image_pdfimage_print

California Corrections Committee Proposes New Minimum Standards for Incarcerated Youth

California youth advocates are fairly pleased with recommendations on use of pepper spray, shackling, visitation rights and vegetarian meal options for incarcerated youth that came from the Executive Steering Committee of the state Board of State and Community Corrections.

Israel Villa

“This time around was historic; we are advocating for changes that have never been addressed before,” said Israel Villa, a formerly incarcerated youth. “My understanding is that the [board] usually goes with the steering committee's recommendations.”

Villa, the program and policy coordinator for the organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, said he is hopeful the recommendations will be approved.

The committee held a panel with youth advocates last week in preparation for a Feb. 8, 2018 meeting, when the full board will vote on revising statewide regulations for incarcerated youth.

The committee recommended requiring that facilities must document the use of pepper spray on youth. Advocates had been hoping for a ban. California is currently one of five states that allow guards to carry pepper spray inside youth prisons.

Sara Kruzan

Sara Kruzan, a formerly incarcerated youth and program coordinator at Healing Dialogue and Action, said this requirement is a step in the right direction, but that using pepper spray should not be tolerated.

“There is a double standard in place,” she said. “If your children got into a fight at school, it wouldn’t be acceptable to pepper spray them as a form of punishment. That would be considered abuse.”

Villa said the issue of pepper spray goes hand-in-hand with the issue of staff-to-youth ratios.

“If there were more staff members available, these facilities wouldn’t need to rely on pepper spray to handle altercations,” Villa said. “These are kids, and punishment doesn’t help their situations.”

Youth advocates proposed improving the staff-to-youth ratios, but the committee decided not to recommend action on that matter. Currently, the state requires one adult for every 10 youths during the day, and one adult to 30 youths during the night.

The committee also suggested new regulations that would prohibit the general use of shackles. Instead, the facility would be required to conduct individualized assessments before each use.

Kruzan said she is worried that this proposed regulation will fall short.

“I’m concerned about who will be making that discretion regarding shackles, and why we are still OK with shackles being used on our youth,” she said. “I can’t align myself with a system that treats youth in a way that doesn’t even match our values as a community.”

Executive Steering Committee meetings are designed to provide direction and focus to the revision process by identifying critical issues, providing direction to workgroups that propose revisions and making a final recommendation to the full board. The full board is expected to make a final decision on revisions to Juvenile Titles 15 and 24 regulations by April 2018.

Revisions to California’s regulations were last made in 2014, but there is no particular rule for when a state reviews its regulations for youth facilities, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The committee also suggested that facilities should be required to process requests for vegetarian meals, and supportive adults should not be barred from visiting incarcerated youth simply because of the adults’ conviction history.

Overall, Kruzan said these regulations should guide facilities to treat youth in a trauma-informed manner, rather than with a punitive approach.

“Anyone who is working with youth should be looking at the factors that contributed to their situations,” she said. “In my case, my trauma was never acknowledged and the phrase ‘child sex-trafficking survivor’ was never used. No one knew how to handle me, so I was criminalized.”


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

New Juvenile Mental Health Court in Texas Helps Youth Recover As They Are Held Accountable

Over two decades ago, as a favor to a friend, I walked into the very juvenile courtroom that I now have the privilege of presiding over on a daily basis. A racquetball buddy of mine found himself in need of a defense attorney for his son. When I walked into the juvenile courtroom to familiarize myself with the process prior to taking the youngster’s case, I knew right then and there that I had found my home away from home.

From day one, those alleged “juvenile delinquents” moved me in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. The young people in juvenile court are resilient, talented, unique unto themselves and capable of stunning greatness. They should not be defined nor stigmatized by the acts that brought them into the juvenile justice system.

That is not to say that they should not be held accountable for their choices. I believe young people will accept and respond to fair consequences and will react in kind if we set our expectations of them at the high watermark.

As much as I enjoy the daily docket, my heart soars in fulfilling a new role, presiding judge of the Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. SOAR Court was the brainchild of Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department. The theory behind this specialty court is that through intense services, court involvement, recommendations of a treatment team and community involvement, we can divert medium- to high-risk children with mental illnesses away from placement and instead keep them in the communities with their families.

In doing so, we can offer services and interventions not only to the child, but to everyone involved in the child’s life. Part of our mission is to build relationships between the court-impacted families and treatment providers and community resources so that when probation ends, the family is still functional and connected to local resources and assistance in their communities.

The children in SOAR have a diagnosed mental illness. Not to in any way diminish the impact of certain mental illnesses, but unlike many mental health courts, we focus on the more serious mental illnesses such as mood disorders rather than something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SOAR Court is not a substitute for children who are “unfit to proceed” or who lack “responsibility for their conduct” (Texas statutory terms).

No child should be expected to plead true to an offense if she does not have the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings and assist in her defense or appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or to “conform [her] conduct to the requirements of law” (Texas statutory definitions found in Chapter 55 of the Texas Family Code). The children in SOAR Court must be competent to enter pleas of “true” and not be entitled to the juvenile version of the “insanity defense.”

Children may be referred to SOAR by the prosecution, probation officers, community members such as police agencies and teachers, parents or the child’s attorney. The screening process is intense and involves a behavioral health assessment or psychological evaluation, application, interview and consent of the SOAR treatment team.

Once a child and family are admitted into SOAR, they will begin a journey involving individual and group therapy, family therapy, parenting classes, assessment and reassessment, participation in programs to develop social and self-advocacy skills, educational assistance and the responsibility of appearing in open court to articulate challenges and successes. In open court, each child and parent/guardian stands in front of a whole courtroom full of supporters and other SOAR participants to explain what events or conditions have been hardships since we last met and what experiences have been positive.

Incentives and sanctions are handed out in this open court setting. Such incentives and sanctions have been discussed and agreed upon in advance during a treatment team meeting. The treatment team consists of Ms. Prillwitz, a case manager, a probation officer, a state’s attorney, a defense attorney and myself. Examples of incentives include lessening of restrictions, praise by the team and the court, expansion of privileges and receipt of certificates of accomplishment. Extra community service, essay writing, restricted curfews and, as a last resort and sparingly used, detention are examples of sanctions.

SOAR consists of four phases. The first is orientation, assessment, rapport building and treatment planning. The treatment plans devised by our probation officer and caseworker are something to behold: very much individualized, intense and subject to review as the child and family progress. Stabilization comprises phase two of SOAR, followed by phase three, a transition phase wherein court involvement, probation and caseworker contact, and the intensity of services and counseling is reduced. The last phase is our aftercare and maintenance phase.

Our SOAR Court started on Nov. 1, 2016. Thus far no child has been removed from the court, and we have had one successful graduate. To call her a success is to diminish what she actually accomplished. Our first graduate progressed from being nonvocal in court to becoming a self-advocating, self-correcting, selfless member of her community — helping people in her neighborhood and church, and even block walking for a city council candidate. We see more such accomplishments in her future and in the futures of other SOAR participants.

So you might be asking what SOAR means. It means whatever it means to you and, more importantly, whatever it means to the young people in our court. The treatment team views this as a joint endeavor between us and the families. We do not propose to know all the answers, but we want to work with the families so that we can exercise trauma-informed care while focusing on strengths.

The concept behind Ms. Prillwitz’s vision was assuredly sound. Her implementation of this program was nothing short of amazing. The path to approval of and funding for a specialty court such as this is certainly not easy and involved consent from the prosecuting attorney’s office and approval of the commissioner’s court and governor’s office. However, it is all worth the effort. Now it is up to our treatment team to do all we can to help the children and families in our court SOAR!

Kimberly McCary is the judge of Denton County Court at Law Number One, Sitting as a Juvenile Court, and the judge of the Denton County Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. Before that she  was in private practice, specializing in juvenile defense work and serving as a municipal court judge.

More States Need to Halt Prosecution of Youth as Adults

This month marks one year since the passage of Proposition 57, a California ballot measure that prohibited district attorneys from filing charges against youth as young as 14 directly in adult criminal court through a practice known as “direct file.” The initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote, signaling strong popular support for curtailing prosecutorial authority and expanding access to the rehabilitative benefits of the juvenile justice system.

While juvenile courts are premised on rehabilitation and required to provide young people with education, mental health and other age-appropriate services, the adult criminal justice system offers no such guarantee. Youth placed in adult courtrooms are exposed to the trauma of stigmatizing, high-stakes proceedings and may face lengthy adult sentences devoid of rehabilitative opportunities. Furthermore, youth prosecuted and convicted as adults are saddled with lifelong criminal records, severely limiting access to education, housing and employment, and potentially impacting their right to vote or their immigration status.

Research supports the notion that adult court prosecution is fundamentally inappropriate for young people. Studies comparing youth tried in juvenile courts to those processed as adults find that criminal prosecution is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and elevated risk of rearrest after release. Though proponents of these policies claim they are necessary to deter serious crime, research has linked direct file, transfer and waiver policies to increased levels of youth violence.

Though the burden of these laws falls most heavily on youth relegated to criminal courts, the effects also filter into the juvenile justice system, disadvantaging young people who retain their status as juveniles. In states that permit prosecutors to exercise discretion over transfer petitions or the filing of adult charges, the very threat of criminal prosecution can be used to exact unfavorable plea agreements, exposing young people, unnecessarily, to additional juvenile justice system contact.

Fortunately, decadeslong reductions in youth crime have allowed the pendulum of juvenile justice policymaking to swing towards common-sense reforms that honor youthfulness and emphasize treatment over punishment. In California, Proposition 57 ensures that youth are no longer subject to unchecked prosecutorial authority and cannot be criminally prosecuted without first receiving a transfer hearing in juvenile court.

All California youth are now presumed suitable for the treatment and care of the juvenile court, and prosecutors carry the burden of proving otherwise. By law, California juvenile court judges must look beyond the seriousness of a young person’s offense and consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including their social history, mental health, level of participation in the offense and success with prior interventions, when determining whether they can be transferred to adult criminal court. By abolishing direct file and establishing a higher standard of proof for transferring youth to the adult criminal justice system, California is expected to prosecute many fewer youth as adults in the coming years.  

Several other states have introduced reforms aimed at correcting longstanding overreliance on punitive, criminal sanctions for young people. Recently, New York and North Carolina used their budget processes to expand the age bounds of their juvenile justice systems to ensure that 16- and 17-year-old youth can no longer be automatically placed in adult courtrooms.

In Indiana, state law now permits youth to be processed in juvenile court for any remaining lesser charges if they are tried and acquitted for a more serious offense in adult criminal court. This prevents prosecutors from gaining unfettered access to criminal prosecution through overcharging. In 2016, the Vermont Legislature granted original jurisdiction to the court’s Family Division in all youth misdemeanor cases and in select youth felony cases, ensuring that most young people are processed in juvenile rather than adult criminal court.

Though incremental, these reforms have the potential to lessen criminal justice system involvement for thousands of youth, bringing the U.S. one step closer to ending the unjust prosecution of youth as adults and delivering on the full rehabilitative promise of the juvenile justice system.

Misguided and reactionary policymaking eroded the core values and protections of the juvenile justice system throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet relics of these policies remain, contrasting starkly with current realities. State lawmakers must heed contemporary research, record-low rates of youth crime and increasing public support for progressive justice reforms, and act now to halt the inhumane treatment of youth as adults.

Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

Arts Seen As Crucial to Healing Youth, Changing the Juvenile Justice System

LOS ANGELES — For Jordan, growing up in Jamaica, Queens in New York City left much to be desired. One of the few places he could go after school were the youth arts programs in his neighborhood.

“It was the thing to do after school instead of being outside or doing something that could possibly get you in trouble,” he said.

One of the programs Jordan was in is Neighborhood Opportunity Networks, or NeON Arts. It’s part of New York City’s Department of Probation and is managed by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

“We did documentaries when I was a part of it,” said Jordan (who only uses his first name). “We did documentaries about kids dropping out and how it affects the community, teenage pregnancy and stuff like that.”

He was in Los Angeles as part of the Create Justice forum led by Weill and Los Angeles-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN). The initiative brought together youth leaders from around the country to share their vision for the nation’s juvenile justice system.

Programs such as those driven by the Weill Music Institute are providing space for young people to engage in the arts in a way that they may not have had otherwise.

“Because music is inherently expressive, when you invite young people in to participate in musically, and in other art forms as well, we hear stories and we hear voices that we may not have heard otherwise, or we hear them in ways that we can take in differently,” said Sarah Johnson, director of the Music Institute.

Space for young people to engage in the arts is an essential part of discussions on juvenile justice happening across the country.

Youth leader Brian speaks about his experience working with young people in the juvenile justice system to a crowd of adult advocates.

“The arts are uniquely good at creating a safe space and creating space for inclusion,” said Kaile Shilling, AIYN executive director. “A lot of the systems that young people butt up against are set up to be exclusionary, they’re set up to shut them out, make them abide by rules, and the arts gives young people, all people, really, a space to express themselves freely.”

The Create Justice event took place at the newly opened Campus Kilpatrick youth detention facility and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California, on Sept. 25 and 26.

Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu, California is part of a recent initiative called the LA Model that aims to overhaul the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County, which has one of the highest youth confinement populations in the state.

“It is a big shift in LA County probation from a custodial, correctional model to a restorative and supportive model and really seeing themselves as a continuum of care for young people,” Shilling said.

The LA Model is an initiative spawned from the Missouri Model, which focuses on rehabilitation and positive reinforcement to reduce recidivism rates. According to Shilling, what sets the LA Model apart is its focus on the arts.

“Arts should be a real partner in how we are thinking about transforming and supporting young people, not just a program coming in and out,” she said. “One of the things that’s really unique about the Kilpatrick Model, the LA Model, that they’re using here is a real commitment to integrating arts in the facility.”

Youth leaders draft protest signs based on their experience of the juvenile justice system.

While the use of art to heal young people exposed to trauma, who make up the majority of the incarcerated youth population, is not new, the integration of the arts to heal young people within the juvenile justice system has emerged only in the last several years.

The California Arts Council’s JUMP StArt grant program started in 2013 to support arts education programs for youth who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Meant to be an intervention in the school-to-prison pipeline, it requires grant recipients to demonstrate a direct collaboration between an arts organization and juvenile justice program.

One such grant recipient is Street Poets Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that uses poetry to build community and to heal at-risk youth and those who have been exposed to the juvenile justice system. Arts-based programs like Street Poets have been instrumental in changing the environment of juvenile justice facilities to foster healing.

“This practice empowers our youth to reclaim conscious control of their own stories, shifting them from the shadows where their stories may have previously controlled them,” Chris Henrikson, founder and executive director of Street Poets, said in an email.

Other youth leaders at the Create Justice initiative agreed.

“I do music, so it’s just another thing to relate to somebody,” said Brian, an intern at the Justice Scholars program in New York City. “It’s just another way to relate to a person. And the more you have to relate to a person, the more susceptible they are to opening up.”

Brian works with youth newly released from the juvenile justice system to give them support and help them find jobs.

“I feel like the problem with a lot of us is basically we don’t have an outlet,” he said. “Art can be used as an outlet and also art can be used as a vehicle to meet other people which will lead to internships, jobs, etcetera.”

Youth leaders of the Create Justice initiative gather to create art that represents the initiative’s aim to build a collective conscience of justice.

The ability of the arts to help young people gain job skills is paramount to the healing process for those who have been in the juvenile justice system. It helps young people see a future for themselves beyond facility walls by giving them job skills in creative careers.

“They also develop really important skills that are essential in the world today,” Weill’s Johnson said. “Creative problem-solving skills, they build confidence, they build collaborative skills, a lot of those social skills and behaviors that are essential to success in life.”

Shilling agrees the arts are important in helping young people find jobs once they leave the juvenile justice system. She notes that one in every six jobs in Los Angeles is in the creative economy.

The support of this arts-focused model has been instrumental helping arts programs expand their outreach. As a result of collaborations with AIYN, and grantee of JUMP StArts’ statewide and regional networks program, Street Poets has been able to build its programming to reach multiple levels of the juvenile justice system.

“We have expanded dramatically our outreach in the LA Youth Probation campus – going from three probation sites once a week to close to as much as nine to 10 twice weekly,” Henrikson said. “We’ve also started training probation officers in our methodology and have led four trainings for approximately 300 probation officers over the past two years.”

Awareness surrounding the effectiveness of the arts in healing young people and reducing recidivism rates has not gone unnoticed.

“This year, the legislature included a line-item provision of $750,000 in the Senate Budget Act to expand the JUMP StArts program. That financial infusion clearly speaks to their belief in its value,” said Josy Miller, arts education program specialist of JUMP StArts. 

Conversations about how the arts can heal young people who have been in the juvenile justice system continue to be at the forefront of the nationwide awareness of the ways institutions are failing young people, and how leaders can go about changing these systems.

“There’s a very, very, real struggle around how do we improve systems for young people and how do we really questions those systems in the first place,” Shilling said. “The arts are actually central and foundational to struggling with really hard, complex issues.”

This story has been updated.


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

We Can Hold Youths Accountable Without Life Without Parole

When I was 17, I accepted a plea agreement and 25-year prison sentence to avoid the likelihood of spending the rest of my life in prison.

I had been involved in the death of another person. Prosecutors initially charged me with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and planned to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When they offered instead to allow me to plead guilty to the robbery charge plus facilitating first-degree murder, I quickly agreed. My co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. He was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 51 years, plus 25 years.

My home state of Tennessee has yet to ban life without parole for children or penalties that are their functional equivalent. Instead, children who are not yet able to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military are told they are worth nothing more than to die in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the use of the most extreme penalties and mandated review opportunities for everyone who, as a child, received a mandatory life without parole order. Yet, as the Associated Press highlighted in a series, where a child committed a crime plays a disproportionately large role in whether their review will truly be meaningful or if they will even have one in a timely manner.

A few days before my arrest, I had been making plans for college, where I hoped to study child development and become a social worker. But I first needed to earn another credit to get out of high school and had asked the younger brother of a fellow gang member to consider enrolling with me.

Once he agreed, we sat around smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He suggested we act out a scene from a movie. Our plan was go to a convenience store, taking along two guns — one of which was nonfunctioning and the other supposedly had no bullets — to frighten the store employee and anyone who walked up. We’d grab more beer and run.

I agreed to stand watch as he went inside for what seemed like forever. Then I heard gunfire and he ran out. I went into the store and found Mr. Cantrell lying on the floor unresponsive. I ran, and we were arrested a few hours later.

I am deeply remorseful that I had a role in taking the life of another person. I can never repay what I took, and have been inspired to spend my life working to help children avoid the mistakes that I made. I also want to help create a justice system that holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways, accounts for their exposure to trauma and prepares them for reintegration into society.

My story is similar to that of many other youth who have gotten into serious trouble. Throughout my early childhood, I saw my alcoholic father physically abuse my mother. She, my siblings and I were sometimes so afraid that we hid in my bedroom, barricaded the door with furniture and prayed he would never return. I remember one particularly harrowing evening when my mother attempted to escape with the children. He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked my mother to the ground then grabbed her hair and dragged her through the mud. When she finally broke free, we drove to the police station, where she filed a restraining order against him. I was shaken to my core.

Even after my mother moved us to a new neighborhood, with a new house and a new school, my father showed up drunk late at night, creating lots of noise. The neighbors sometimes came out of their homes just to watch, and neighborhood kids mocked me at school.

By the time I was in sixth grade, though, I began to use academics as an escape from my world. That all changed when we moved again. At the new school, other kids said I spoke up too often in class and studied too much. In an effort to be more like the people around me, I stopped studying and even failed ninth grade. I also became an active gang member. I saw it as a way to end the loneliness.

I developed a practice of ending each school day at lunchtime. Before long, I began transporting and selling marijuana. My mother learned I wasn’t going to class when my high school sent a letter during my senior year, informing her that I had missed so many days of school that I would need to attend summer school in order to graduate.

That led us to that day in 1994, when marijuana, alcohol and the impulsivity of a child with a still-developing brain led me to take part in an unthinkable crime.

While in prison, I grew up. I denounced my gang membership, earned my GED, became a licensed barber and studied psychology and child development. These classes helped me understand the impact of the trauma that I and others had experienced and enabled me to counsel others in denouncing their gang memberships.

In addition, I completed anger management counseling and joined the Parents in Prison group, which helped men focus on the needs of their children. I was not a parent, so I spent the next year thinking about my needs as a child and how those needs could be addressed for children in situations similar to what I had experienced.

On my third visit to the parole board — and after I had served 10 years — the board granted my release. I stayed in Nashville and worked for a barbershop for a while. Then I began volunteering in a local school, working with children who were disruptive in the classroom, teaching them conflict resolution skills and helping them access other services they needed. I was then asked to do this work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Community Health Corps in Nashville, then as a full-time employee of the agency.

I was later was hired to direct a YMCA of Middle Tennessee outreach program that provided services to 25 to 30 students each year who faced issues similar to what I had experienced as a middle school student. Along the way, I also helped found the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network comprised of and led by individuals who went to prison as children for serious crimes and are now out living productive lives. All our members were charged with homicide-related crimes and/or faced life without parole as a child.

My original 25-year sentence expired March 3, 2016. I had no infractions during my 12 years of parole. A year later, I joined the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where we work to replace life without parole and other extreme penalties for children with age-appropriate accountability that accounts for children’s experiences and unique capacity for change.

I’ve dedicated every day of my free life to demonstrating that I am worthy of this second chance. I’ve tried to make sure fewer families suffer the same losses as the Cantrell family. I’ve poured myself into the lives of many.

And I am not unique. The members of ICAN, which I now help to coordinate, do the same, as do many other formerly incarcerated youth I have never met. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. We just need an opportunity to prove it.

Eric Alexander is youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He is a founder, member and coordinator of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: Providing Support for Trauma-Exposed Youth i

Juvenile Law Center

Youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: They have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely — and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.

Indeed, although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment and be contributing members to society — most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors.

In particular, many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75 percent of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate these conditions, leading to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful systemwide effort.

That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years, Listenbee was later appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.

Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a systemwide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.

Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further exacerbating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs.

In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.

Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.

At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.

Patrick Took is a legal intern at the Juvenile Law Center.

This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It has been slightly edited and is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.

Role of Law Enforcement in Our Schools Can Be Supportive, Benign

Marie WilliamsAs fall rolls around, parents and young people are preparing for a new school year. So too are teachers, school administrators and, in many places, school-based police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In its 2015 report on public school safety and discipline, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police personnel working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. With such a significant presence of law enforcement within our educational institutions, the time is ripe to re-examine and reimagine their role.

In 2013-14, 13 percent of all public schools reported at least one serious violent incident, and 2 percent reported at least one physical attack or fight with a weapon. Fifty-eight percent reported physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and 56 percent reported threats of physical violence (9 percent of which included a weapon and 47 percent that did not). Overall, the rate of serious violent incidents per 1,000 students was 0.5.

Regardless of how one might answer the question of whether the presence of police officers in schools is, or is not, a deterrent to serious violence, it is clear that since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, we, as a society, have been unwilling to accept the risk of violence. But increasingly, school-based police officers and SROs are being charged, not only with addressing violence, but also with removing from schools those children who are deemed to be disruptive to the educational environment. Across the nation, children are subject to removal, and even arrest, not only for things they do but oftentimes for things they do not do, including subjective infractions such as “defiance” and “noncompliance.”

We all remember the 2015 video recording from a South Carolina school where a girl was put in a headlock and thrown to the ground by a male police officer who had been called because she refused a teacher’s order to put away a cellphone. Not only was the excessive force shocking, but later, when the totality of the girl’s circumstances came to light, the system failure was even starker. At the time of her arrest, she was undergoing several familial challenges and was in foster care. Though it is impossible in hindsight to say whether those challenges were responsible for her refusal to cooperate that day, what is clear is that in an ideal world, an inquiry into her personal circumstances would have at least been made.

Among the children excluded from schools each year, an estimated 50 to 75 percent have behavioral or mental health needs and some estimates say as many as 70 percent have cognitive or learning challenges that may make school settings unreceptive, or even hostile, places for them.  

Additionally, there are children whose home and family circumstances make it difficult to attend school on a regular basis, focus and perform up to standards when they do attend, or respond appropriately to teachers and other authority figures. Other children may be victims of abuse or other trauma, making them more likely to be triggered by the rules, strictures or approaches that are typical of the school environment.

At the very least, these data suggest that we may be overusing and misusing the most extreme tool at our disposal in an effort to preserve the peace in our learning spaces. In Philadelphia, following many years of experience in the police department, and after rising to the level of deputy police commissioner, Kevin Bethel began to suspect as much.

As deputy commissioner, Bethel and his officers found that too often, children arrested in schools were no real threat to the public and were certainly not “delinquent.” Instead, they were more likely to be “defiant,” “insolent,” “belligerent” and in some cases “disruptive”— adjectives that, in the most benign interpretation, could be considered accurate descriptors of normal adolescent behavior, but could also be seen as indicators of a need for supportive social services.

With the cooperation of law enforcement, the juvenile courts and, perhaps most notably, the Department of Human Services, in 2012, former Deputy Commissioner Bethel began to reimagine the role of law enforcement in the School District of Philadelphia.

After developing memoranda of agreement and a process with his partners, Bethel started small — rather than arresting students for minor, nonviolent offenses, school-based police officers and SROs would divert these children and give them and their families the option to receive case management and support services.

In the first academic year (2014-15) of the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, arrests declined 54 percent and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the schools. And just as important, through the program’s intervention, hundreds of children and their families gained access to services they might not otherwise have received.

The Philadelphia experience reinforces what we already know from the data — that children funneled into the juvenile justice system are often not “bad” but rather in need of services, and that, all too often, schools become a pipeline to prison rather than a pathway to success. By simply reimagining the role of law enforcement in our schools, and by refocusing their presence toward helping students and their families, we might just restore our youth, our schools and our communities along the way.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

Public Health, Juvenile Justice System Reformers Are on Common Ground

It’s not every day that people working on health collaborate closely with people who think about how to reform the juvenile justice system. I was recently part of a research project that did just that.

I’m a public health researcher. Recently, my organization, Human Impact Partners, researched and wrote a report looking at how youth arrest can have a lifelong harmful impact for a person. Our report, Reducing Youth Arrests Keeps Kids Healthy and Successful, found that having a youth arrest would:

  • Increase anxiety, stress and other mental health issues
  • Increase the risk of injury and premature mortality
  • Increase labeling as “delinquent,” stigmatization and risk of further rearrest due to labeling
  • Lower opportunity due to higher rates of dropout and unemployment — all of which have well-established ties to long-term health.

We worked with public health departments (Washtenaw County Public Health and the Detroit Health Department), the Michigan Public Health Institute, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and faith-based community organizers MOSES.

At the same time, one of our collaborating partners, the Michigan Council, had done primary research into youth diversion practices across the entire state of Michigan. Their study, Restoring Kids, Restoring Communities, found that diversion practices varied widely due to varying resources, capacity and philosophies in counties — and less than 1 in 5 actually evaluate their programs. They found that 90 percent of youth diversion program services begin only after a youth has already been arrested due in part to a financial incentive for post-arrest diversion — counties are reimbursed by the state for youth services only after a petition has been filed with the court.

For both our organizations, some of the main recommendations were to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior, train professionals to de-escalate problem behavior before an arrest is necessary and to divert youth away from the juvenile system pre-arrest. This would lead to better health and opportunity outcomes for youth, as well as less involvement in the juvenile system.

As a researcher new to the juvenile justice world, I was surprised about how many policies, programs and interventions exist that would decrease the harmful effects of arrest. Several promising practices we highlighted were:

  • Civil citations programs for youth: Instead of arresting youth for misbehaviors, law enforcement officials can issue a citation to divert them from the juvenile justice system, holding them accountable for their actions while offering supports such as early intervention, counseling, education and other programming. A study of a statewide civil citations program in Florida show that youth in pre-arrest diversion programs are 2.5 times less likely to reoffend. And the program is so cost-effective that they are exploring making civil citations mandatory for several juvenile offenses. In one year, a civil citations program in Florida saved the state at least $13 million.
  • Training police who come into contact with youth about youth development, such as StopWatch, which trained subway police officers and decreased youth arrests from 680 in 2001 to 84 in 2009.
  • Expunging prior arrests from people’s records. A Stanford University study found that average change in yearly income after expungement was almost $6,200, and a Michigan State University paper about expungement for youth found higher rates of college attendance and future earnings.
  • And other restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches.

Several diversion programs that the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency highlighted in their report include:

  • The Ingham Teen Court. Youth charged with first-time misdemeanors as well as local students facing suspension/expulsion can have their cases heard before a jury of their peers, rather than face formal court involvement.
  • Wayne County Right TRAC program and prevention services. Wayne County has attracted nationwide attention for their Juvenile Assessment Center, which uses an evidence-based assessment tool to create treatment plans for youth both post-arrest (Right TRAC) but also simply when they are referred for behavioral issues.
  • Washtenaw County Sky Squad. A student-led restorative justice practice where student volunteers lead restorative circles with students in conflict who are at risk of suspension or expulsion and work collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Several of our partners are now moving forward in Detroit and Washtenaw County to try to implement some of the recommendations from the reports.

The funny thing is that while our worlds — juvenile justice system and public health — are worlds away, our philosophies were very similar. Let’s decrease the reach of law enforcement in the lives of children and support them with opportunities to live a fulfilling, successful and healthy life.

Kim Gilhuly leads Human Impact Partners’ Health Instead of Punishment program, which uses public health research, advocacy and capacity building to reform the criminal justice system. She is also responsible for convening alliances of public health and criminal justice stakeholders to advocate for a public health approach to our criminal justice problems.

Don’t Be Traumatized by Trauma

In today’s world, academics, practitioners and even lay people throw around terms or buzzwords such as “best practices” or “evidence-based practices” or “transformation efforts” when discussing juvenile justice practices and needs. These phrases are embedded in every conversation, training session and publication specific to juvenile justice. Yet too often these terms remain vague and disconnected from our daily work with juveniles.

One of these buzzwords is the term “trauma.” I openly admit that our court service unit until recent years only addressed trauma issues as it related to female offenders and only after the girls penetrated into the deep end of the system.

Such a practice continued until, as an organization, we:

  1. openly acknowledged the potential existence of trauma in the lives of all those we serve
  2. committed to learning appropriate ways of identifying trauma and
  3. implemented a systemwide process for addressing trauma.

Our court service unit is fortunate to have an embedded therapeutic group home for girls. It was here we saw the impact that traumatic life events have on the neurological and emotional development of the girls in the program. We took steps within the program to create “trauma-safe” counseling environments and trained staff on different intervention modalities. These interventions assist clients suffering from traumatic life events that in part led to their involvement with the juvenile justice system.

For more information about MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE, go to JJIE Resource Hub | MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE

While we were doing a good job at addressing trauma in that therapeutic environment, we identified an obvious gap in services. The fact that we were waiting to address traumatic life events until the youth was removed from their community, home and school did a disservice to our children. Instead we recognized that addressing such issues early on in the justice process could improve short- and long-term outcomes for those we serve.

Over the next several years, we conducted occasional trainings on topics specific to trauma such as retraumatization, interviewing clients of the opposite sex and how to ask difficult or personal questions. However, these trainings were few and far between. We allowed the sensitive nature surrounding the trauma issue, and frankly the fear of doing more harm than good, to inhibit us in moving forward. We struggled to implement an effective strategy to become a fully trauma-informed and trauma-responsive organization.

After we identified the “fear factor” associated with even uttering the word trauma, we were able to develop a better understanding around the importance of addressing trauma and the impact it has on the population we serve. This occurred through a series of trainings regarding the very existence of significant amounts of trauma in the lives of juvenile offenders, the importance of addressing trauma when seeking improved outcomes for children and how to effectively engage children in a trauma-specific conversation.

This allowed the organization to move from being trauma-scared to becoming trauma-informed. As a result of training and lots of practicing, we have made tremendous strides in the recognition of trauma and how to appropriately address the issue with our clients. In the past three years we implemented a basic trauma training required for all agency employees that has been adopted for all county employees.

In addition, we have worked to educate not just our employees but our partners, including judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors, on the importance of addressing trauma in our clients as well as secondary and vicarious trauma in ourselves.

We also established an interagency trauma response team designed to develop, implement and support trauma-informed practices, assuring the agency responds responsibly to the impact of trauma on clients and their families. We developed a resource guide to aid probation officers and other staff when making community referrals. To better meet our clients’ needs, we are participating in a pilot study of the STRESS assessment tool designed to identify trauma experiences and symptoms in juveniles. Staff use this assessment when completing social history reports to inform case planning and to guide community referrals when needed.

Once we were able to set the fear of addressing trauma aside and embrace the need to include the impact of trauma in our case management decision-making and service delivery, we realized that secondary trauma, the trauma staff endure daily, needed to be addressed as well. Our interagency trauma team leads this effort, providing support and training with the goal of empowering staff to build resiliency, meet the needs of their clients and maintain a healthy work/life balance.

In an effort to make sure staff and managers are aware of secondary trauma and the need for taking care of themselves mentally and physically, we implemented specialized training, encouraged the usage of “working from home” options and prepared a guide for accessing free mental health and physical health service within the community.   

Acknowledging the existence of trauma and its impact on service delivery and client outcomes has proven to be one of the best things we have done as part of our overall juvenile justice transformation efforts. Conversations about trauma, especially when asking highly sensitive questions involving a child’s past experience, are not easy and are not comfortable.

That being said, we can no longer ignore the presence of trauma in the lives of those we serve if we are truly committed to fulfilling our role as change agents. Now that we know better, we should do better.

I openly admit that transitioning from avoiding the trauma issue to becoming a trauma-informed and responsive organization wasn’t easy, but the value of that transformation is facilitating better outcomes for the children we serve. If we as service providers don’t take the trauma issue straight on, we are doing the children who are counting on us for help a disservice.

Robert A. Bermingham Jr. is the director of court services for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Fairfax, Virginia, and serves as a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice’s Probation System Review Practice Network.

This column has been updated.