Minn., and in Albuquerque, N.M., for interested individuals and organizations. Once accredited, following the training, professionals and organizations will be qualified to facilitate the program and run it independently.

Capturing Kids’ Interest

Simon Faulkner developed DRUMBEAT in in 2003 through Holyoake, a non-for-profit counseling and drug and alcohol service in Western Australia. Faulkner incorporated hand drumming in order to engage young people with an attractive experiential element, while still delivering cognitive behavioral outcomes.

“Experiential methods, such as adventure courses and sports-based programs, tend to be expensive and don’t have a very strong cognitive focus,” said Faulkner. “We wanted to marry making young people feel interested and at ease with teaching them how to manage their thoughts and feelings.”

Running for 10 weeks and concluding with a group performance, the multi-faceted program uses a variety of games to facilitate social interaction and develop relationship skills. Drumming activities provide analogies for peer pressure and other topical issues, allowing for reflection and discussion, while improvisation validates individuality and promotes self-confidence.

“It works at a relational level, a cognitive level and a neuro-biological level,” said Faulkner, who designed the drum program intending to replicate the rhythmic patterns of early childhood that can be disturbed through trauma or neglect.

Communicating Through the Drumbeat

DRUMBEAT Festival 2010 116

Developing the initiative after becoming frustrated with existing, strictly talk-based forms of therapy, Faulkner said DRUMBEAT’s positive nature, and its ability to return both observable and empirical results, restored his faith in youth work.

“For years, going to work every day felt like banging my head up against a brick wall because I was using an inappropriate strategy. Young people can be tough to work with, but a lot of the strategies that we have are fairly negative. When you’re doing something fun, and particularly when young people are responding, you feel better about the work you do.”

Faulkner said young people who have had negative experiences often find talk-based methods too confronting and tend to disengage. Alternatively, early DRUMBEAT sessions use the drum as the primary tool for communication. Faulkner said this creates a more relaxed atmosphere and helps to build trust, both of which necessary for therapeutic outcomes.

“If you ask people who are socially anxious direct personal questions before you have established a relationship, you get silence. But you can ask the same question and get a huge response back on the drums. People often end up talking more openly than in traditional counseling sessions,” he said.

Because the instrument is easy to master and fun to play, self-doubt and self-consciousness are also reduced, Faulkner said. “It’s incredible how quickly people start smiling. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be fun.”

Armed with this positive philosophy, Holyoake approaches juvenile justice with a refreshing perspective, emphasizing the need to empower young people and equip them with the life skills to actively make a change upon their release.

“Young people often say that the programs in detention centers are about looking at what they’ve done wrong, not how to change. DRUMBEAT is about helping them learn how not to fall back into those patterns,” said Faulkner.

“If everyone continues to treat you negatively there is not much potential for change, but if someone suddenly shows you that they [sic] believe in you, that can make all the difference,” he said.

[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about community-based alternatives visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

Creating Trust


DRUMBEAT’s outlook has also proven beneficial for school children with behavioral issues, offering kids who may have acquired a negative reputation with teachers and peers the opportunity to start fresh. Sacha Markham, a school family support worker at Frayne College who facilitates the DRUMBEAT program with late primary and early secondary boys and girls in northern Victoria, said constantly disciplining kids without working on the positives of their personality traps them in a problem cycle. “Kids will identify themselves to me as ‘the worst of the worst,’” Markham said. “They are already well aware of the negative things in their life – they live them everyday.”

DRUMBEAT’s encouraging approach considerably impacts students’ self-esteem, Markham said. “I always ask the boy in the group who has identified himself as ‘the worst of the worst’ to hold the central drumbeat, the heartbeat. Not once has he said no. You see him puff his little chest up, and he’ll keep the rhythm perfectly throughout the whole session.”

The program’s focus on life skills aims to assist young people to make good choices, better interact socially, and self-regulate their feelings and behavior – outcomes that Markham has observed at the school. She said DRUMBEAT also motivates students notorious for absences to attend. “Boys who would rarely come to school would be there for DRUMBEAT. I’d turn up in the morning and they’d be there waiting for me, excited,” she said.

Trust established through DRUMBEAT also increased Markham’s profile with the kids as the school’s support worker. She began to see a number of students regularly, including 8-year-old autistic student, Jack, when he was struggling to communicate.

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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about community-based alternatives, including: 


“He was feeling really angry one day and he came to me. I handed him a drum and said, ‘Just play out your anger.’ He looked at me and said, ‘But I will break your drum.’ I told him I didn’t care. He banged and banged, and at the end he said, ‘That felt awesome.’”

Another student who consulted with Markham regularly, 11-year-old Sam, found DRUMBEAT’s relationship themes helpful in dealing with his parents’ divorce.

[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about early interventions in schools, visit the community-based alternatives section on our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

Exploring Positive Relationships

Faulkner deliberately designed DRUMBEAT to prioritize relationships themes, believing that healthy networks of support are crucial to preventing risks such as drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal activity. “If young people can recognize healthy relationships,” he said, “they can build positive relationships around them to nurture them when they need support. A lot of the young people we work with have been born into dysfunction and have never had or seen healthy relationships.”

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By joining a community within the drum circle, cooperating as a team, playing in harmony, and working toward the common goal of delivering the final performance, DRUMBEAT participants constantly explore relationship themes. Faulkner said making music in a group requires all those same social skills that help foster healthy relationships.

“When they don’t play well together it’s nowhere near as strong, so immediately you have a very simple analogy about the benefits of being connected and working together,” said Faulkner.

Melbourne’s City Mission works with disadvantaged individuals, families and communities. City Mission’s David Crawford, an early intervention services team leader who works to prevent homelessness among youth, said DRUMBEAT is particularly effective for his organization because of its focus on relationships. Crawford recognizes strong, positive relationships as vital for keeping young people off the streets, as he advocates for reconnecting youth to family, friends, and school and employment communities. “DRUMBEAT begins to teach relationship skills and talks about their importance,” he said.

Evidence and Replication

DRUMBEAT Festival 2010 021

The DRUMBEAT program has garnered interest and consistently positive responses from youth professionals, particularly because of its evidently positive results (five peer-reviewed journal articles and additional research reports have been published to date). The most recent report, published in the UK’s Journal of Public Mental Health, studied 19 schools participating in the program and found a 10 percent increase in student self-esteem, a decline in behavioural incidents in 29 percent of students, and an overall improvement in students’ relationship skills.

More than 3,000 professionals from a variety of fields are currently trained as DRUMBEAT facilitators. Despite being originally developed to prevent young people becoming involved in the justice system or with drugs and alcohol, the program is now run for a range of population groups and successfully operates in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, mental health and child trauma facilities, eating disorder clinics, adult prisons, and even aged care. Not exclusively reliant on verbal communication, DRUMBEAT can be modified to accommodate intellectual and cultural difference, and cater for language barriers which are often present among refugees and people with disabilities.

“We encourage people from different professional backgrounds to adapt it to their client groups and feed us back research. That’s how we’ve been able to align it so that it can apply in a whole range of contexts,” said Faulkner.

Melbourne City Mission’s David Crawford said Holyoake’s DRUMBEAT facilitator training is of a high level and sharpened his skills as a youth professional on the whole.

West Gippsland Healthcare Group’s Cindy Mathers said the training is demonstrative, interactive and caters to the needs of facilitators with a range of abilities. “I’ve done over 10 years of training, but DRUMBEAT was definitely the best because I could immediately see how relevant it is,” she said.

Now a senior facilitator, Mathers has mentored multiple aboriginal elders, community members and social workers in her local area who have also been trained in the program. “If we can skill people up within the community and help them become strong leaders, then we have got a hope,” she said.

Since engaging with her original group of boys, Mathers has remained connected to their families and has seen them drum on several occasions for their family and friends. “If you can engage the most difficult group of young people in your community and have them become confident enough to perform at local events, then that program is an absolute winner.”

Holyoake DRUMBEAT facilitator training program will run in Minneapolis on Oct. 26-28 and in Albuquerque on Nov. 8-10. Register for these events at or train online.

Life After Lockdown

The New York Bureau recently compiled profiles on three young New Yorkers with one thing in common: a history of time spent in lock-down facilities. Alex Eidman reports on how -- through music -- the three are working to get their lives on track and turn longtime dreams into reality.

Niasia Alvarez, aka Lady Infinite

Niasia Alvarez, 23, recording her music in a makeshift studio at a friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Alvarez works at The Door during the week, an organization that provides services for at-risk youth.
Niasia Alvarez, 23, recording her music in a makeshift studio at a friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Alvarez works at The Door during the week, an organization that provides services for at-risk youth.

Niasia Alvarez, 23, knows what it’s like to be alone.

At 15, she ran away from her home in Hunts Point. She said her parents were hardworking people, but didn’t show her the love and attention she craved.

“My sister got my parents attention by getting arrested for selling heroin at 14,” Alvarez said. “I thought I could do the same by running away.”

Alvarez said she lived on the streets for two years. At night, she slept on the train, in the park and, when she could, crashed at friends’ houses. She also attended Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, and said she got straight A’s.

“I loved school — it was the only kind of stability I had in my life at the time,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said she was always looking for ways to make money. In her sophomore year, she met two older guys in the neighborhood and with them, engaged in frequent nighttime robberies.

“We had to do certain things to support our habits and our lifestyles,” Alvarez said. “That included robbin’ and stealin’. We took wallets, did stick ups, we was buck wild.”

Alvarez was almost 17 when she was arrested for the first time, for possession of marijuana. She said that because she had no prior convictions and was a good student, she was placed on supervision, a lighter sentence than probation.

By her junior year, Alvarez said she was regularly smoking marijuana, and continued to steal. She said her teachers often found her dozing off in class, but were lenient because they liked her.

Eventually Alvarez’s teachers called her parents to express concern. She said the school was shocked to find out she hadn’t been home in two years.

Alvarez spent time at a Manhattan shelter affiliated with Covenant House, a national organization that helps kids escape homelessness. For a while she said she had a room on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx. Alvarez said she paid rent by selling marijuana and crack.

She said Covenant House decided she needed stability and placed her in a non-secure residential center in the Bronx run by the Catholic Guardian Society. That lasted for a few months, until Alvarez said she and some friends threw a party with vodka and marijuana and trashed the place.

She said she was transferred to a medium-security Catholic Guardian facility for girls in Staten Island in late 2007.

Alvarez said the group home was a dangerous, scary environment. She recalled staff frequently stealing from female residents and having sex with them. Violent outbursts from other girls were a regular occurrence. The hostile environment caused her to reassess her behavior.

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“I saw how crazy that place was,” Alvarez said. “And I knew I was done being wild. I didn’t want to be in there forever.”

Alvarez said she wanted to return to her high school for senior year, but said the group home wouldn’t allow it, and instead enrolled her in a GED program.

“I was devastated, because I had busted my ass getting good grades,” Alvarez said.

She got her GED in April of 2008, and continued to show good behavior. She said she left the group home in the winter of 2008 and got an apartment in the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side, where she lives today.

For the past few years, Alvarez said she has worked as an early childhood educator in nurseries and schools. She said she often takes part-time service industry jobs to help pay the bills.

In 2011, she began coming to The Door, an organization that provides services to at-risk youth, and soon became a regular in the music studio. She was eventually chosen by the staff to work there as a mentor, and said she now knows what she would ultimately like to do with her life.

“They don’t have a place like The Door in a lot of cities,” Alvarez said. “I am lucky to have this safe space to come to, to hang out and practice my music. My dream is to start a place like The Door that provides resources to kids who don’t have them.”

Michael Yan, aka Polite

Michael Yan, 21, relaxes outside the Sapphire Lounge before their monthly open mic night. He was released from Rikers Island last December and is now trying to make it as an R&B singer.
Michael Yan, 21, relaxes outside the Sapphire Lounge before their monthly open mic night. He was released from Rikers Island last December and is now trying to make it as an R&B singer.

Michael Yan, 21, said he was 5 years old when his sister scalded her foot in the bathtub of their Bedford Stuyvesant apartment. Yan said the hospital called the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, who placed him and his sister in foster care.

For the next two years, Yan said he bounced around foster care facilities in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. At 8, he said he was expelled from school for fighting and transferred to Mount Pleasant Cottage School, a program for kids with behavioral issues.

Yan remembers a staff member, Pastor Chris, sitting him down at a piano to teach him how to read and write music. He quickly realized what he wanted to do with his life.

At the age of 13, he said he was transferred to The August Aichhorn Center.

Yan said he pined for the freedom he had at Mount Pleasant, but said he was thrilled to find a musical companion in Eric Dawkins, a younger inmate that he quickly bonded with through music. He worked on his R&B singing, and helped Dawkins perfect his hip-hop skills. Yan said he envisioned one day performing in front of a packed house.

Yan was released from August Aichhorn at 16 and went home to live with his mom. Facing no restrictions for the first time in his life, Yan said, he developed a rebellious streak.

“I started breaking curfew and going to parties,” he said. “I was like a bird going crazy when it leaves the nest.”

Two years later, Yan was arrested for second-degree robbery. He said he only watched his friends mug someone, but the police caught him running away.

He was taken to Manhattan Central Booking, where a judge placed him in the Fortune Society, an alternative prison program, for six months.

“It was hell for me,” Yan said. “I had to report to probation every day, on top of doing Fortune and being in school.”

Yan said he had no one to help him manage his schedule and became overwhelmed and depressed. After a couple of months, he said he stopped showing up to everything.

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A judge issued a warrant for his arrest for violating parole, and Yan said he was sentenced to six months in Rikers Island.

On his first day in jail, Yan said an inmate challenged him to a fight. He was placed in “the box,” the phrase Rikers inmates use for solitary confinement.

He said the only thing that kept him sane was visits from his then fiancé, Sulie Hernandez, and writing and practicing his songs.

Yan was released from Rikers in December 2012. He came home with assistance from the Rikers Island Discharge Enhancement program, which he said helped set him up on food stamps and get his finances in order. He said the readjustment was tougher than he expected.

“I got on the train for the first time in a long time, and I felt like I wasn’t really there,” Yan said. “It did something to my head, being in there so many months. I still have nightmares where I wake up in my cell.”

Yan said he and Sulie were married at City Hall a few weeks ago. He said he’s studying for his GED at Touro College and spends a lot of time in the studio the Door, working on his craft and towards the dream of studying music at SUNY Purchase.

“I’m gonna work as hard as I can to make it happen,” he said.

Eric Dawkins, aka Dolo

Eric Dawkins, 18, stands outside The Sapphire Lounge, on the Lower East Side, getting ready to perform at their monthly open mic night. Dawkins spent much of the last five years in a residential treatment center for kids with psychiatric issues and says music helped him express himself when he was away from home.
Eric Dawkins, 18, stands outside The Sapphire Lounge, on the Lower East Side, getting ready to perform at their monthly open mic night. Dawkins spent much of the last five years in a residential treatment center for kids with psychiatric issues and says music helped him express himself when he was away from home.

When he was 6 years old, Eric Dawkins walked to a convenience store near his home in the Bronx. When he walked out, he said he saw his cousin, a local drug dealer, sprawled out on the ground, shot to death.

“It’s like a moment when you wanna think you’re dreaming, but you’re not,” Dawkins said. “Growing up, I saw a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to see.”

In school, he was hyper and aggressive, dropping books on kids’ heads and lighting matches in class. At nine, he was hospitalized for one his outbursts, and he said his seizures often landed him in the emergency room.

Dawkins was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and bipolar disorder when he was 9. It got bad enough that at 13 his mom sent him to the August Aichhorn Center in Manhattan, a New York State run non-profit that serves as a long-term psychiatric facility for teenagers.

Dawkins says he lost many people close to him during his time at August Aichhorn. When he was 14, he said his favorite staff member, Maribel Rosado, whom Dawkins said was a mother-figure to him, died of a sudden heart attack. Before he got out, his 5-year-old niece, his aunt and his mother all passed away.

Dawkins said his sadness was overshadowed by his guilt.

“I was mad at myself,” he said. “My family was going through a lot at this time. Because of my decisions, I wasn’t able to support or comfort them.”

Dawkins found a mentor and friend in Michael Yan, who was an aspiring rapper and singer. Dawkins said Yan encouraged him to explore his creative side and the two became inseparable.

“He’s like a brother, more than a brother,” Dawkins said. “That man took me under his wing and always stood up for me.”

Dawkins started writing lyrics everyday, and collaborated on songs with Yan, who helped teach him structure and flow. They formed a music duo, and performed around the city with Voices UnBroken, a group that helps underprivileged young people get involved in the arts.

[module align="left" width="half" type="aside"]»Listen to an audio interview with Eric Dawkins on meeting his mentor and friend Michael Yan[/module]Even with a new hobby to focus on, Dawkins struggled to cope with personal losses. At 16, after the death of a close family friend, Dawkins ran away from August Aichhorn. He said he ended up in Rikers Island for a week before the center came to claim him.

He said he was released from August Aichhorn on July 23rd, 2012, his 18th birthday, but his freedom was short-lived. Within a month, he was arrested for stealing clothes out of a car.

Dawkins’ said his lawyer managed to keep him out of jail, and he was sentenced to six years of probation. However, he missed his mandatory community service and said he has outstanding warrants.

“Sometimes I think about turning myself in. I’d probably do ten days in Rikers,” Dawkins said. “But after getting a taste of that place, I just can’t handle it right now.”

Today Dawkins lives on friends’ couches and still has bipolar-related seizures that sometimes land him in the hospital. He spends most days writing music, in the studio at The Door and at open mics around the city. His main goal is becoming a successful hip-hop artist. Dawkins said his mind is focused on the present, for better or worse.

“I’m just living,” Dawkins. “You can think about the future, but sometimes you just have to walk and when you get to that point, you get to that point.”


Turning Mistakes of the Past into Tools for the Future

John Last 1One of the questions I have pondered since my release from prison is when and where to share my past with people in my life, both personally and at work. Sometimes it is an easy decision. When I started writing for JJIE it was hoped that my point of view, based on my experiences, would offer a voice not usually heard in discussions about justice.

This week I was working in a diversion center, talking to some of the residents about communications skills. One of the guys commented that I needed to work with the staff, since the inmates had little conflict or trouble with one another. I told them about my own study of communication, and how in part it was born out of finding more effective ways to talk to people as a way of increasing my own power in a mostly powerless situation. Here again, my past lent me a degree of credibility with my audience.

In my personal life I have chosen to share when it seemed relevant to my connection with the person I was with. I neither hide my past nor trumpet it for effect. This has not always been an easy call though. Sometimes people feel that I “owe” it to others to tell them the truth. Sometimes others want me to hide my past, usually out of concern for how I will be accepted.

Like most adults, I imagine, I don’t want to be seen only for the mistakes I made in youth. I would rather be evaluated for who I am and what I am doing today. At the same time, I am aware that my mistakes have been vastly more serious than those of most people. My path has been to find a use for my past, to take my mistakes and experiences and turn them into something that helps me make the world a little bit better place.

This was forcefully brought home to me a couple of weeks before Christmas. I was in a classroom with a few high school students. All of them are African American. We had been working together for a few months on communication and conflict resolution skills. My own past had never come up. Partly this was an attempt to keep the focus on their lives. I thought my story might prove too distracting.  Since our time together was ending though, I decided to take a chance.

With some trepidation, I told them that one of the biggest reasons I was drawn to working with them was my own history of terrible decision making. I know how easy it is for kids to get off track, and that a little bit of help can go a long way. They were a little surprised, but immediately began to share.

“My daddy was in prison.”

“My brother is in prison now.”

“My uncle just got out last year.”

All of them knew someone close to them who had been incarcerated. In one case both of the child’s parents had been incarcerated. This was markedly different than my own middle class upbringing. I never even knew anyone who had been in jail, much less prison.

The world of these kids is grimmer. “Collateral Costs,” a 2010 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that almost 3 million kids in the United States have an incarcerated parent. As usual, African Americans are disproportionately represented. This is staggering to consider, especially since many kids who end up involved in juvenile court are following in their parents’ footsteps. In their world, especially for the boys, the chances of getting locked up are high.

No doubt, my own difficulties in navigating this maze will continue, as I seek to balance so many different considerations. This was one case where I was overly concerned, though. It seems that sharing with them was a good choice, and next time I won’t be so worried about the effects.

U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together
Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”

Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”

schoolppipe_seriesMore than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.

This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.

Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.

There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.

Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project
Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project

“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”

At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing drew so much public interest that it was shifted to a 260-seat room, the largest available, in the Hart Senate building.

Other witnesses at the hearing included U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.); Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike DeWine, the attorney general for Ohio; and Judge Steven Teske, chief judge at the Clayton County juvenile court in Georgia. (Judge Teske is a frequent op-ed contributor to the JJIE.)

By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.

But that room soon ran out of seats too.

OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”

The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.

“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.

Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”

Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”

Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.
Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.

Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.

“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”

Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Choosing to Stay and Fight For Kids in Trouble

"What happened in your life that made you a passionate advocate for kids?"

When Jane Hansen, Information Officer for the Georgia Supreme Court, asked me this question last week during an interview, I thought, "Whoa -- the question assumed something happened to me."

Now I am paranoid -- what does she know that I don't? I have known Jane going way back to my days as a parole officer when she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution -- she has a keen sense of things.

This "happening" resides in the recesses of my mind, something that rises to the surface from time to time when triggered by an event, song, or a question.

My Dad's work transferred us to a small town in Kansas between my third and fourth grade years. It was the first day of school -- I was nervous more than most on the first day -- I didn’t know anyone.

We started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I noticed a boy sitting toward the front who remained seated during the pledge. He didn’t utter a word. The teacher to my amazement didn't admonish him to stand and take part.

As it goes with kids, I had bigger worries on my first day and soon forgot about this act of defiance -- until the next day. Again the boy didn't stand. Now I was getting curiously frustrated in that 10-year-old way. Why does he get to stay seated while the rest of us have to stand? That's not fair I thought to myself. I was getting angry.

Consider what we were going through in those years of the Cold War. It was circa 1966. During school, we would sometimes be paraded out of class and into the hallways when the "attack" bell sounded. Then we would stand face forward to the wall with our hands behind our heads. All this was in hopes of surviving the impact and aftermath of the impact of a nuclear missile bearing the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.

In my world at age 10, this boy was a communist sympathizer!

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought this.

When school let out that day, I ran into what I thought at first glance was a schoolyard fight. But no, it was three boys beating and kicking the communist sympathizing "he deserves to get his butt kicked" Pledge-of-Allegiance-refusing student.

In my state of confusion, I didn’t know whether to stand there or run away? I certainly wasn't thinking about helping a communist!

In my moment of indecision I hesitated just long enough to look down and see this boy's face, and than his eyes made contact with mine. In what seemed like minutes, he reached out his hand to me with tears flowing from his eyes and said with a screeching cry, "Help me."

I ran!

I kept running until I reached that one safe place -- my bedroom.

My Mom noticed at dinner that I was quiet and asked me if I was OK. I told her I was fine, but I couldn’t get the boy's plea for help out of my head. I finally spoke up and told her about the boy and how he refused to stand and pledge the flag. I asked her if he was a communist.

"No," she replied. "He is a Jehovah Witness."

Mom explained that the boy wasn't disrespectful, but that his Christian beliefs forbid saluting.

"Jehovah Witnesses are very respectful of government," she explained. "They pay taxes and obey the laws," but what Mom said next pierced my heart.

"In his world of thinking he is placing the flag above God. No person should be forced to suffer that trauma."

I went to bed that night mulling over my Mom's words. The more I looked at it through the boy's eyes, the more I felt guilty and ashamed. Guilty for assuming he was bad, ashamed for running.

He was beaten to a pulp because he was different and it didn't matter even if he was a commie. He didn't deserve to be beaten.

I cried that night and Mom heard it. She came in and I told her the rest of the story of my shame and guilt. She held me in her arms and said she was proud that I felt ashamed and counseled me to do something about it.

I promised myself that night -- alone and crying in the bedroom – that I would never run again. And so, I made friends with that boy.

It was difficult to re-live that moment with Jane -- my voice breaking, cracking, and my fingers pressing against my watery eyes to hold back a complete break-down. But I've always known that it defined my existence to be an advocate.

I chose my path of advocacy at age 15. I knew then I would go to law school. I have traveled a road that has taken me to a place that many think unlikely for an advocate -- the judicial bench. After all, judges wear robes and sit on a bench, hear evidence, respond to objections, decide cases, research the law, and draft orders -- what more is there to judging?

The answer, I think, depends on what that judge decides to do when he or she takes off the robe. The key question is, "What can I do off the bench to become more effective on the bench?" After all, the Judicial Canons encourage us to "engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice."

I don’t have to leave my Georgia backyard to find judicial advocates working to improve juvenile justice in their communities through collaboration and innovative programming. But only so much can be done without the resources needed to make a difference in the lives of kids with childhood trauma leading to delinquent behaviors.

Gov. Nathan Deal is cognizant of these limitations and wants change that will tear down the walls that keep us moving forward.  So, he created a reform council and gave them the tools to delve keenly into what works and what doesn't -- analysts from the Pew Trust Center and Annie E. Casey Foundation.

No matter how it turns out, I am thankful for my governor's leadership to seek reform, my colleagues on the council for their dedication, and my fellow Georgia judges for their "off the bench" advocacy.

At least I know we are not running from kids in trouble. We are staying to fight!