Florida Juvenile Murderers May Face 50-year Minimum Sentences

Photo Courtesy of Florida Senate
Photo Courtesy of Florida Senate

This week, Florida’s state Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a bill that could establish new minimum and maximum juvenile sentencing standards within the state.

Under Senate Bill 1350 (SB 1350), juvenile offenders convicted of murder may be given a minimum sentence of 50 years behind bars, while young people convicted of non-murder offenses would have maximum sentences of 50 years.

The bill, approved by a 4-2 vote, also leaves room for judges to give life sentences for juvenile offenders charged with murder, pending outcomes from a review that takes into consideration several factors, including the nature of the offense and the offender’s mental competence. Upon rejecting a life sentence, SB 1350 would require state judges to impose the 50-year minimum sentence.

According to The, the proposal has the backing of both the Florida Sheriffs Association and state prosecutors.

More than 300 juvenile inmates could be impacted if the bill becomes law, among them about 40 that are still waiting to be resentenced following 2010’s Graham v. Florida decision, which declared non-murder, juvenile life without parole sentences to be unconstitutional.

Several critics of the measure have called the proposal excessive. Nancy Daniels, a representative for the Florida Public Defenders Association, said that while she believes there are particular gaps in Florida’s sentencing laws, defense lawyers in the state would be more open to the proposal if it included provisions for periodic reviews. Additionally, Daniels believes that final evaluations of convicted juveniles should not take place at original sentencing, but 10-to-15 years afterwards.

“We think the hearing should be down the line,” she told The Ledger. “You don’t know what their potential is for rehabilitation, remorse, maturity and other things that are factors.”

Juvenile Court Judges Latest to Express Concern over Armed Security in Schools

Photo from Fort Wainwright Public Affairs

Youth advocates have worked to reduce police involvement in school discipline

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is voicing concern over the push to put armed police or guards into American schools following the Newtown school massacre of 20 first-graders and six staff last December.

On Tuesday, the Reno, Nev.-based group posted an excerpt of a letter sent to Vice President Biden, who has been leading a month-long effort to gather ideas for more effective gun restrictions and improved school safety. The White House is reportedly poised to reveal some recommendations Wednesday at a midday press conference.

In its letter to Biden, the NCJFCJ expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of communities putting armed guards in schools – which could become even more likely if federal dollars are offered to help schools make that choice.

Published reports indicated Biden’s task force was considering such a plan, which has also been pushed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat from California. In addition, the National Rifle Association has been vocal in its backing of armed security in the nation’s schools.

Echoing concerns by civil-rights and juvenile-justice advocates, the NCJFCJ warns in its letter than an expansive police presence in schools can lead to unintended and negative consequences. The judges’ group argues that the posting of police officers to ensure safety has in the past led to misguided crackdowns on kids.

The letter notes that many counties across the country saw an upsurge in arrests of minors for modest indiscretions after districts began deploying police on campuses during the 1990s. The increased police presence on campuses has not improved school safety, the judges’ organization argues, while asserting that graduation rates in some of these schools have fallen. Some students’ futures have been jeopardized, the judges say, by early introduction into the criminal-justice system.

“The influx of police in schools has been one of the main contributors to the growing number of children funneled into this pipeline,” the letter to Biden says. “Research shows that aggressive security measures produce alienation and mistrust among students which, in turn, can disrupt the learning environment. Such restrictive environments may actually lead to violence, thus jeopardizing, instead of promoting, school safety.

The NCJFCJ’s letter was signed by its president, Judge Michael Nash, who is the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court’s presiding judge.

The letter refers to the 75-year-old NCJFCJ as one is a nation’s oldest and largest judicial membership organizations. Members study and recommend methods for improving juvenile-justice practices and advise more than 30,000 juvenile-justice professionals.

Nash, along with other juvenile court judges, has been an enthusiastic participant in a push  to reform school-discipline practices in Los Angeles and elsewhere, in part by reducing the use of police officers at schools.

He was interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity for a recent series of stories about the deployment of school police in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the area’s largest. Officers in the California district, data analysis showed, were ticketing thousands of mostly low-income Latino and black students annually for alleged conduct ranging from tardiness to school-yard fights.

In March, the NCJFCJ took an official position that discipline practices had grown too harsh in a some regions across the country, resulting in too much police involvement and too many students sent to court for relatively minor misbehavior.

In July, the NCJFCJ began a national project to reduce school expulsions and promote new ways to keep students engaged in school.

“Any proposal to place more armed personnel in school,” the letter says, “would be counterproductive to the success of this project.”

In conclusion, Nash’s letter invites Biden to contact the group. The judges, the letter says, are “committed to remain involved in ongoing conversations to craft solutions to enhance student safety while promoting student school involvement and success.”

Last Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project and several other organizations involved in school-discipline reform released a report also expressing concerns about putting police in schools in response to the Newtown shootings. The Advancement Project has also begun a petition drive to oppose financing armed guards in schools.

After a number of its representatives met with aides to Biden and President Obama, the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition also issued a series of recommendations for a “comprehensive” approach aimed at keeping children safe from gun violence.

“Across the country, people are searching for answers,” the Washington, D.C.-based coalition says in its recommendations. “The NJJDPC views this as a critical moment to invest more broadly in the true safety of proven strategies, not in the false sense of security of arming teachers or increasing police presence in every school. It is our view that true safety will not result from having more guns in schools or other places where youth congregate.”

The coalition includes the Campaign for Youth Justice, the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.

The Newtown children and teachers and other staff were gunned down by a disturbed local man who shot his way into the school with semi-automatic weapons belonging to his mother.

The National Rifle Association, in response to the shooting, has offered to train staff at schools in communities that decide to arm teachers or other employees who are designated to protect students in the event of an attack.

In the meantime, some communities are already taking action unilaterally.

The small Montpelier school district in rural northeast Ohio, for example, has decided to pay for training four employees – who are not teachers -- who have agreed to carry their own guns inside the district’s one building. About 1,000 students are enrolled in kindergarten through high school. Legislators in various states, including South Carolina and Oklahoma, are considering legislation to allow teachers or other staff to have guns inside schools.

And in Arizona, the Associated Press reported, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio – who has been investigated for allegedly violating the civil rights of Hispanics – plans to post armed volunteers on the perimeters of schools.

Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

School Discipline Reform Groups Question Proposals for Armed Security

Initiatives emerging from shootings may conflict with efforts to reduce police involvement in school discipline

A student from San Pedro High School in the Los Angeles area is detained for truancy in 2010 by Los Angeles city officers. Photo by Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze.

As the White House considers proposals to allocate federal money for armed guards in schools, prominent school-discipline reform groups have issued a report denouncing the idea as a misguided reaction to the Newtown school shooting.

“Placing more police in schools has significant and harmful unintended consequences for young people that must be considered before agreeing to any proposal that would increase the presence of law enforcement in schools,”says an issue brief released Friday by the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools and other organizations.

The Advancement Project, founded in 1999, has offices in Washington D.C. and California, and has worked with school districts and states to adopt alternatives to school suspensions and expulsions. Dignity in Schools is also devoted to working with school districts, advocating fewer school suspensions and less involvement of law enforcement in school discipline.

The groups called on the White House and Congress, before they act, to consider how the school-discipline climate changed after more police were introduced to schools in response to the Columbine school shootings nearly 15 years ago in Colorado.

“We have seen what happens when [schools] ramp up police presence and other security measures in response to a shooting or other violent act. In Colorado, it resulted in more students getting arrested for minor misbehaviors, more students being pushed out of school, and a declining sense of safety in schools,” the brief says.

“These unintended consequences,” the report continues, “are persistent and pervasive – despite efforts by parents, students, and the school district, the high arrest rates and racial disparities that resulted from increased police presence and zero tolerance policies still exist.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a new White House effort on gun control and school safety, is reportedly interested in the idea of allocating federal money to schools that wish to have armed guard protection, according to a recent report by the Washington Post.

The idea is being championed by one of Congress’ most ardent liberals, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who told the Post that Biden is “very, very interested” in a plan she presented to finance the deployment of police officers at schools.

“I don’t see why anyone should object to it, left or right,” Boxer told the Post. “It’s an area where I think I can find common ground with my colleagues on all sides.”

Biden has met with a number of different groups this week in his role as leader of the post-Newtown effort —among them the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, under scrutiny for its intense efforts to preserve gun-ownership liberties, has suggested that schools consider training and arming teachers or other appointed staff inside schools. The NRA has offered to pay for and provide training.

"If we truly cherish our kids more than our money or our celebrities, we must give them the greatest level of protection possible and the security that is only available with a properly trained — armed — good guy," NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said at a press conference explaining the group’s recommendations.

LaPierre also urged Congress to appropriate “whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school.”

But in its Friday brief, the Advancement Project, whose ideas have gained traction recently in Washington, reacted with dismay to both the NRA and Boxer’s recommendations.

Following the Newtown killings, Boxer also proposed placing National Guard in schools.

“We object to using the limited resources of the federal government to expand the presence of police in schools,” the Advancement Project brief says. “More specifically, we oppose the legislation offered late last Congress by Senator Barbara Boxer to facilitate the installation of National Guard troops in U.S. schools. We cannot support any such actions that have not been shown to make schools safer and instead can lead to terrifying, fatal mistakes.”

The Advancement Project report cites specific examples of students ticketed or arrested for minor infractions in various cities with a beefed-up school police presence, including Denver, Colo., New York City and Los Angeles, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity in a series of recent stories recently.

In Denver, where parent-led reforms are now aiming to reverse harsh discipline practices, schools saw a 71 percent jump in referrals of students to police or courts between 2000 and 2004. Most referrals, the brief notes, were for minor infractions such as using obscenities, disruptive appearance and destruction of non-school property.

“Serious conduct, like carrying a dangerous weapon to school, accounted for only 7% of the referrals,” the report says.

The Obama Administration has noticed these patterns, the report also says, and has taken action to encourage or require schools to adopt alternatives to suspensions and involvement of law enforcement in discipline matters.

On Dec. 12, Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis testified at the first congressional hearing on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. That’s a term coined by groups arguing that the involvement of police in what should be school disciplinary matters is putting some students, especially  low-income minorities, on a path to more serious trouble.

This was first reported by the Center for Public Integrity.

Photo by  Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze.

Texas Students Must Wear Tracking Badges or be Transferred, Judge Says

A United States district judge in Texas ruled Tuesday that students who refuse to wear identification badges with tracking chip technologies might be transferred to other school districts.

Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that a student attending classes at a Northside Independent School District campus would face transfer out of the magnet school unless the student begins wearing the identification badge by Jan. 22. The 15-year-old student said wearing the badge, which contained a tracking chip allowing administrators to physically track her whereabouts while on campus, violated her religious beliefs. However, the judge denied a request that would have halted her transferal, saying her decision was a “secular choice, rather than a religious concern.”

The school district, the 4th-largest in Texas, began using radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in student identification badges last fall. District representatives state that badges help increase overall attendance, which is factored into how much funding the district can procure from the state.

The school district has offered to allow the student to wear an identification badge without the locator chip, while John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, says his organization plans on appealing the ruling.

“To them this is a very strong religious moral issue,” he told the Huffington Post. “I believe their religious beliefs are protected because they are sincere.”

Photo by Lacy Atkins. 

TV Series Brings Neighbors Together to Help Family in Crisis

Back in the fall of 2011, kids bullied Alycin Mabry so severely that her mom decided to home school the Atlanta 14-year-old. At the time, her mom Annise Mabry saw homeschooling as the shining answer the family needed.

But today, Mabry says, it’s clear that their struggle was far from over.

“Maybe two or three months into the online school, Ali started to become more and more isolated,” Mabry said. “I just couldn’t get her out of the room. It just started spiraling. … Finally, my breaking point was when she stopped brushing her teeth, taking showers and I couldn’t even see her face for her hair.”

Mabry, suffering from an autoimmune disease and also struggling to provide for her second child, 8-year-old Niles who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, felt there was no way for her and her family to overcome their issues.

In late 2011, JJIE, partnering with Georgia Public Broadcasting, reported their story. Then, the Mabry’s plight caught the notice of someone familiar to most Americans.

Little did they know, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) was considering their story for its new series, “Trouble Next Door,” now airing on Monday nights. The series focuses on helping families in crisis by implementing the very specific community based method of getting their neighbors involved.

“We really wanted to address bullying and [the Mabry’s] story really stood out,” said the series’ executive producer, Domini Hofmann. “We wanted to be able to help these families with this method of working with neighbors. And it was clear that Alicyn needed to just get out of her room. She needed interaction with other people. And, Annise was overwhelmed.”

When the show began shooting last May, it drove the Mabry family to put everything on the table and let their next-door neighbors fully into their lives and their struggles. And, although the process of being completely transparent was difficult, Mabry feels that it saved her family.

As seen during the episode, by opening up and sharing their story with their neighborhood, things began to change in a positive manner. Alicyn even gained an educational opportunity when she landed a scholarship at the East Minster private school, in Conyers, Ga.

“Before the show, I had a very tiny community, which didn’t include my neighbors. I would wave at them, but I didn’t know who they were,” Mabry explained. Now, months after the cameras left, Mabry still talks to her neighbor’s daily and they continue to be an immediate source of help when she needs.

Alicyn continues to deal with the trauma she suffered when she was bullied at her previous school. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder last October.

“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘so the child that I sent to that school in 2009, I’ll never see that little girl again,’” Mabry said. “I had to grieve for that, but I also had to celebrate that now we know what’s wrong. And now we have not only a neighborhood community supporting us, but also a school community.”

With this series, OWN wants to illustrate how getting to know the next-door neighbors can create positive change.

“We want people to look at themselves and their relationship with their neighbors, and see how things could be different,” Hofmann said.

And although her family continues to have ups and downs, Mabry feels that creating a relationship with her community was the answer she desperately needed.

“[Community based methods] work.” said Mabry. “… The thing about having neighborhood support like this on this level is that I’m in their neighborhood. So whatever happens to me happens to them. There’s more of a vested interest to take care of the person next door because this is somebody that you’re going to see.”

The Mabry family will be featured on OWN’s new docu-series “Trouble Next Door” airing Monday, January 21 at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.

Photo courtesy of OWN. 

Felony Charges Dropped Against Young Undocumented Student at Heart of Immigration Debate

A nearly three-year legal battle has come to an end for a young undocumented immigrant whose 2010 arrest sparked a national debate over U.S. immigration policy, particularly the right of undocumented immigrants to attend public universities.

Thursday, a Cobb County, Georgia, judge dismissed a false-swearing charge against the now 23-year-old Jessica Colotl stemming from her arrest on March 29, 2010. A Kennesaw State University (KSU) police officer stopped Colotl, a KSU student, for a traffic infraction on campus. She was arrested the following day after failing to produce for authorities a valid driver’s license.

Colotl’s case has been widely publicized nationally, drawing renewed attention to the use of 287(g) programs, which allow local police agencies to enforce immigration law and detain suspected undocumented immigrants.

She remained in an immigration detention center for 37 days before she was granted a deportation deferment to finish her college coursework.

Last year, JJIE, partnering with Cartoon Movement, published a piece of comics journalism detailing Colotl’s story and titled “Jessica Colotl: In the Eye of the Storm,”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Colotl, who graduated from KSU in 2011, is working as a legal assistant.

Richard Ross Brings Photographs, Message to NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice

Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.
Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.

NEW YORK - Photographer Richard Ross can’t pin down the moment he found his calling.

It could have been on the concrete floor of the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss., where he sat photographing a 12-year-old inmate in a yellow prison jumpsuit as he gazed at graffiti of spaceships and aliens scribbled on the wall of his tiny, decrepit cell.

Maybe it was the young inmates trying to sleep on the floor of the intake room of a Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. Or the facility for young female offenders in California where the administrator told him all 88 residents were victims of sexual abuse.

It could have been his visit with Ronald Franklin, who ran away from home at 13 after his mother tried to kill him, got involved in an armed carjacking and ended up in a Miami juvenile detention center where he waited four years without a trial.

Somewhere in Ross’ travels chronicling the conditions of boys and girls in prison it happened.

new york logo 01“I can’t remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment, but at some point you find something that means more to you than a lot of other things you’ve done in the past and you know you can’t go back,” Ross said in an interview this week as he visited New York to mark the opening of an exhibit of his photographs at the Ronald Feldman Galleryin SoHo and to give a talk on his work at the Vera Institute of Justice in lower Manhattan.

Over five years, Ross, a longtime art professor at UC Santa Barbara, photographed and interviewed more than 1,000 juveniles incarcerated across the country as part of his “Juvenile In Justice” project. Each story has it own grim details, and for Ross it adds up to a stinging indictment of this country’s juvenile justice system.

Each night some 70,000 juveniles, a disproportionate number of them minorities, are incarcerated in America, where the rate of juvenile incarceration far outstrips that of other developed nations. To Ross and other advocates, the far majority of these kids, often the victims of abuse and violence, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and have no business in facilities that resemble the jails for hardened criminals.

Ross, 65, hopes his photos, which he calls a “visual data bank,” will get policymakers to reform the juvenile justice system away from punishment, isolation and detention and toward the type of rehabilitation and education he thinks could help these youths get their lives on track.

Ross called the work physically and emotionally “punishing,” but said he has no plans to stop.

“It’s a threshold you’ve passed and you’re not going to retreat from it,” he said. “I can’t just close the book and say I’m done, there’s too many lives at stake.”

An acclaimed artist who made his reputation shooting for major publications and the Getty Museum, Ross said he understands the power of images to shape public opinion and drive policy. He said the iconic 1972 photo of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girls running down the street naked and screaming after a napalm attack changed his life, and that’s where he’s the set bar for his photos of incarcerated youth.

Ross, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a New York City cop, visited more than 200 juvenile detention facilities in 31 states for the project that became Juvenile In Justice. He published a book of his photographs, with an essay by Ira Glass and excerpts of interviews he did with the subjects. An exhibit of his work opened in Paris last June and landed in New York this month after stops around the country.

Although some artists avoid connecting their work to overt political statements, leaving any hard and fast conclusions to the audience, Ross takes a different tact.

“I’m trying to have a viewer look at that and basically realize this is not a place for kids,” Ross said. “Teenagers are by definition dysfunctional. They make mistakes. Then they’re put in rooms that are 8x10 concrete? How is that going to change them or help society?”

About 100 people turned up Wednesday night to hear Ross speak at the Vera Institute, which has its office on the 12th floor of the Woolworth Building. Fit at 65, with an angular face and gray hair going white at the edges, there’s still a little bit of Flatbush in Ross’ voice, despite more than three decades in California.

Ross’ father was a cop in the 70th precinct for several years, but was forced to leave the force because of a gambling and bribery scandal involving Harry Gross, a major bookmaker based in Brooklyn. Ross, whose father took him to museums around the city and often dropped him at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday mornings, recalls those days as a time when “Brooklyn was truly hip” and said growing up as the son of a police officer influenced his work.

“We’re still doing things to please our parents,” Ross said. “That never changes.”

Ross said that of the 70,000 or so juveniles in custody across the country on any given night, only about 12 percent are there for violent offenses. He said that some kids are “sociopaths who you should be scared of,” but that the number of children caught up in bad circumstances, or who don’t belong in a prison, far outweighs the truly hard cases.

“Mostly they’re just people you’re pissed off at,” Ross said during his Vera talk. “You have to look at these kids as being victims, for the most part.”

Despite the draining toll of constantly interacting with incarcerated young people, Ross plans to push ahead with his project, saying he feels a bit like Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone in Godfather III, referencing his notorious line from that movie: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

He’ll shoot in California next week, and has plans to visit juvenile facilities in Kansas and New Mexico in coming months.

Many of Ross’ images, projected on a screen in the front of nearly a packed conference room as he described his work, elicited gasps from the crowd Wednesday night. The strongest reaction came from the startling juxtaposition of two jail cells, both concrete and unadorned. One picture was taken at a youth facility in El Paso, Texas, and another at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The rooms were strikingly similar, with a key difference: there was a window in the room at the jail in Cuba.

This story was produced by JJIE’s New York City Bureau.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Illinois Enacts Law Against ‘Epidemic’ of Human Trafficking

By  Maryam Jameel and Natalie Krebs 

The American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Committee hosted a panel Friday To address the “epidemic” of Chicago’s juvenile sex trafficking. From right to left, moderator Kate Richtman, Virginia M. Kendall, Katherine Kaufka Walts, Kate Mogulescu, Michael Anton and Bill Leen. Photo by Natalie Krebs / The Chicago Bureau

Illinois strengthened its legal arsenal against human trafficking this weekend when Gov. Pat Quinn signed House Bill 5278 into law. The new legislation aims to provide further protection and services for trafficking victims while also allowing prosecutors to crack down on pimps and other offenders.

The law applies to both minors and adults, and shares a number of similarities with the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000. The TVPA and its subsequent reauthorizations created new categories of human trafficking crimes and provided protections and benefits for human trafficking victims. Similarly, the new Illinois law extends the statue of limitations for offenders and broadens the definitions of “serious harm” and “involuntary servitude.”

The signing came a day after the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Committee hosted a panel to address the “epidemic” of juvenile sex trafficking in Chicago. While authorities confront traffickers for their offenses, it can be equally difficult to work with trafficked youth, many of whom don’t consider themselves victims of sexual abuse.

“This is a hidden population,” said Katherine Kaufka Walts, a panelist from the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University. “No one is self-identifying, no one’s raising their hand to say ‘I’m a victim of sex trafficking, I’m a victim of human trafficking.’”

According to Walts, current estimates suggest between 100,000 and 300,000 U.S citizen children are trafficked in the nation each year. However, data limitations prevent researchers from obtaining precise figures, and research typically excludes boys and LGBT youth.

“We’re all embracing this narrative of the girl and the pimp,” said Kate Mogulescu, project director for the Trafficking Victims Legal Defense & Advocacy Project. “And we understand that and we see that, that it is very common. But there’s another population [of boys and LGBT youth] that’s being affected by this, that’s really not being discussed. That’s a challenge.”

Street prostitution of minors, usually advertised over the Internet, is a primary form of human trafficking in Chicago. Panelist and federal Judge Virgina M. Kendall of the Northern District of Illinois also said gang-involved youth are one of Chicago’s major at-risk groups for trafficking.

“[Girls] are used as kind of rewards for gang activity,” Kendall said. “‘You did something good for the gang on the street, then you get to have sex with this girl, she’s the best girl,’ et cetera. And they become tossed and shared around the gang, and they feel very much like they can’t break from the gang the same way a gang member can.”

Other at-risk youth include missing children, children of migrant workers, children with disabilities and children who abuse substances. Minors in the foster care and child welfare systems also make vulnerable targets.

The varied backgrounds of trafficked youth necessitate a wide range of services. Many must confront issues such as immigration status, pregnancy, custody battles and prior legal offenses in addition to the horrors of the sex trade.

But recent legislation – like House Bill 5278 – has made it easier for minors in the sex trade to interact with the legal system. Illinois Safe Children’s Act, signed by Gov. Quinn in 2010, decriminalized sex-trade involvement for children younger than 18. Deemed unable to consent to their own commercial sexual exploitation, minors are no longer considered perpetrators or juvenile prostitutes. Instead, they’re referred to as victims, a label which has caused some controversy among trafficking authorities.

Recently other states have also reformed laws dealing with child prostitution. One significate example is Georgia where earlier this year lawmakers essentially erased the threat of prosecution of minors for prostitution, if the minor was coerced or deceived into the act — or, effectively, if they were trafficked. The 2011 law also toughened penalties for prostituting children 16 or under, making the punishment 10 to 30 years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine. The same crime involving a 17- or 18-year old remained unchanged: five to 20 years in prison and a fine between $2,500 and $10,000. And the law disallowed the accused trafficker to claim as a defense that he or she did not know the child's age.

In 2011, Illinois become one of the eight states with vacating conviction legislation, according to the Polaris Project. This law allows courts to clear convictions of prostitution from trafficked victims’ records.

Despite such legislation, barriers to beating Chicago’s sex trade still stand strong. While panelists said it isn’t legislation that’s lacking to protect victims, but rather the resources to make the law a reality. Challenges include a lack of housing for victims, disparate responses from authorities and the victims’ general distrust of law enforcement.

Take just New York City, said Mogulescu. That city has fewer than 50 beds to shelter trafficked victims taken into protective custody.

“We need to talk about the details of how do we make this work,” Walts said. “And I think we need to hear more from the kids frankly, about what works, what doesn’t, what got them there. No one’s asking the youth.”

Additional reporting by Maggie Lee

Maryam Jameel and Natalie Krebs are reporters with the Chicago Bureau


Idaho Juvenile Corrections Employees Allege Staffers Had Sex With Incarcerated Youth

Last month, several Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections (IDJC) employees filed a revised whistleblower lawsuit alleging staffers at the Nampa Juvenile Corrections Center had sexual relations with incarcerated youth.

Six additional staffers were added as lawsuit plaintiffs after attorney Andrew Schoppe - who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of seven employees in a U.S. District Court in Boise a week prior - was contacted. The staffers claim that events similar to those alleged in the original complaint have transpired at the detention center, stating that management failed to take action when incarcerated juveniles had sexual relations with one another. In the lawsuit, Schoppe said that staffers may have even had sexual relations with members of the incarcerated population.

“In at least two mind-boggling incidents, female IDJC staff members are believed to have been involved in unlawful sexual relationships with male juvenile offenders in their custody,” the filing reads. “In one instance, a female IDJC staff had relationships with an incarcerated male juvenile and moved in with him after his release.”

Rhonda Ledford, one of the employees filing the lawsuit, told the Associated Press that although she and her coworkers were told to report incidents to supervisors, she didn’t know if any of the supervisors ultimately reported the incidents to the police.

“Typically, what you’re told here is, ‘You don’t talk to anybody about it, don’t mention it, we’ll take care of it,’” Ledford told The Idaho Press-Tribune. “I don’t believe they reported it.”

IDJC officials, in a report filed with the federal court, have denied the allegations.