WASHINGTON — The number of young people locked into adult jails and prisons has plummeted nearly two-thirds since 2009 and the number automatically sent to adult courts for criminal trials has fallen by nearly half from 2007 to 2014, a new report says.
The numbers of youth tried as adults will likely fall even further by 2020, when four states — Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina and New York — fully implement reform laws passed over the last few years, said the new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
The statistics are unalloyed victory for juvenile justice reform advocates, said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign. “We have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “We have the majority of states not only changing one law but changing a lot of laws that treat kids like kids. That is something to celebrate.”
Once New York and North Carolina implement their laws, it will mark the first time since juvenile courts were created more than a century ago that no state will automatically try 16-year-olds as adults.
Nine states and the District of Columbia all passed laws limited or barring youthful offenders from being put in adult jails. New York and Oregon banned the practice outright this year.
Mistrett’s group will release the report formally this morning in Washington. She’ll be joined by Olivia Brown, a teenager who was charged as an adult for a school fight, and senators from two states that have recently begun ambitious reform efforts of their own — Vermont’s Dick Sears, a Democrat, and South Carolina’s Gerald Malloy, a Democrat. Brown became for many the face of the campaign to “raise the age” of adult prosecution in North Carolina.
“The science we’re familiar with now tells us we continue to grow and age beyond childhood,” Malloy said. Quoting Frederick Douglass that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Malloy led efforts to pass state legislation to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction for most crimes from 17 to 18 years old. The legislation passed unanimously but must still be properly funded, by 2019, to take effect.
“There are a mountain of things we can do. They say we save children one child at a time,” Malloy said. The reform “also tells us a little bit about who we are as a people. The idea is to try to keep children from behind the fence.”
Sears’ Vermont was hailed by the Campaign for “a number of juvenile justice reforms over the last two years,” the report says. Children under 11 will be subject to juvenile court no matter what and only those older than 16 and charged with “the Big 12” felonies, such as murder, rape, etc., will face the prospect of an adult prosecution.
“Many of these kids, they carry around the collateral consequences of crime for the rest of their lives,” Sears said. “Now they’ll be given a second chance.”
For all the good news, Mistrett said she hopes no one thinks advocates can — or will — rest on their laurels. “We still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Among the challenges remaining are the often opaque rules about who gets to determine which children will be prosecuted as adults — and the often-shocking racial disparities that result from that opacity, Mistrett said. And the backlash politics of the Trump administration shows “just how easy it is to get back to the ‘get tough’ messaging,” she said.
Still, she is hopeful that the years of work by reform advocates has helped Americans reach a different level of consciousness about crime, punishment and young people.
“I think the general public is finally realizing that we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of the problem of crime,” Mistrett said.
While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.
Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.
But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.
For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.
“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.
Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.
So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.
State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.
“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.
Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.
But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.
That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.
And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”
“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.
Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.
Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.
In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”
Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.
“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”
Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.
“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.
“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”
Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”
“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”
Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.
“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.
For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.
“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”
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Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.
Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.
Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.
Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.
These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.
Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.
Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligible life sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.
In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.
The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.
As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.
Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.
The requirement set forth in Graham v. Florida of a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___) that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.
This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.
Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of numerous research reports on life sentences, most recently “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”
New legislation passed through the Louisiana Legislature this week could give a chance at parole to about 300 juvenile lifers, including Louis Gibson.
Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, allows parole eligibility for juvenile lifers after 25 years.
The legislation also bars juveniles convicted of second-degree murder from being sentenced to life without parole in the future.
In recent years, 92 percent of Louisiana’s juvenile murder defendants were charged with second-degree murder. So the new law would eliminate most future sentences statewide — unless prosecutors begin to charge differently.
Both the parole eligibility and tightened future sentencing were recommended by a task force convened by Gov. John Bel Edwards in an effort to fight crime in smarter, more cost-effective ways. He is expected to sign the bill into law next week, along with a group of bills to lighten sentences and reduce prison populations.
The state’s juvenile lifers face two big hurdles before they would be eligible for a hearing. So it’s not yet clear that the bill will release more than a few dozen of them.
“This is a bittersweet outcome,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, who heads up the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Though he is pleased that second-degree defendants could no longer get a life without parole sentence, he feels legislators missed an opportunity to completely eliminate the sentence for Louisiana juveniles.
“Thank you, Jesus,” said Gibson’s younger sister, Cha-Chi Gibson. She said she had prayed for a 25-year eligibility because her brother could be eligible for parole as early as next year.
Gibson was on her knees praying during the House debate Thursday, where key members of the House made it clear they preferred that inmates serve 30 years before they’re up for parole.
Even Republican state Rep. Sherman Mack, a member of the committee that negotiated to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, criticized it as he brought it back to the House floor without endorsing it. The first House vote failed, and it could have been declared dead at that point. But then Mack and his colleagues brought it back to the floor for one more try. It ultimately passed by a vote of 62 to 34.
“It’s a difficult bill,” Mack said as he stood glumly at the Senate podium. He reminded his colleagues how last year he’d sponsored and they’d passed a bill that called for blanket 30-year eligibility. He believes last year’s bill was superior.
But the Senate filibustered it. “It was killed by politics,” Mack said.
The Senate passed this year’s bill Wednesday on a vote of 25 to 11. A lot of people made tough compromises to forge the final bill, Claitor told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “I can tell you that nobody’s going to go out and have a parade about this,” he said.
Mack was especially unhappy. The victims he had consulted were OK with 30 years, but not 25. “None can even fathom 25,” he said.
Some of his colleagues backed his stance while others said they knew other victims, including a member of the House, who accepted parole eligibility after 25 years.
The debate’s most heated moment came when Democratic state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith asked Mack about the adolescent brain science that the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon in a series of decisions about juvenile sentencing.
“Did anyone testify about the science of young children’s brains?” Smith asked, referring to committee testimony. Mack said he couldn’t remember if anyone had testified, but he was aware of the concept that teens with developing adolescent brains are more likely to make reckless decisions.
“Do you not believe that’s true?” Smith asked.
“I can tell you that when I was 17, I knew exactly was I was doing,” Mack replied flatly.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In response, Louisiana eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles. But it allowed them if defendants first received a hearing to consider mitigating factors related to their young age and upbringing.
Since 2012, 75 percent of the Louisiana juveniles who have had those hearings have ended up going to prison for life. So the sentences still ran counter to Supreme Court declarations that these sentences should become “rare” and “uncommon,” testified Professor Katherine Mattes, who directs the Criminal Law Clinic at Tulane University Law School.
“You have to do this,” said Republican state Rep. Tanner Magee, as he stood in front of the House on Thursday, emphasizing that the bill aimed to fix unconstitutional conditions in Louisiana. “If you don’t vote on it now, we’ll do it again next year,” he said.
“I agree that we need to do something,” Mack said. “Maybe some of us just don’t agree on what that something is.”
If the bill didn’t pass, “We will get sued,” said Democratic state Rep. Ted James.
From Louisiana’s prisons, juvenile lifers like Gibson have been waiting for the state to act for more than a year, since the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that states must offer them “meaningful opportunity” for release.
Henry Montgomery, the plaintiff in that case, has been a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1970, when he was sent there for killing a sheriff’s deputy near Baton Rouge. Earlier this year, at a resentencing hearing, the prosecutor argued that Montgomery should be denied parole. Like many judges across the state, the judge overseeing Montgomery’s resentencing hearing had delayed a decision until legislators acted.
No one will be automatically released under the law. Juvenile lifers can earn a parole hearing only if they meet certain behavioral and educational criteria and have served the required time.
Those requirements alone may present a hurdle for many. According to a preliminary estimate by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 93 inmates have served enough time, but fewer than 1 in 5 of them met the other requirements to get a hearing.
Both advocates and legislators said one other provision might be even more daunting. The law allows prosecutors to contend that defendants shouldn’t be granted parole hearings because they’re irredeemable. If a prosecutor opts to make that assertion, those inmates must go through a so-called “worst of the worst hearing.”
Because of this provision, Mack’s bill — which gave blanket parole-eligibility instead of funneling the decision through prosecutors — may have made more inmates eligible for parole, despite requiring five years more of prison time.
The legality of the hearings could be questioned, though, because under the bill, all those who lose “worst of the worst” hearings will never be eligible for parole. If that happens at a fast clip, it could contradict Supreme Court guidance that life sentences for juvenile should be rare.
Clark-Rizzio pledged that his agency would be monitoring the process as the bill becomes law on Aug. 1. From that time, district attorneys have 90 days to declare which defendants they will target for “worst of the worst” hearings, which will cost state public defenders up to $75,000.
Claitor, a former prosecutor, said the state’s district attorneys must be mindful of this. “You can’t declare everyone the worst of the worst,” he said.
The story is a partnership among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily; The Lens, a nonprofit, in-depth newsroom in New Orleans; and The Advocate, a daily newspaper serving Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Grace Bauer had her entire world turned upside down when her son entered one of the nation’s harshest juvenile justice systems. Fueled by a burning desire to alter the system, she soon became one of the nation’s most impassioned crusaders for sweeping juvenile justice reform.
Editor Note: This story is a continuation of the series Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes. Readers may also be interested in visiting the Juvenile Justice Resource HUB for more information about mental health and the juvenile justice system.
The death of Grace Bauer's mother in 1998 triggered a cycle of grief that fully consumed her life for the better part of 15 years. “It became the mark we would measure time by,” she said.
The pain, she said, was especially severe for her eldest child, Corey, who was 11 when his grandmother died. “We were really struggling,” Bauer recalled. “He was acting out at home [and was] suspended from school for the first time.” Although she didn’t have health insurance, Bauer began to see a counselor, who told the rural Louisiana family they needed to “ride out” their difficulties.
Bauer’s son, she recalls, was fairly adventurous as a child. “He wasn’t afraid of things,” she said. “He was always trying some kind of crazy thing on his bike.”
[module align="left" width="half" type="aside"] Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes.
»Read more articles from the series[/module]He had brown eyes and red hair. At 5 feet 5 inches tall, he wasn’t an imposing figure. He wasn’t heavy-set, but his mother noted his broad shoulders and barrel-chested physique.
He was an honor roll student who loved four-wheeling through the woods and helping his dad with household chores, she recalled.
In the third grade, Corey was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The first time he was taken to a therapist, his mother was told Corey may have some “underlying issues,” but because the family couldn’t afford additional testing, he was never diagnosed with any other disorders.
For two years following her mother’s death, Bauer struggled to keep her son out of trouble. “He started to drink, and smoke and he started doing drugs,” she said. “Eventually, he would end up in the deep end of the system and being sent away to state care after we were told that, on the local level, there were no other options.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]As bad as the conditions were there, however, “the worst was yet to come.”[/module]Bauer’s son first entered Louisiana’s juvenile justice system after he was arrested for shoplifting a pack of cigarettes. Afterward, he was placed on unsupervised probation before serving several stays at a detention center in Calcasieu Parish, La. For a while, he was placed in a group home. Some time after Corey had moved on, the home was shut down following the death of another resident.
Before Corey’s program began, however, he was processed at the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth in Baton Rouge. There, Bauer said, her son was beaten and neglected. Although she told his probation officer about the conditions at the center after her first visit, each subsequent visit to the facility entailed “more of the same,” she said.
“He had a huge bruise on the side of his head,” she said. “When I asked him what happened, he told me that a guard had hit him.” It was his “initiation” into the system, her son told her, stating that the alleged beating was the guard’s way of showing him who was “in control” of the facility.
As bad as the conditions were there, however, “the worst was yet to come,” she said. (See the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub page on Reform Trends for more information)
The Worst of the Worst
In March 2001, when Corey was 14, he and two classmates were arrested after breaking into a truck and stealing a radio. He soon found himself at the Tallulah Correctional Center in northeastern Louisiana, a facility once described by the New York Times as the worst juvenile prison in the country. “It was the first system in this country to be sued by the Department of Justice over conditions and concerns about a juvenile facility,” Bauer said.
Corey was originally sentenced to a 90-day program at Tallulah. “I thought of the system as a way to help my son,” she said. “And unfortunately, that was the biggest mistake I ever made.”
The first time Bauer made the more than 200-mile drive from her home in Sulphur, La., to visit her son at Tallulah - a facility, she said, that housed mostly low-level, nonviolent offenders - she saw more signs of abuse. “We go in, and he has a guard’s boot bruised into his ribcage,” she recalled.
“He recounts these stories of this program he’s in that’s supposed to help him get back on track,” she said. “But essentially, what it is, is a boot camp where they run these kids and exercise them to death.” According to Bauer, one of the facility’s guards once dragged Corey across a field and shoved his face into a muddy ditch because he couldn’t complete a physical training drill.
Bauer soon contacted an attorney, who told her that her efforts were fruitless. Once Corey turned 18, the attorney said, he would most likely end up in a state penitentiary. Bauer was advised to keep her money, because there was nothing the attorney could do to help her or her son.
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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:
She soon sought help from a capital defense attorney, who had worked with her mother for several years. The attorney told her that most of the men he had met with on Louisiana’s death row had at one point been a part of the same juvenile system her son had recently entered.
In September 2001, Bauer was invited to attend a Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) meeting in New Orleans. The occasion would mark a new “before and after” moment for Bauer, transforming her from grieving mother to advocate for sweeping juvenile justice reform. (Visit the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub page on Reform Trends and Using Evidence-Based Treatment Programs for more)
A Lack of Care, A Lack of Concern
While her son was at Tallulah, Bauer received a phone call from a state evaluator, warning her that if her son wasn’t removed from the facility, he would most likely die there. He was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown, she was told.
However, when Corey was initially screened upon entering the Louisiana juvenile justice system, he was not identified as having any newly-diagnosed mental health or behavioral disorders. “I never saw any of that paperwork,” Bauer said. “He wasn’t actually diagnosed until after he was in.”
Several months into his eventual 10-month stay at Tallulah, Corey was diagnosed with major depression. Years later, he would also be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bauer believes many of her son’s problems developed because he never received grief counseling after his grandmother died. Adequate counseling, in tandem with earlier diagnoses of her son’s pre-existing mental health disorders, may have kept her son out of the juvenile justice system altogether, Bauer said.
“Had we done all those things early on,” she said. “I know we would have averted that.”
Corey was also diagnosed with the rare heart condition Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome during his incarceration. When Corey was briefly hospitalized as a result of WPW, Bauer said she was never told by facility officials.
Doctors at the hospital wanted to switch Corey to a new medication that would require staff at the facility to monitor him very closely. However, according to Bauer, because the staff couldn’t monitor Corey as closely as he needed, they elected not to give him either the new medication or his previously prescribed medication.
“Knowing that he was dealing with huge emotional trauma and major depression, they completely pulled him off the drug he had been on [and] gave him no care whatsoever after that,” Bauer said.
Jerel Giarusso, a representative of Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice, confirmed that serious wrongdoings occurred at Tallulah. “There were abuses that went on,” she said. However, she stresses that Tallulah, at the time of Bauer’s confinement, was a privately-run facility that was not operated by the state.
“The U.S. Department of Justice did sue us for conditions of confinement,” Giarusso continued. “There was a lawsuit in 1998, we came out from that with a settlement agreement in 2006. And it was dismissed.”
During Bauer’s confinement, what is today the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice was called the Office of Youth Development and Youth Services (OYDYS), which was overseen by the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC). In 2005, then-governor Kathleen Blanco signed an executive order, which separated the two entities. While still administratively a part of the DPSC, the OYDYS had officially become a cabinet-level agency.
Giarusso also stated that, while Jetson Correctional Center for Youth may have had problems in the past, Louisiana has made great strides to improve conditions at the state’s juvenile facilities.
[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about evidence-based treatment practices visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]
“I can imagine Grace said some pretty horrible things, and there were things that went on there that were unfortunate,” Giarusso said. “And we have made huge changes. In fact, no one would recognize Jetson today.” (Want to learn more? Visit the Hub section on Resources and Improving Services for more information)
A Vicious Cycle Continues
After being released from Tallulah, Corey was sent back to Jetson, and then a small detention facility near his hometown. He returned to Sulphur in 2002, when he was 15. As part of his parole conditions, he was placed in several treatment programs, including several community-based services for substance abuse and anger management.
He met with mental health professionals on a weekly basis, and was able to earn both a driver’s license and a high school diploma. Despite these accomplishments, Bauer knew that her son was still under a tremendous amount of stress.
“We knew he was still struggling,” she said. “You couldn’t approach him without letting him know you were coming.” When startled, she said her son would start swinging at people. She was afraid to stand next to his bed when she woke him up in the morning, out of fear that he may attack her.
In 2006, Bauer was informed that, years earlier, when her son was 15, he was raped by another juvenile while in confinement. According to Bauer, guards stood by while the assault occurred, taking bets on who would “win.” Several years after learning about the incident, her son has never fully explained to her what happened that day at Tallulah.
“I knew something had happened to him,” she said. “Unfortunately, when the state took him off parole, they also took their mental health care slot with them.” Because her son wasn’t believed to pose an “immediate risk” to himself or others, she said it became difficult getting him into mental health programs on their own.
He was arrested again at 17, serving three years of a nine-year sentence, before a parole violation put him back behind bars for an additional two years. Between 2001 and 2010, Corey spent nearly six years behind prison walls.
Fighting for the Future
By 2003, Bauer had become a zealous advocate for juvenile justice reform, helping found the Lake Charles chapter of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC).
“Grace came to our organization seeking help for her son,” said Gina Womack, FFLIC executive director. “As a concerned mother, she was seeking help for her child because, like so many of our families that came to us, what they were told to do when they were seeking help for their children only led to kids deeper into the system.”[module align="left" width="half" type="aside"]
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Womack said that Bauer was everything her organization was looking for in a reform advocate. “I’ve been doing this work for over 15 years, and what inspires me about Grace, and any of our families, are that they take their tragedies and are able to work tirelessly around the issues so that other families don’t go through the same problems,” Womack said. “A lot of parents are really looking for services, and so Grace has been just a powerful force in being able to ensure that message gets across.”
When she first met Bauer, Womack said she was adamant, albeit soft-spoken. Over the years, however, she believes Bauer has found a way to “amplify” her voice and help other families comprehend the impact juvenile justice system contact may have on young people.
“I’ve watched her really go out there and take that message and work to transform lots of other family members,” Womack said. “When you see someone that has really been transformed into a champion, a voice for families…that’s amazing, and it gives me hope [that] our hopes and our mission at FFLIC can be realized.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“People need to realize that you cannot possibly provide mental health care for a kid living in the current situation or environment that my son was living in."[/module]The persistent activism of reformists like Bauer eventually led to the state Legislature ushering in far-reaching juvenile justice system reforms in 2003. The Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth - the facility where her son was allegedly brutalized - was shut down one year later.
Difficulties were still present, however. After 18 years, Bauer’s marriage had ended, and when Hurricane Rita struck Louisiana, her home was destroyed. Even after relocating to Baltimore in 2007, the grief that had plagued the Bauer family for years continued to haunt her.
In 2010, Corey followed his mother to Maryland. In January 2011, he was arrested after robbing a pizza parlor. “He was caught blocks away and immediately confessed,” Bauer said. “He was given a 12-year sentence.”
The day he was sentenced, her son made what Bauer considered a “very powerful” statement to the judge. “I’m not asking you to let me go,” he said. “I do not have the skills I need nor do I have the emotional capacity to make it in this world, and that’s why I’m where I’m at today.”
Bauer explained: “People need to realize that you cannot possibly provide mental health care for a kid living in the current situation or environment that my son was living in. You could have the best medical and mental health providers in the world, and you put a kid in a cage, where every single day that kid is forced to defend himself physically, and has to shut down mentally in order to survive - do you think that somehow your mental health care is going to be enough?”
The year her son was sent back to prison, she became the co-director of Justice for Families, a national organization built around networking families of incarcerated juveniles.
“A lot of reform advocates talk about ‘how would you want your child to be treated,’ and Grace has direct, and unfortunate, experience in terms of how her children have been treated by the juvenile justice system,” said Justice for Families Co-Director Zachary Norris. “She has been just extremely dedicated to learning as well as to building the capacity of families across the country to organize and to work for changes to the juvenile justice system,”
Norris said that, recently, Bauer met with representatives of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to discuss family engagement practices - a testament to how far she has come as a reformer.
He believes that Bauer has a profound understanding of how the system may discriminate against lower-income families, and as such, has a unique connection with underserved families, in particular, those from communities of color. Her personal experiences, he continued, make her a strong spokesperson for other families that have had contact with the deep end of the juvenile justice system.
“It’s not just that she has personal experience, but what I think other advocates have been slow to recognize,” Norris concluded, “that families matter, and that families make a huge difference in outcomes for young people.”
Families that have already been through similar experiences, Bauer believes, are the most well-suited to help other families with children in the nation’s juvenile justice system. “I know families need families,” she said. “They need someone with them to help them get through.”
Recalling her son’s initial problems in school, Bauer notes the lack of “readily available” community support for her family at the time. “We’re actively seeking help, and can’t find it.”
Now, Bauer advocates for the development of community options, especially family-oriented services for parents with children involved in the juvenile justice system.
“A lot of us made the decisions that we made because we didn’t have an option,” she said. “We were left with nothing else, and when you’re left with nothing else, that’s what you get.”
From Victim to Crusader
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I get a great deal of pride seeing her in action,” Thigpen said. “I hope to work in the same kind of field that mom does.”[/module]Bauer’s middle child, 22-year-old Robyn Thigpen of Lake Charles, La. said that as a child, she sometimes felt lonely while her mother campaigned. “It was really hard at first, because I went from having a mom there all the time to her volunteering every minute she could to helping these kids and helping my brother,” she recalled. As she grew older, however, Thigpen said her perspectives began to change. She remembers marching in Baton Rouge, and holding demonstrations on the steps of Louisiana’s Capitol Building. The rallies were both exciting and eye-opening, she recalled.
“I get a great deal of pride seeing her in action,” Thigpen said. “I hope to work in the same kind of field that mom does.”
Although her mother tried to shield her and her younger sister from Corey’s experiences in confinement, Thigpen said she could still detect a certain worry and fear in her mother’s eyes. As her mom’s advocacy work continued, she said that sorrow appeared to give way to an intense resolve to help others.
“She doesn’t go around sad anymore,” Thigpen said. “She goes around it [and] she gets it done.”
She said that watching her mother go from a stay-at-home mom to an activist whom routinely speaks in front of hundreds of people is inspiring. She receives messages on Facebook frequently, from people that just want to tell her how wonderful her mom’s advocacy work is.
“She went from not really knowing how to be outside of her home to this woman who took it upon herself to go and save these kids that no one is really there for,” she concluded. “She’s a fighter now. She doesn’t back down from these people that have allowed this to happen.”
At 45, the former homemaker from Sulphur, La. is now one of the country’s most ardent proponents of juvenile justice reform. Currently, she is rallying for the OJJDP to adopt Justice for Families’ “Family Bill of Rights,” a five point proposal that would guarantee the mothers and fathers of incarcerated juveniles expanded notification and peer support rights. She hopes to one day see the Bill of Rights implemented in every jurisdiction in the nation.
“My work today continues to be towards a youth justice system that includes families at all levels of juvenile justice decision making,” she said. “And peer-to-peer support for all families who have children involved in the system.”
There are no positive outcomes, she said, when youth end up in secured facilities. “What you end up with … are kids that are treated like criminals that go on to become criminals,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon communities to stop investing in the most expensive things we have, which is the bricks-and-mortar prison, and start investing in things on the front-end that keep them from getting there.”
In 2008 - the same year she joined the Campaign for Youth Justice - it seemed as if the Bauer family’s history of grief was repeating itself. Shortly after Bauer’s brother died, she received a phone call that her youngest daughter had been arrested in Louisiana for staying out after curfew.
“She was drunk and very belligerent with the police when she was picked up,” she said.
“A very different mother stepped to the plate when my daughter was involved in 2008 than the mother that stepped up for my son in 2001,” she stated. Bauer said she was now a mother who knew her child was not a criminal, instead seeing her youngest child as a person grieving the loss of her uncle and struggling with divorce. After the arrest, Bauer took her daughter to Maryland and enrolled her in a mental health program.
“Today, she is entering her fourth semester of college,” Bauer said. “Never been involved with the police again.”
The national juvenile justice system changed between the arrests of her eldest and youngest children in 2001 and 2008, Bauer said. Judges have more options, including community-based alternatives that may not have been in place a decade ago. The drastic changes, she said, also demonstrate the importance of taking preventative action when young people begin to display warning signs. (To learn more about positive reforms in family engagement, visit the Hub's Reform Trends section)
“Nobody’s paying to take care of [my daughter] today, except her family and the job she has,” she concluded. “Meanwhile, the taxpayers of Maryland, and ultimately, taxpayers everywhere, will go on to pay for my son.”
Around the nation, states continue to grapple with the reality of budget shortfalls with a hodgepodge of cuts to various programs, including juvenile justice.
North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is being forced to cut spending by 10 percent while eliminating roughly 275 positions, a 15 percent decrease in work force, under the new FY 2012 budget.
Also gone are 75 beds from the state’s seven youth development centers, raising concerns that serious offenders may end up back on the streets to make room for new juveniles entering the facilities.
Alabama’s Department of Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention has a FY 2012 budget a little more than half that of FY 2011. The department saw a 74 percent drop in general state funding and significant cuts from the federal-level.
“I don’t see the system being able to recover in my working lifetime,” said DCANP Director Kelly Parris-Barnes. “When you take the community level programs out you don’t have the capacity at the state level to do it.”
Not a direct service provider themselves, the DCANP allocates funds for community-based programs around the state. Of the 174 programs the department funded in FY 2011, just 101 are slated for FY 2012, according to Deputy Director Greg Smith.
On the surface, Idaho’s Department of Juvenile Corrections has seen an increase in funding heading into FY 2011-2012. The budget has increased, said Chief Fiscal Officer Scott Johnson, but the department also absorbed the now defunct Office of Drug Policy.
“The impact is huge,” Johnson said. “All we got was the money. We didn’t get any additional personnel for managing a $4 million program. We’re basically having to design a substance abuse program from the ground up.”
Overall the department saw a $1.1 million decrease in its operating budget, but has largely been able to offset the shortfall due to cost-cutting measures and a decrease in state population.
Maryland added $3.2 million to its Department of Juvenile Services for FY 2012, but the increase is expected to restore employee furlough days, according to a budget analysis outlined by Youth Today. The department still expects to see a reduction in evidence-based services.
Down 12 percent since FY 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Youth Services has seen more than a 20 percent decline in funding since FY 2008.
Texas has begun the closure of the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in an effort to bridge a $117 million shortfall over the next two years.
States around the country have dealt with the decline in available funds for juvenile justice and other related programs in their own ways. This article is merely a snapshot of some of the realities on the ground.
A new lawsuit alleges the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) and its top administrator retaliated against another administrator for blowing the whistle on poor conditions at youth facilities in Louisiana.
The suit, filed Aug. 12 by administrator John Anderson, accused the OJJ and Deputy Secretary Mary Livers of “retaliatory harassment,” according to The Advocate of Baton Rouge. Anderson’s suit contends he complained about “appalling” conditions at three Louisiana youth centers.
Anderson was ordered to complete impossible job assignments and reassigned to menial tasks after he refused to sign an affidavit contradicting claims made in a similar suit involving another administrator from 2009, the suit alleges.
Anderson’s suit also alleges he was the victim of gender-based harassment and discrimination. He is seeking monetary damages from the state.
Strong antipsychotic medications are being prescribed to incarcerated juveniles across Louisiana despite lacking diagnoses for the conditions they were designed to treat, according to an investigative report by New Orlean’s The Lens.
The medications are meant to help with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. After examining their records, The Lens found 22 percent of medications prescribed in eight Louisiana facilities were designed to treat bipolar disorder. But, only five percent of diagnoses were of bipolar, the investigative news site found. No diagnoses of schizophrenia were made.
The most common diagnosis (found in 20 percent of incarcerated juveniles) was “conduct disorder. " Symptoms of this disorder include defiant, impulsive behavior, drug use and criminal activity.
“There are some youth who should receive medications who aren’t,” Will Harrell, a federal monitor of juvenile justice systems, told The Lens. “But there’s also kids who are being medically restrained. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with disruptive kids by drugging them, than doing anything else.”
According to August Collins, director of youth advocacy at the Youth Empowerment Project, the drugs are used to numb the inmate into submission, making it difficult to rehabilitate them.
“We need to set stricter guidelines on prescribing this stuff and quit treating diagnosis of a kid as an assembly line,” Collins told The Lens. “We’ve had kids sleeping in classes like they’re stoned out of their minds. It’s difficult to give these kids insight into who they are if they can’t even stay awake.”