Vera Institute of Justice: Community Corrections Can Answer Mass Incarceration Problems


From The Chicago Bureau

Community supervision aimed at high-risk offenders, as well as mandatory evidence-based programs, have the potential to curtail the U.S. correctional system which has seen more than a 700 percent increase in size, the Vera Institute of Justice has found in a new report.

The term, ‘community corrections,’ refers to the supervision of those in the criminal justice system but not physically incarcerated, such as defendants on parole or probation. These individuals may directly report to a correctional officer or be involved in community programs like work release whereby they carry out the rest of their sentences in a productive setting.

In 2009, roughly seven out of 10 offenders – 5.1 million people – were under community supervision, a number that has stayed constant.

“When adequately resourced and carefully planned, community supervision can be an effective response to criminal behavior for both justice-involved individuals and communities,” according to the Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections report.

Through case studies of correctional systems in states like California, Delaware and Georgia, the center found that transforming community supervision practices to allocate resources such as staffing and funds for evidence-based programs from low-risk to high-risk offenders would allow better use of limited public safety dollars.

Currently, the estimate for total state spending on corrections is $52 billion per year, only a small fraction of which is used for community corrections due to its low cost. In some cases, it is even less than 5 percent of average cost per inmate kept in prison.

But many times, the low cost is the result of “large caseloads” and “a lack of key services,” thus demanding that more resources be allotted for community supervision.

In particular, evidence-based programs should be made mandatory and developed more fully with the goal of a “practical reality,” — such as public safety — as explained by the National Institute of Corrections, a source of the Center’s report.

An example of a state that has implemented such a program is Arkansas, who in 2011 mandated parole and probation officers to create individualized plans for all offenders, according to whether they were classified moderate- or high-risk by a risk assessment tool. This tool, the Center reported, also determines appropriate intervention measures for “specific criminal risk factors, such as antisocial thinking.”

However, to avoid a “return to the days of ‘nothing works,” wherein policymakers give up on the goal of a functional and realistic answer to the problems in the correctional system, the suggested policy changes like re-allocation of resources based on evidence-based programs must receive both political and fiscal support to succeed, wrote Peggy McGarry, the Center’s director.

Vera Graph


A Sad Truth: In Chicago, The Murder of Hadiya Pendleton, While Tragic and High-Profile, Is Commonplace

Hadiya PendletonOriginally appeared in The Chicago Bureau

CHICAGO –  Violence stalks Chicago’s streets, but when faced with staunchly rising homicide rates that show no sign of ebbing, residents’ capacity to tolerate the state of crime drains by the day.

After Hadiya Pendleton performed with her high school marching band during the presidential inauguration two weeks ago, the King College Prep teen became Chicago’s 42nd homicide victim of 2013 when she was gunned down on Chicago’s South Side – the unintended victim of a gang dispute.

Her death added to a January homicide toll that was the bloodiest since 2002, according to Chicago Police reports, suggesting that despite wide attention to Chicago’s murder woes, shifts in policing strategy and big promises by powerful politicians, there will be no immediate respite to the escalating violence that claimed more than 500 in 2012.

The ups and downs of Chicago’s homicide toll over the past six years/Graphic by Lynne Carty/The Chicago Bureau

Perhaps it’s because Pendleton performed for Obama, or maybe because she starred in an anti-gang public service announcement four years ago (Pendleton PSA) pleading for an end to the chaos, but the nation has embraced this 15-year-old as a symbol and not just another statistic.

As for those who study crime, who write about it and opine about it in Chicago, the nation’s murder capital, the question remains whether it will really matter:

“There is action because of the attention but it is not clear that it will work,” said University of Illinois at Chicago’s Dick Simpson, a known political expert and former alderman who recently studied the nexus of drugs, gangs and police corruption.

The recent moves by City Hall and police brass, for example, are not only an open question for Simpson but do not impress the likes of Tracy Siska, whose organization, The Chicago Justice Project, analyzes and presents on police data and statistics.

“The [high crime, and particularly this sensational murder] is nothing new to Chicago and the faux responses will also be nothing new,” he said. “You will see the police author some new plan to ‘really impact violence’ that has little chance of impacting violence.”

So what will it take to really dent the violence that stains the city and its reputation as a tourist, business and social destination? Siska, who recently analyzed crime and economic data in a column posted on the Bureau, said there will be no unraveling the riddle of Chicago’s high crime until the city’s native cycle of poverty is given real attention and ultimately fixed.

“Nothing,” Siska told the Bureau Friday, “will change until we start talking about changing the horrific economic conditions of these communities and the flow of easily available guns from the suburbs of Chicago.”

With gun control dominating public policy debate at every level of government since the Sandy Hook mass shooting, which claimed 20 children, Pendleton’s death is another source of pressure for the nation’s leaders to deliver on anti-violence promises.

Yet strip away Pendleton’s connection to the president – whose Chicago home is a short distance from the murder scene – as well as the politically charged timing of her death, and she becomes like any other bright-eyed victim of rampant child violence.

The fact is that in many neighborhoods, Chicago’s streets, front yards and parks aren’t safe for children to play, and the reasons for that have only increased despite the youth task forces and anti-violence efforts.

Now, Pendleton’s murder – at once tragic and sensational – has catalyzed communities to call for real action and not just debate. A city inspector charged with analyzing police deployment schemes has suggested the reassignment of nearly 300 officers – something Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced this week that 200 would shift from desk duty to street patrols and other on-the-ground assignments, has given his blessing.

In addition, Chicago has pounced on anti-gun initiatives with sweeps, gun swaps and new laws. Hoping to clean the streets of so much weaponry, Chicago Police have turned to gun buybacks. They have staged weapons raids and strictly enforced gun laws by tacking on taxes – and potentially more severe sentences – for committing a crime using, or in possession of, a weapon.

Does it count for much?

Pendleton was hanging out with friends after school in a neighborhood park when an unknown assailant shot her in the back on Tuesday. She died at the scene, but another boy was wounded in the leg and transported to the hospital. It’s an all too familiar scenario for those working in violence reduction, and although Emanuel’s news conference following the tragedy has been met with both doubt and support, activists largely agree that crime is a symptom of deeper-set social illness.

Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence, which employs interruption methods to address crime in individual neighborhoods, sympathized with the mayor’s move to do all he could in the immediate wake of Pendleton’s death. However, he said a complete understanding of Chicago’s violence requires viewing crime as an epidemic to be eradicated through a public health, disease control outreach approach.

“Violence feeds on itself,” Slutkin said of analyzing rising homicide rates in recent months. “The problem has been so refractory for so many years that it hasn’t been completely diagnosed, completely understood. It actually operates through our brain processes of copying and of social belonging, and so you have to use the sciences of interruption and behavior change to effectively get reductions.”

He added that although Pendleton’s story certainly deserves the media spotlight, it’s more imperative that solutions to systemic violence are equally addressed.

In many ways, Emanuel and McCarthy, experts are saying, have reached back to the days of Mayor Richard M. Daley and past police bosses like Terry Hillard with an inching toward more, and closer, interaction between the cops who police our streets and those who live here, run the businesses and community organizations who try to prop up the most at-risk residents and neighborhoods.

The push then, mostly in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, was called community policing and was credited, in some circles, with vastly reducing crime – both nonviolent and violent – in Chicago. But pundits love to dismiss politicians and while others are looking for answers in what Emanuel and McCarthy announced, others, including the union, see it as grandstanding by a mayor who has seen problems with the schools, with violence, with city’s finances, among other issues, in his short tenure.

McCarthy can still stand on statistics showing an overall dip in crime to the lowest level in years. But the sensational – the talked-about – statistic is murder, and Chicago ended 2012 as the nation’s bloodiest city. The murder capital of the United States once again.

In fact, so much has been tried in Chicago, and so much has fallen short – including strict anti-gun laws – that the city is frequently pointed to as an example of where the local anti-gun measures have actually proven a catalyst for the high number of killings here. Rather than blunt crime, the pro-gun lobby has said the strict control over guns in Chicago has contributed to the violence.

That, according to other academic, health and law enforcement studies, is nonsense, with anti-gun groups arguing that more guns leads to more opportunity to kill by intention or accident.

Still, for all the high-minded talk, what the conversation for most Chicagoans and most in the nation boils to is this: A 15-year-old majorette, who spoke out against violence, who did well in school, who was very much a part of her family and neighborhood, is gone. There is now a $30,000 reward for anyone who can provide information about her death.

“These were good kids by everything that I learned,” McCarthy said at a Wednesday news conference. “Wrong place at the wrong time.”

Bureau reporters Safiya Merchant and Lynne Carty contributed to this report

Looking Back and Casting Forward: An Emerging Shift for Juvenile Justice in America

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers – the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides – some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation.

Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system.

Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).

So in saying she would lasso the needed parties to lessen the numbers entering the corrections populations, and continuing the pitch to rid Cook of the juvenile system as currently set up, Preckwinkle made news. The numbers, so often repeated, were underscored in her talk: “The last time I checked,” she said, “68 percent of the people in our jail were African American – or double their proportion in the overall county population. Translated, she is attempting to answer a criminal justice and societal problem that has stymied policymakers, academics and law enforcement, among others, for decades.

And yet, like so much news at the turn of the year, it was swallowed by national news of tragedy, the fiscal crisis and President Barack Obama’s cabinet changes, and the play didn’t last long.

Also struggling to gain traction was a push by advocates, politicians and the courts to tip the balance of juvenile justice away from harsh punishment to rehabilitation. But to do so, Preckwinkle’s promise to fix local correction’s racial imbalance, weighted so heavily against blacks and Hispanics, would have to be addressed.

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute

In Shelby County, Tenn., the problem was so profound it recently invited a federal settlement to remedy it. Still, the problem of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) continues to plague minority populations.

DMC, the racial tilt of the criminal justice system, is a long-running issue for many civil rights and advocacy organizations who have put out conflicting studies over the years that compete over the reasons, including low educational achievement and high unemployment among minorities, and urban environments with more open-air criminal conduct where the crime is more easily spotted by police (unlike in suburban and rural areas).

“For so long we’ve invested in building up these institutions (jails, juvenile courts, detention centers) at the detriment of investing in communities and social services, especially in the neighborhoods where [detained] folks are coming from,” said Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute, a national non-profit aiming, with law enforcement and community leaders, to erase racial disparity. “And that’s not a productive way of engaging your citizenry. We as a society really need to invest in education, housing infrastructure, etc., because that investment matters, as we see on the justice side.”

The trick is to speed the process and, perhaps, start to eradicate a stain on the system – one that has drawn an increasing volume of suits, legislation, and community pushes to inject balance in a system that too often spins out black and Hispanic minors who are further traumatized by prison, highly unemployable, and lacking a decent education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Cycle of Poverty, Incarceration Systemically Tied

Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.

A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.

The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.

As it is, about 250 youth are locked up in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Roughly 80

Graphic courtesy of The Burns Institute.

percent of that population is black – and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.

“Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?”

Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.

“It’s not necessarily true,” she said, “that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you’re more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race.”

Balancing Justice

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized the disparity, and taken measures to address it, be it for drugs or other felonies that could land youngsters in adult court. But it’s been a tough, often losing fight.

For example, take drug arrests of minors – a push to tackle a problem that quickly drove incarceration rates up dramatically. But recent studies show states’ recent decriminalization of some use of marijuana – including in California – has already resulted in a downward spiral in youth crime rates.

Already, pot bars are starting to grow up in that state, while others consider following its lead, and still others, including Illinois, are working on laws to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. Also, cops in Chicago have started focusing on greater stashes to justify arrests – meaning fewer people are arrested, and therefore jailed.

Indeed, in California, 2011 saw a 61 percent drop since 2010 of youth arrests for marijuana possession, according to a recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The new state law reducing that offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction directly affects juvenile detention numbers, as drug arrests are the leading cause of youth confinement.

What remains to be seen is whether the racial and ethnic disparities of those arrests will also drop. Experts hesitate to be too optimistic considering the institutionalized disparities in America’s juvenile justice system. As with most crimes, minorities aren’t more prone to drug use or drug possession than whites. Nevertheless, minorities count for a disproportionate number of drug arrests.

In 2009, the rate for drug violation arrests for black juveniles was twice the white rate, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Black youth are also much more likely (48 times more likely in 2001, and the numbers haven’t budged much since) than white youth to be incarcerated in an adult prison after a first-time drug arrest.

Laws such as California’s are attempting to hit this issue from the policy level. But many of the ground-level factors contributing to DMC are not adequately addressed, according to experts in the field.

New York City police statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, police made 2.5 million stops. Of those, 90 percent were people of color and 90 percent did not result in legal action.

“The police are a critical part of the juvenile justice decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles,” according to criminal justice professor Alex Piquero of the University of Maryland-College Park.

Piquero, in research dating to 2008, said police act as the “gatekeepers” to juvenile courts, and if their decisions are somehow race-based, minorities will continue to be overrepresented in the corrections system.

“The first step is to really address the use of data within jurisdictions … to look at [the numbers] regularly enough to help drive the way people make decisions,” Barrows said.

For example, jurisdictions look at how many kids in juvenile detention centers are from a particular geographic area. In Chicago, the concentration is on the heavily minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Other standards include the study of race, ethnicity, gender and offense. After assessing it, the idea is to monitor the data and reform the responses and thinking practices that have contributed to systematic disparity.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created by – and is directed by – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Providing a federal grant program, it requires participant states to address DMC through a data-driven approach. This calls for states and communities to assess their DMC levels and develop mitigation initiatives.

However, many in the system, including experts, the affected minors, teachers and law enforcement, say the nearly 40-year-old law has little teeth. As a result, communities nationwide are using increasingly innovative measures to tackle DMC.

Recent models use community interveners or mentors to talk to kids directly, attempting to de-escalate a situation through an adult rather than automatically resorting to detention.

In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Jamaica and South Bronx, the New York Department of Probation is collaborating with residents, businesses and organizations in what is called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.

This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.

However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.

“Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”

Bureau editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report.

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. 

The Many Examples of the Power of Innocence Projects

Joyce Ann Brown attends the Women’s Project event. Photo credit: Randy Belice

Four women stood at the front of a room, speaking before the small crowd with strong voices even though each had gone through a harrowing and emotional experience.

The women – Joyce Ann Brown, Audrey Edmunds, Tabitha Pollock and Gloria Goodwin-Killian – had all been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. In total, they spent 45 years incarcerated, knowing all the while they were innocent and clinging to some hope that this fact would come to light.

Now free, thanks in no small part to innocence projects around the nation, their testimonies before the crowd headlined the commencement of the Women’s Project at the Northwestern University law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions this month.

“In the Center’s 13 year history, we’ve represented four women, all of whom were accused and wrongfully convicted of the murders of their children,” said Karen Daniel, a co-director of the Women’s Project and a professor at Northwestern University. “We at the Center got to thinking about these cases and we recognized that there were some startling similarities among these cases that we were dealing with that had not arisen in any of the cases with men.”

Northwestern University has a track record of addressing wrongful convictions from unconventional angles with success. The university’s journalism school houses the Medill Innocence Project, which is one of the only innocence projects in the world that works from a purely journalistic angle, and the law school’s Children and Family Justice Center has trained law students to work with attorneys and social workers to exonerate wrongfully convicted youth since 1992.

(Most recently, the Medill effort has taken on the study and investigation of Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, noting that science has taught many new lessons over the years with this diagnosis and that what were once open-and-shut SBS cases now warrant closer study.)

And at the law school, Daniel specifically noted the youth program’s success in changing police and prosecutor investigation procedure for minors. She hopes to mirror that success with the Women’s Project, which serves another specialized demographic with unique legal needs.

“We have a very successful project here at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth,” Daniel said. “We’ll see where the research takes us.”

With these two projects as examples, the CWC is giving a nod to the fact that different sexes and different age groups pose sharply different legal concerns. And by separating them out, studying these groups in greater isolation without ignoring that there is, of course, much general overlap in criminal law, the CWC is more confident of success going forward.

“A lot of what takes place in criminal law and police practice is based on what they expect people to do, how a normal person would react under a different set of situations,” Daniel said. “We feel like we need to challenge those norms because they don’t apply across the board, but perhaps the generalities apply even less to women than they do to men.”

False Eyewitness Testimony

Joyce Ann Brown is an imposing figure who doesn’t speak so much as project. When she gets emotional, she doesn’t cry. She gets angry.

“Every time we talk about our cases, the emotions flow,” Brown said. “It’s been [23] years [since I was exonerated] and I still have that anger.”

Brown spent nine years, five months and 24 days in prison after two black women walked into a fur store in Dallas, shot and killed the owner and cleaned out the cash registers. Brown was convicted in 1980 largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who simply claimed that Brown looked similar to one of the two women. Another strike came from a jailhouse informant who testified that Brown confessed to the crime soon after she was incarcerated.

“The [district attorney] was able to ‘prove’ that I changed clothes, drove three and a half miles [from work], robbed the store, watched a man get shot down like a dog, changed clothes [and] drove three and a half miles back to where I worked in seven and a half minutes,” Brown said. “I had 13 co-workers testify that I was at work. I had time cards to prove that I was at work. But I was convicted and given a life sentence.”

Brown had no chance of obtaining an early release on parole because, in Texas, inmates must admit their guilt and show remorse before they can be paroled.

“Never was I going to say I was sorry, never was I going to say I showed remorse and I certainly was not going to admit to a crime that I didn’t commit,” Brown insisted.

Brown was freed in 1989 after her case was picked up by Centurion Ministries, an innocence project based in New Jersey, and CBS “60 Minutes.” Now, 23 years later, she has become one of the nation’s leading activists for wrongfully convicted women.

“When I read a letter, and it’s clearly another Joyce Ann Brown story – that you can see that person did not commit that crime – that makes me angry,” Brown said. “It makes me angry enough to get up, make some telephone calls, try to find an innocence project, try to find some kind of system for that person who’s still sitting in prison.”

Gender-Biased Convictions

“We [have] started to think that perhaps the most prevalent factors that contribute to wrongful convictions of

Attendees gather at the Women’s Project opening reception. Photo credit: Randy Belice

men are not the same factors that most commonly contribute to the wrongful convictions of women,” Daniel said.

Brown added that, “Women have a habit of getting complacent. They are afraid of rejection. So when they get that first note of rejection, it’s like they just shut down and won’t continue to fight for their freedom, and they end up staying in prison.”

Tabitha Pollock is not the orator Brown is. She occasionally stutters and pauses from time to time, as if to collect her thoughts. But she most definitely is not complacent.

Go back 17 years to Oct. 10, 1995. Pollock was sleeping when her live-in boyfriend, Scott English, killed Pollock’s 3-year-old daughter Jami Sue at their home in Kewanee, Ill. Police investigations revealed that English had been abusing Jami Sue while Pollock was asleep for at least weeks, maybe even months. Coroners determined the cause of Jami Sue’s death to be blunt force trauma and asphyxiation, indicating that the abuse was simply too much for the 3-year-old’s body to handle.

Throughout the murder investigation, Pollock fully cooperated. She told investigators about injuries to her children that she had noticed in the preceding weeks, saying that both the boyfriend and the children had told her the injuries were due to accidents.

These statements were used against her in court.

“They charged me with the murder of my daughter,” Pollock said in a pained voice. “[It was] based on the theory that I should have known that my daughter was being abused.”

A year after the murder, based on that “should-have-known” theory, Pollock was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated battery. She was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Her appeal was shot down in 1999 by the Illinois Appellate Court, again on the grounds of “should-have-known,” despite the trial judge commenting that Pollock “did not commit the act of killing, nor did she intend to kill the child, nor was she present in the room when her boyfriend killed the child.”

Desperate, Pollock wrote to the CWC, who decided to review and investigate the case. In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed Tabitha’s conviction, holding that a defendant cannot be convicted on an accountability theory based on what he or she “should have known.”

“I wrote to Northwestern in ’99, and they took on my case because I knew I didn’t belong in prison. I didn’t do anything,” Pollock said. “[In winning my case,] Northwestern has gotten that law changed for everyone so that no one else can be charged under ‘should have known.’”

During the case, the CWC started to realize that gender played a seemingly large role in Pollock’s conviction, in that it’s more likely that a woman would be held responsible under the “should-have-known” theory than a man.

Once is chance, according to the saying, while twice is a coincidence and three times makes a pattern. Pollock’s case may have been an isolated incident, but the Women’s Project hopes to identify patterns.

In a follow-up email, Daniel said: “Women make up the majority of caregivers of children, so if something suspicious or unexplained happens to a child for which there is only circumstantial medical evidence of a crime (like SBS), then a woman may be more vulnerable to prosecution simply because she was there.”

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Gloria Goodwin-Killian, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and the Women’s Project sees room for research into the possibility that women, for example, could be more easily coerced by investigators and therefore become victims of misconduct.

Goodwin-Killian was a law student at the University of California when she was arrested in 1981 for a robbery and murder in Sacramento. The statute for murder in California allows for the death penalty, but the state had no solid evidence against Goodwin-Killian. In fact, the prosecutor on the case knew who actually committed the crime.

But the DA, who was later charged with misconduct, cut a deal with the actual perpetrator of the crime, exchanging a sentence reduction for false testimony and other undisclosed services. The DA spent months creating a case to implicate an unsuspecting Goodwin-Killian, a woman with limited resources to defend herself.

At the trial, Goodwin-Killian was blindsided by the mountain of false evidence against her. She was summarily convicted and sent to prison to await execution.

“The difference for women is often that women’s cases are the hardest cases to fight,” Goodwin-Killian said. “Luckily, I had some help.”

That help came in the form of an inmate visitor/advocate named Joyce Ride, the mother of America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride. Over time, Ride became convinced that Goodwin-Killian was the victim of false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. Ride financed the appeal and the investigation, incurring personal charges of almost $100,000, and an appellate court in San Francisco finally reversed Goodwin-Killian’s conviction in 1998.

The district attorney was eventually brought up on charges. But for Goodwin-Killian, it wasn’t enough.

“Seventeen and a half years later, after ruining my career, my life, forcing me to spend all my money fighting to stay alive,” she said, “the consequences of wrongful convictions can go on forever and ever and ever.”

Those at the Women’s Project understand there’s more healing to be done even after a wrongfully convicted woman is exonerated.

“The women who we know who have been exonerated are very interested in the issues of what kind of supports they need following their exoneration, to deal with the trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Judy Royal, the other co-director of the Women’s Project.

“Everyone who’s been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned is traumatized. It’s obviously a horrible experience. But it just seems like for women, it seems to be even more difficult. There’s sometimes more to deal with emotionally, and that complicates things.”

Outdated Medical Evidence

Audrey Edmunds has dealt with such post-exoneration trauma. But she has persevered. She doesn’t just tell her story – she tells it with pride, standing tall and delivering her words in concise and powerful bites.

Pregnant with her third child in 1996, Edmunds kept herself busy by babysitting neighborhood children in her Waunakee, Wis. home. When an infant in her care started to make funny noises, Edmunds got concerned. The child went limp when Edmunds picked her up, spewing formula from her nose and mouth. Fearing that the infant was choking, Edmunds ran to her neighbor’s house, pleading for help.

Paramedics were called and the infant was rushed to a hospital. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, the child died that evening. During the examination initially performed when the infant was brought to the hospital, physicians found classic Shaken Baby Syndrome symptoms.

Coined in 1972, the term Shaken Baby Syndrome describes children, typically under the age of three, who are severely injured or even killed by violent shaking.

Victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome sometimes show no visible signs of harm, but have severe internal injuries due to undeveloped brains and neck muscles. According to the original 1972 theory, the victim would become unresponsive immediately following the shaking, making it obvious that the guilty person was the last person with the child. This was still the view held by most medical experts when Edmunds burst out her door, screaming, clutching an unresponsive infant.

Edmunds was immediately presumed guilty despite a mountain of evidence pointing to the contrary. The child had only come into Edmunds’s care an hour before the child’s body started to shut down. Doctors found much older hemorrhages inside the child’s brain. Nobody who ever knew Edmunds would have even imagined she’d be capable of abusing a child.

As one neighbor put it, “I never, ever even considered she might have done it.”

None of that mattered. During her trial, the prosecutor argued that Edmunds’ friends and supporters clearly “didn’t know the real her” and that the stress of being pregnant contributed to her presumed crime. But the medical testimony – based on outdated views from 1972 – was the most important piece of evidence. Due to the fact that she was the last person to be responsible for the infant before death, Edmunds was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Edmunds knew that new medical evidence would be essential to proving her innocence and securing her release. She just hoped that her case wouldn’t slip through the cracks and get lost.

“I was very, very fortunate to come into contact with the innocence project at UW-Madison, who picked up my case,” Edmunds said. “They came to me with evidence from a neurologist at UW-Madison, saying they knew I was wrongfully convicted. They told me that yes, there was definitely enough medical evidence to get me a new trial.”

By the time Edmunds finally secured a new trial in 2008, the mainstream medical opinion with regards to Shaken Baby Syndrome had shifted. There was new doubt as to whether shaking could have caused the brain injuries that the caused the death of the child in Edmunds’s care. After 12 years in prison, Edmunds’s conviction was reversed and the charges were dismissed.

If the Women’s Project is successful, wrongfully convicted women may feel more comfortable speaking out instead of relying on programs to find them.

“I went into prison two days after my youngest daughter’s first birthday,” Edmunds said, recalling eight years spent in a maximum security prison and four in a minimum security prison. “Prison was a culture shock; it was something I never got used to.

But now, she must acclimate to freedom.

“It was great this morning to take a shower and determine what time I wanted to shower, how hot or cold I wanted the shower and how long I wanted to be in that shower. It was wonderful to be in rush hour traffic, to get to a stop sign and say, ‘Do I want to go left or right?’ All of that is taken away in prison. Being free is wonderful.”

Solitary for Youth: The Fight in Illinois

Isolation cell at the Fairbanks Youth Facility Fairbanks AK. Photo by Richard Ross

CHICAGO — Even as national organizations rallied this week to end solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles across the country, the local branch of American Civil Liberties Union is working with prison officials and the federal court to focus on the issue here.

The goal: settle a lawsuit on behalf of 2,217 incarcerated youth with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Corrections over the system’s inadequate services and often-hostile environment.

A preliminary agreement calls for curbing the growing practice of solitary confinement in youth centers, which activists say constitutes “torture,” given its potential for causing long-lasting psychological harm.

The proposed settlement, which is due for a fairness hearing in federal court in Chicago on December 6, would be the latest victory in a larger movement to end the punitive isolation of youth in custody. In June, Congress held its first hearing on the issue of solitary confinement within U.S. prisons, where roughly 80,000 inmates are in “restricted housing“ at any given time nationwide, according to a 2005 census of adult inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Long a focus of the adult prison reform movement, advocates say the practice is even more damaging to emotionally developing juvenile offenders.

Solitary confinement should be reserved for violent offenses, such as fighting or attacking a guard, according to federal law. But investigations of Illinois’ juvenile facilities conducted by the Juvenile Justice Project at the John Howard Association found that youth were frequently isolated for non-violent offenses. Juvenile offenders have been separated for transgressions as minor as eating a guard’s food.

Prison staff often separate youth on the charge of “intimidation,” which John Howard Association of Illinois noted lacked any formal definition. According to the prison reform organization, youth in custody are subject to “a lottery of sorts,” in which their punishment often relies on the guard’s disposition.

ACLU settlement doesn’t call for outright abolishment of solitary confinement, but rather clarification of what constitutes an offense punishable by isolation. ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz, for example, said there might arise rare instances where a juvenile is violent or physically out of control and in need of a short “time-out.”

Joshua Delaney of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, said some prisons also place youth in solitary confinement when they first arrive as a hopeful deterrent for future misbehavior.

“At one facility, approximately 20 percent of youth were housed in isolation on any given day, and denied essential programming, services and recreation,” Delaney said during a recent online gathering of juvenile justice officials and advocates, hosted by the National Center for Youth in Custody.

“Part of the problem stemmed from the bizarre facility practice of routinely isolating incoming residents for a number of days,” he said, “reportedly for the purpose of determining whether each new youth would pose a threat to the facility.”

Activists also discovered that non-offending youth are sometimes placed in solitary confinement as a means to protect them from potential abuse or harassment at the hands of other inmates.

A 2011 visit to Illinois Youth Center St. Charles found that because of its inadequate infirmary, injured or sick youth were being housed in solitary confinement. After a Juvenile Justice Project report on the problem, the center now sends their sick youth to a nearby youth facility with adequate health care.

Other recent efforts may help curb the practice of “protective” isolation. It is common for facilities to house gay and transgender youth separately in order to prevent physical or verbal victimization by other juvenile inmates. But according to a recent study on LGBTQ youth in custody by the policy think tank Center for American Progress, the practice further marginalizes the potential victim.

“This isolation perpetuates the stigmatization of gay and transgender youth, casts them as sexually deviant, and signals that they might be of threat to other youth,” according to the report. Rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, issued in late August, have outlawed this practice.

A 2006 Washington University report found that solitary confinement can lead to trauma, psychosis and aggression among youth. Half of all suicides that take place within juvenile detention centers happen within solitary confinement. Roughly 65 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of separation.  ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a joint report documenting the frequent use of solitary confinement of juveniles Wednesday.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a ban on solitary confinement of young people and inmates with mental illness in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause…  it can amount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment…  for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly.

Advocates hope a combination of international human rights pressure and local legislation will force American detention centers to rethink isolation of young offenders.

“There’s movement both on the congressional level and on the state level,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center has led several lawsuits against solitary confinement, most recently in Pelican Bay, Calif. Azmy said focusing on youth may motivate legislators to stand up and address the issue of isolation.

“The important thing is to use litigation in combination with organization, media and legislative advocacy” said Azmy.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Chicago Bureau

Visualized: A Sobering Check on Recent Wins By Juvenile Advocates

Almost five years ago, Missourian Tracy McClard’s 17-year-old son, Jonathan, was tried, convicted and sentenced as an adult for a shooting that seriously wounded the victim. While incarcerated in an adult prison, Tracy McClard said, her son suffered from abuse, depression, and ultimately took his own life.

McClard, who said she believes all kids deserve a second chance, created the National Youth Justice Awareness month where non-profits, community organizations and families would gather to raise awareness about how youth are treated in the adult system.

In October – which McClard is hoping will turn into a nationally recognized month to assist juvenile offenders – there will be various events to mark the effort. There will be, among other things, service days, 5K walks and film screenings across 20 states in the country to generate support and, backers hope, give speed to recent gains made by juvenile advocates.

Just this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled it was not legal to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole in homicide cases. That built on earlier decisions where life without parole was ruled out in non-homicide cases and where death was taken off the books for all juveniles no matter the charge.

The rulings were widely seen as a nod to the notion that children’s minds are not developed to the extent that adults’ are, and that imposing some adult sanctions on youngsters, even in the most heinous of cases, was cruel punishment.

While not all states have moved to adopt rules to reverse the many cases of juvenile lifers, there has been a steady pullback across the country from the tough laws of 20 to 30 years ago that dramatically increased the population of incarcerated juveniles.

Many of these laws stemmed from a fear that a generation of young predators was growing up in America’s cities who would add to the mayhem that saw murders spike during the drug wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

That generation never came to be. But the impact of the laws enacted out of this fear had a long reach and, as the below graphic shows, the ramifications are still being felt today.

Graphic courtesy of Campaign for Youth Justice/Created by Jason Killinger.

Story from The Chicago Bureau


Sites, Sounds from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

By Audrey Cheng and Jennifer Starrs

Emotions and rhertoric have been running high as CTU teachers and paraprofessionals formed picket lines, beginning early Monday and continuing Wednesday with no quick end in sight for the first schools strike since 1987. Teachers are pushing for a contract, better working conditions and more social workers in schools, amomg other issues – while administration officials are pressing for big curricular and testing changes, including a greater emphasis on programs like charter schools.


Audrey Cheng and Jennifer Starrs are reporters for The Chicago Bureau

Chicago’s Homicides Down in July But Worries Still Linger

By Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma

CHICAGO — It was rare news in a summer filled with frightening crime statistics, equally alarming headlines and a mayor and police superintendent on the defensive: For the month of July, killings in this city were down 11 percent from the same period last year, with the number of homicides for the month at 49.

But such news matters little to people like Shirley Askew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, whiling away days playing in the streets and city parks. And it means little when the overall homicide rate for the year is still up nearly 27 percent. Many children are scared; they’re kept indoors, and, in a very real sense, locked out of their childhoods.

Now 59, with four sons and four grandsons, Askew indeed worries about the increasing neighborhood violence that threatens local children’s safety. Just Thursday afternoon, not far from where Askew spoke with reporters, two 16-year-old boys were gunned down and another wounded.

“God knows I wouldn’t want to go back and be a child again,“ she said, “Boy, I just feel so bad for them, because they have nowhere to play, nowhere they can go to without somebody fighting and shooting everything up.”

Askew, who was selling snow cones outside a convenience store on North Avenue, said this summer seems more violent than the last because she hears about shootings just about every day. This environment is rough for children, she added, growing quiet as a young girl and her father approached the stand.

“These babies don’t have a chance,” Askew said, watching the pair walk away with their fruit punch flavored cone.

City officials put a good face on the crime numbers that were reported in the local media Thursday. But they acknowledged the city has a long way to go to halt the killings. Through the end of July there were 308 homicides in Chicago – still far above last year’s total of 243 for the same period.

Strategies borrowed from the playbook that saw New York’s crime rate plummet from a high in the mid-1990s, known as the broken-windows program, have been implemented in some cases here. The police target even minor crimes to chip away at the more headline-grabbing murders that have so marred this summer.

Some residents say much of the violence is due to gang disputes in various pockets of the city. Michael Lee, 54, also from the West Side, said he hears shots once or twice a week.

“We’re wary about walking down the streets, sending our kids to the store and letting them out of the house,” he said.

Lake View High School student Destinee Davis, 17, said the July Fourth holiday seemed to mark the height of violence so far this summer, when she could not distinguish between fireworks and gunshots.

While Davis said it is difficult, with violence so rampant, to tell if this summer is any worse than previous years, she said she has witnessed a number of muggings. She said her cousin, who lives with Davis, has been jumped three times this year.

“It makes me scared to go out,” she said as she stood waiting for her bus.


Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma are reporters for The Chicago Bureau.

Photo from Law Enforcement Today.



Experts Weigh in on Report Detailing High Number of LGBT Homeless

CHICAGO – After the Williams Institute, True Colors Fund and the Palette Fund released a critical study on LGBT youth homelessness last month, Chicago-based experts have weighed in and offered reaction to the study’s findings that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and many agencies designed to meet their needs have failed to adequately address pressing concerns.

The study, conducted between October 2011 and March 2012, was designed to assess how homeless youth organizations provide services to LGBT youth. (See related story)

About 380 respondents from 354 agencies that serve homeless youth participated in the web-based survey.

Overall, the study found that the current network of homeless youth providers “is not adequately addressing the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth,” according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The survey showed about 30 percent of homeless using housing-related services—emergency shelters and transitional living programs—were LGBT.

Among the top reasons why LGBT youth are homeless include: running away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity (46 percent), being forced out by parents because of sexual orientation or gender identity (43 percent) and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home (32 percent).

“Bottom line, youth homelessness has been an ongoing and steady issue, related to the impact of family and personal pressures on youth,” said Anne Bowhay, spokeswoman for the CCH.

Other organizations said they are also well aware of the issue of youth homelessness and what needs to be done.

UCAN, a Chicago-based nonprofit, touts its mission as to “build strong youth and families through compassionate healing, education and empowerment.”

Bonnie Wade, associate director at UCAN, said although there have not been any concrete LGBT homeless studies in the Chicago area, she noticed more than 60 percent of homeless youth self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual when she worked at a homeless youth shelter. She said there is such a significant number of LGBT youth homeless because of stress and lack of knowledge on LGBT issues in disadvantaged families.

“Let’s say you have a mom raising five children, and she’s a single parent and she has some kind of sickness,” Wade said. “She’s working a full-time job, she’s taking care of the five kids, so she’s already under a lot of stress and pressure. So let’s say her oldest son comes out as gay. It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s the final straw the breaks the camel’s back.”

Wade said if families were supported more and had access to resources, there would not be as many young people out on the streets.

“Because of systemic oppression and really poverty, sexism, racism and all of these -isms–all of this systemic oppression–it creates a permanent underclass of people,” she said.

Wade added that although the new study is an improvement on raising awareness for LGBT youth homelessness, there needs to be more study.

“We need more research on what ends homelessness specifically for LGBT young people: the housing model, what intervention strategies, what will it take to end homelessness among LGBT young people,” Wade said.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless posted a blog on the CCH’s website about the study. Authors Andrew Phifer and Jeff Krehely listed five key findings from the studies and the action needed in response to each finding.

One such finding showed nearly 60 percent of the responding agencies reported, “that transgender youth are in worse physical health than other youth,” according to the blog.

As a response, Phifer and Krehely wrote, “action needed: improve data collection by including sexual orientation and adding gender identity metrics to the Center for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the state level.”

Most statistics about LGBT youth come from local or regional surveys, so the authors wrote in support of a national survey conducted on a regular basis.

“The results of this survey act as further confirmation that America’s next generation of gay and transgender youth need us to stand with them so that they can stand on their own,” Gregory Lewis, executive director of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, said in a Williams Institute statement accompanying the report.

Audrey Cheng is a reporter with The Chicago Bureau.

Photo from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.