"The worst thing about prison is accepting it ... You still have this sense of hope that: 'Hey, [being in prison] is a dream; this is not real. There is no way that I am in prison right now,'" said Denny Chow. He remembers coming to terms with his inmate status after being sent to prison for robbery at age 23.
Chow is featured in the first installment of the "Righting the Wrong" series, which focuses on people who committed crimes in their youth but now live on the straight and narrow thanks to solid policy and caring mentors.
On Nov. 8, California voters will consider Proposition 57, a ballot initiative that would bring much-needed reform to the state’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. The measure, championed by youth justice advocates and Gov. Jerry Brown, is predicated on the values of rehabilitation and second chances.
If passed, Proposition 57 will extend opportunities for parole consideration, invite a revision to the prison system’s earned credit scheme and place the decision to transfer youth to adult criminal court into the hands of judges.
The measure would profoundly impact California’s approach to serious juvenile cases. Currently in California, county prosecutors are granted the authority to bypass the juvenile judge and directly file charges against a young person in adult court, a practice known as “direct file.”
Direct file subjects youth as young as 14 to a criminal courtroom and its risks of a lengthy prison term and lifelong felony conviction. For a young person, the experience of adult criminal court can be traumatic, exacerbating existing psychological needs and resulting in higher rates of recidivism.
Yet district attorneys have just 48 hours to make this consequential decision, often with little more than an incident report. Unlike a judge, prosecutors are interested parties in a juvenile court case and their decision-making can be burdened by the incentive to deliver a punitive outcome. In some cases, prosecutors can threaten youth with direct file to coerce them into unfavorable plea bargains in juvenile court.
Research shows that direct file introduces additional disparities into an already unequal system. Youth in California face vastly different odds of direct file depending on where they live and their race or ethnicity. Two recent reports from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the National Center for Youth Law (“The Prosecution of Youth as Adults” and its 2015 update) find that youth in certain counties and youth of color are direct filed at exceptionally high rates.
In 2015, just six of California’s 58 counties comprised more than half of the state’s direct file cases. Moreover, African-American and Latino youth across the state were direct filed at roughly twice the rate of white youth. When compared to trends in felony arrest, the reports find that a county’s serious juvenile crime rate appears to have no bearing on its use of direct file. In fact, direct file rates increased statewide in 2015, despite historic declines in the felony arrest rate of youth.
One factor does appear to influence a county’s reliance on direct file: the political affiliation of its district attorney. Another study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice finds that Republican DAs direct file charges against youth at 2.4 times the rate of Democratic DAs, and are more likely to direct file youth of color.
California instituted direct file in the midst of the state’s “tough on crime” era, but voters are poised to repeal it on Election Day. This would leave the United States with 13 other states and the District of Columbia that continue to permit prosecutors to charge youth as adults. In Florida, youth as young as 14 can be consigned to adult court for a long list of offenses, including nonviolent property crimes. In North Carolina and New York, youth ages 16 and older are automatically placed in adult court, regardless of the charge. Though New York City recently vowed to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds out of the notorious Rikers Island, the move would represent a positive but specialized response to the systemic menace of adult prosecutions.
Despite the prevalence of transfer laws and prosecutorial direct file nationwide, reformers are gaining traction in their efforts to keep youth in juvenile court. Florida state lawmakers have introduced a number of recent bills that, if successful, would have placed constraints on the use of direct file. In Illinois, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1830 and House Bill 2471, which grant more sentencing discretion to judges in cases involving youth under 18.
California’s Proposition 57 is a beacon of reform, providing criminal and juvenile justice advocates with a workable and politically viable model for change. On Nov. 8, California voters must consider the legacy of direct file: its uneven application across counties and unjust burden on youth of color. Ending direct file and instituting criminal justice reforms would expand rehabilitative opportunity for youth and adults while promoting public safety.
Maureen Washburn is a member of the Policy and Communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
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In just the last month or so, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined a growing list of national organizations calling for an end to the solitary confinement of young people in this country. The AAP endorsed the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign’s position statement.
And a new resolution from NCJFCJ calls for an end to solitary confinement as defined by Stop Solitary for Kids: “the involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others.”
We commend NCJFCJ and AAP for recognizing the critical role played by judges and medical staff in ensuring the well-being of youth in facilities and urging their colleagues to take a leadership position on this issue. Support to end solitary for kids from organizations representing juvenile court judges and pediatricians across the country shows the momentum building to end this harmful practice.
It has been 10 months since President Obama described solitary confinement as “an affront to our common humanity” and banned its use for youth in federal custody. Within those months, we’ve launched the Stop Solitary for Kids national campaign to end solitary confinement of youth. Organizations including the American Correctional Association have called for action to reduce solitary confinement for youth. Nebraska, California and Colorado have adopted legislation to limit solitary. The movement has found support from increasingly diverse states and organizations.
For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub
The goal is to end a practice that harms young people and makes facilities less safe, for youth and the staff who work in them. Juvenile justice agencies in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts and Oregon have nearly achieved this goal, greatly reducing solitary confinement while simultaneously reducing violence within their facilities. Those agencies have shown that ending solitary confinement yields benefits for young people and the staff charged with caring for them.
Today, the question isn’t “Can we stop solitary for kids?” The question is how soon we will do it. Despite significant developments in the field, there is still a long way to go to end solitary confinement for all youth. Advocates — especially those involved in justice reform — often face the frustrating reality that change comes slowly. Meanwhile, thousands of youth continue to be placed in solitary confinement every year. The urgency is tangible.
NCFCJ’s resolution is an important example of stakeholders within the justice system taking a stand against a dangerous, ineffective and counterproductive practice. However, there are many more who have yet to join the cause. We encourage leaders across all fields to join the movement today and help us achieve a world where we Stop Solitary for Kids.
Mark Soler is the executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, District of Columbia.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He formerly served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, District of Columbia.
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Larry White is an old man of 81 now, but he remembers growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant before it was known as the hot gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. As a kid, while other children were playing basketball he used to stick up the A&P supermarkets in his area.
“I didn’t have any plans other than you make money and you hustle,” he said.
He spent most of his childhood and young adult life like that, hustling. Then, on a Monday, on April 12, 1976, White and some acquaintances, three men and one woman, robbed the New Amsterdam cinema on 42nd Street, just off Times Square. It should have been an easy $80,000 job — that’s $340,000 in today’s dollars — but everything that could go wrong did.
During the botched robbery two security guards were killed by one of White’s accomplices.
The movie on the marquee that day, “The Getaway,” would presage White’s life. Steve McQueen plays a prisoner who, despite being refused parole, manages to regain his freedom thanks to the help of a partner. In return for his help the partner wants support for one last bank heist.
White was arrested for his role in the killings, tried and sentenced to 25 years to life. While still at Rikers Island, he tried to escape, cutting the bars of his cell, but the attempt failed and he went back to prison. He became a model prisoner, working as an editor at the prison newspaper and attending the rehabilitation programs.
It was not enough for three parole boards: Despite his excellent record as an inmate White was denied parole three times and spent additional seven years in prison.
In 2007, White regained his freedom after getting approved for parole.
Looking at his friends left behind the bars, White made a promise: “I’ll be back.”
Out of prison, he started a new chapter of his life. He began working at Hope Lives for Lifers, a program for people still in prison. He said he wanted his experience behind bars, and his long effort to get out, to help inspire those still on the inside.
That’s what he does as a consultant for the American Friends Service Committee. White uses his life’s hard lessons to help and educate other people facing long-term sentences who want to turn their lives around.
White drafted a manual during his years in prison as a tool for self-discipline, and now it is used as a guide by inmates across the New York state corrections system.
White kept his promise and went back to the prison where he was incarcerated; but this time it wasn’t as a convict — it was as a coordinator of discussion groups on how to cope within the prison system and prepare for parole board hearings.
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Activist, author and teacher Jean Trounstine is back to writing about prison issues with her latest, “Boy With A Knife.” Trounstine gives a detailed and extensively sourced critique of the criminal justice system by telling the story through the eyes of Karter Reed, who was convicted of second-degree murder as a 16-year-old in 1993.
The point of the book is made early on: “I wondered, would these once-juvenile murderers ever get out of prison? Or would they face parole boards that felt pressured to respond to victims rights advocates who resisted paroling prisoners, and to the communities who wanted no part in their return? And: Would these prisoners ultimately end up living behind bars for the rest of their lives, even if they had not been sentenced to life without parole? What would it meant to take on a system that insisted on keeping young people locked up in spite of personal transformation?”
Reed's circumstances leading up to the crime were far from ideal. His father had been sent to prison for two decades on a drug-related charge two years earlier and his mother was drinking too much. The family lived in near-poverty in what the FBI had deemed “the most violent city in New England.” Reed was bullied and had been jumped a number of times, leading him to begin carrying a knife to school.
After vowing to protect a vulnerable friend of his, Reed instead froze and watched two other teenagers beat him up. Later that day he found himself in the classroom of a neighboring school with two other friends confronting the attackers from earlier in the day. After freezing up again in the middle of a melee, he made an impulsive decision and a boy ended up dead. Trounstine's description of the incident is simultaneously pulse-pounding, intense and heartbreaking.
The author goes on to describe Reed's path through the criminal justice system, with a major takeaway being how much outside factors can affect those inside that system. For instance, there was hysteria over youth crime taking place at the time of the incident.
“'Kids who kill' would be all over the news in the 1990s, terrifying the country into believing that a 'tidal wave of crime' was on the horizon,” Trounstine writes. “While this horrifying and racially coded message would ultimately be proven wrong, it would cause 44 states, including Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, to change their laws, making it easier to try juveniles as adults.” And Reed would indeed be tried as an adult.
Trounstine settles into a pattern in her writing — first telling a part of Reed's story that includes a problem with the system, then citing statistics supporting the presence of that problem, then (often) offering solutions. It's not an ineffective pattern either, and it helps when she adds tidbits here and there that will make your heart sink, many that go back to Reed's relationship with his father.
On Reed's first day in prison, someone passes a note to him that says, “Bash the first motherfucker who even looks at you the wrong way with a mop wringer, and don't stop till the cops pull you off. You'll go to the hole for six months or so but people will respect you.” The author of that note? His father, who somehow got the message to him from another prison. Another is when Reed mentions that one of the happiest times in his life was when he celebrated his birthday in prison with his father.
Your opinion of Reed (and possibly the book) will probably be affected by your views on the death penalty, because at the end of the day there's still a family out there who will never see the victim ever again. But with “Boy With A Knife,” Trounstine clearly exposes several problems with the American criminal justice system using a sympathetic test case.
When I knew there was a chance that I could reach out to you young men and women in the Modesto Juvenile Hall, I was ready for the opportunity. You see, back in 1998 and ’99 from age 16 to 17, I was in the max unit, and in 1999 I spent some time in the boys’ unit too.
Back then I weighed about 150 pounds. But I felt a lot bigger because I carried within me a lot of resentment, loneliness, fear and rejection. All of this spilled out into the world and the people around me in the form of anger. I was a very angry kid.
I covered up my feelings by blaming everyone else for what was messed up in my life and for the things that kept me in a vicious cycle of bad decisions. Worse, I had the perfect outlet for my anger: gangs. It allowed me the chance to take out my anger on people I believed to be different from me. In making them lesser, I thought I became important, which made me feel better about myself. This was shallow.
Back then, I wouldn’t admit this to anyone. I had low self-esteem. I didn’t think much about myself. I hid my low self-esteem behind a mask of toughness that shed no tears. Before I knew it, I was so deep into making mistakes that I could see no way out. Not seeing a way out, I felt my life was over because of all these mistakes.
So I just continued to do what I was doing because there was nothing else left. I had failed school, let my family down over and over again, and lost my family’s trust. By then, I didn’t care anymore. My life became all about the neighborhood and my friends. Whatever worries I had in life were drowned by the use of drugs and alcohol.
In my mind, it didn’t matter whether I lived or died. That is no longer the case, but it took me a very long time to understand those things about my life, a life that many of you might be living today.
Understand that if you are in that lifestyle that does not mean you are irredeemable. I certainly don’t judge you. For many of us, drugs, gangs and crimes that cause us to end up in juvenile hall, group or foster homes, or sent to prison are considered normal in our communities. Sometimes, it is all we know in our young lives.
Where I grew up, the negative influences of these things were strong and outweighed the good. So understand that even if you are in juvenile hall or on your way to prison and have made mistakes, the world too has failed us in many ways.
The mask or identities we create are our way of coping. It is what will allow us to survive the hardships that we experience in life, things we have no control over. By the time we are 15 years old, many of us have seen a lot of violence or have even been victims of violence or have used violence ourselves.
Many of us have grown up with substance abuse, physical abuse and maybe even sexual abuse in and around our lives. We have seen and experienced very unfair things that should not have happened. This is the sad truth. A lot of us take this sadness and think that there is something deep down inside us that is broken, that we’re not worthy of love or a future.
However, we do the best we can with what we know. Sometimes we have the right to be angry, but we don’t have the right to take it out on the world or ourselves. We still have to own up to our wrongs. Unfortunately, people who have control and judgment over us often make decisions about us without considering the totality of our painful life experiences, but only the one single act that has been committed.
My goal is not to preach. I don’t think I have an answer to the madness that fills our lives. But if there were an answer, I would have to say it is inside of you.
When I sat in the max unit I did the best I could with the way my life was headed. I was there for a murder that I committed at the age of 16. I sat in the chairs you sit in, ate the same food, played volleyball in the concrete yard and stayed up late at night by myself in a small cell stressing and trying to make sense of my life. But I still wore my mask and hung out with the guys in the unit and tried to act tough so no one could see what I was going through on the inside.
I remember staying up late one night in my cell crying. I couldn’t control it. I was just letting it all out. On that night, I hardened my mind and heart, and vowed never to allow the world to break me.
That was the worst thing that I could do, but I believed it would help me survive having to live with a life sentence. I thought that because I was going to a hard place, I had to become just as hard in order to survive.
But this further disconnected me from myself. There were juvenile hall staff that treated me kindly and saw the pain that I was experiencing. I allowed some in, but I pushed others out. I would hope that they are there and might be doing the same for you. If they are, I hope you let them into your life. After 18 years in prison, I still remember them and the positive encouragement they gave me.
My last day in the max unit was in early 1999. I was sitting in my room when I was called over the speaker for release, but it was not to get out. The sheriffs were picking me up to be sent to the Public Safety Center. They shackled me up and I hobbled out of the juvenile hall doors.
Though I was only 17, I was sent on my way into the adult prison system. The sheriffs booked me in and placed me in the max unit because I was still 17 years old. It was in one of those cells that I turned 18, and I have had all my birthdays in prison cells since.
What I want to leave you with is that you are not broken. You are important and your life is valuable. This is not the end of your life, and though it might be hard you can overcome anything in life. There is a survivor and fighter in all of you.
But ask yourself, who are you fighting for and why? When will you begin to fight for yourself and your own future? You are not a bad person; you are not a bad kid that deserves nothing from life but prison or death. You each have a passion inside of you and the potential to do great things.
But a lot of us have stuffed that deep inside and created identities that we no longer recognize. Take the time to think about where you are, where you are headed and what you can do to regain some control over this spiral that has sucked you deeper and deeper into the system.
There are a lot of people that will think you are the worst of the worst, a low life with nothing to offer society. They might view you as just another gangbanger, addict, thief or teen mother or father.
But as I write this to you and I close my eyes to imagine you I don’t see any of that. I don’t see the reasons why you are here or any of the mistakes you have made in life.
I see great minds and people. I see people who when they become their own person will be powerful and change the world around them. The day that you discover this for yourself will be a beautiful day, and will make you feel like it did for me the first day of a new life.
Miguel Quezada was convicted of second-degree murder at 16 and sentenced to 45 years to life. He has earned a GED, high school diploma and an associate’s degree in social science. He is a founding member of Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous and works from San Quentin State Prison to empower fellow juvenile lifers and youth through The Beat Within writing workshops and journalism.
David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in many California juvenile halls. The model has been replicated in six states and Washington, D.C. They welcome submissions and new partners. Write to him at email@example.com.