Family of Evan Miller and His Murder Victim Testify in Resentencing

MOULTON, Alabama —In his decade-plus behind bars, teen killer Evan Miller has grown into an intelligent man hoping to one day help others in danger of repeating his mistakes, his sister testified today.

Aubrey Miller Goldstein told wrenching stories of growing up with drug-addicted parents, seemingly random beatings and a string of evictions from roach-ridden homes as Miller’s lawyers tried to win him a chance at parole one day.

“He’s remarkably well-balanced. Intelligent. Poetic,” Goldstein said. “He’s a deep thinker. He’s reflective, contemplative — and remorseful.

“He wants good to come from this,” she added. “He wants to be able to help others, to stop it before it happens. To help troubled teens, troubled youth. He would do very well.”

Miller, now 28, was the marquee name on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. He was 14 when he killed a neighbor, Cole Cannon, robbing the man, setting his mobile home on fire and leaving him for dead.

He’s back before an Alabama court for resentencing this week — a painful reprise of events that have riven two families. Prosecutors hoping to keep Miller locked up for good have been sketching a portrait of an unrepentant, manipulative inmate unchanged by his years behind bars. Cannon’s family members aren’t buying any talk of repentance.

“It’s as if I keep being slapped in the face with constant, unbearable grief,” Cannon’s youngest daughter, Jodie Fuller, testified Monday.

Violence, filth, horror stories

In more than two hours of testimony, Goldstein said her father, David Miller, was a truck driver who’d spend most of the week on the road. He’d come home seething, “almost looking for something to get angry about,” and beat them with a leather belt with a heavy buckle — an accessory Goldstein said her father wore as a weapon. The boys — younger brother Evan and older brother John — occasionally got kicked with his steel-toed boots, too.

“It could happen every day. It could happen more than once a day,” she said.

Goldstein said she has a finger that doesn’t move properly due to damage to one of her knuckles from that belt. Evan, the youngest, had a seemingly permanent welt across one buttock, “the perfect shape of a belt.” Their father once killed a kitten that had urinated on the kitchen floor, slamming it against a wall and forcing his children to watch as it died.

Goldstein recounted these stories in a soft, even tone, struggling for composure only when she recounted the constant filth and roaches. The family left cleaning to her when she was barely out of kindergarten.

Miller sat tight-lipped during the proceedings, dressed in gray-and-white prison stripes. He grimaced occasionally as his sister testified, glancing occasionally at the spectators’ benches.

The family moved from house to house, racking up a chain of evictions across several north Alabama towns. Child welfare agencies in four counties had files on the family — documents that Miller’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative, which won the Supreme Court decision on his behalf, presented to the judge to buttress Goldstein’s testimony. The cops got called several times, including once when older brother John took refuge at a neighbor’s house and the neighbor faced their father down with a shotgun to protect him, Goldstein said.

[Related articles: ‘Get Tough,’ Then Another Positive Supreme Court Decision Drops]

But their mother repeatedly passed on pressing charges, even when her husband threatened her with a gun. Goldstein recounted hiding behind a police car after calling officers to their home in that incident, only to have the officer tell her there was nothing he could do. She was 11. Meanwhile, she said, their mother told the children horror stories about foster care to keep them from telling the truth about what was happening at home.

Foster care

The children finally were taken away when her father bruised her eye the night before Goldstein and her younger brother went to a summer camp run by child welfare authorities. They spent 17 months with a foster family – a stretch that saw the children get basics like clothes and regular meals, as well as structure and rational discipline.

“The Millers let us love them,” said Tiffani Alldredge, whose parents took in the children. “Out of all the foster siblings we ever had, they were the only ones who let us love them and loved us back.”

However, on cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney pointed to reports that Evan Miller once tried to choke Alldredge during a fight over a basketball game, and his foster parents noted in reports that the boy “lies so much I can’t believe him.” Alldredge said she didn’t remember the childhood fight.

Prosecutors also introduced Miller’s prison disciplinary record, which listed infractions for jailhouse tattoos and possession of a contraband cell phone.

While her kids were in foster care, Suzi Miller left her husband. She got supervised visits with the children, and eventually got custody of them. They went to live with her in a mobile home park where Goldstein said drug use was rampant and the home was “chaos.”

Evan had flourished in foster care and didn’t want to go back. And soon, everyone in the family was drinking, smoking pot or using speed. And that put them on a collision course with Cannon, who was trying to turn around his own struggle with alcoholism, his children testified. He’d had to sign his home over to their mother to keep the bank from taking it, leaving him renting a trailer in a mobile home park next to the Millers.

On the witness stand Monday, Cannon’s two daughters and son recounted how they’ve struggled to move on since their father’s killing — particularly since the Supreme Court tossed out Miller’s original sentence nearly five years ago, they said.

“All I have heard from EJI is, ‘Evan was just a child.’ Well, so was I,” Fuller said.

Fuller, sister Candy Cheatham and brother Sandy Cannon told of homecoming pageants, weddings and birthdays at which their father was absent, grandchildren asking about the “Pawpaw Cole” they’ll never meet.

“He has a name,” Cheatham said, looking directly at Miller. “In many documents, in many statements, in many hearings, his name has not been mentioned ... but his name was Cole Cannon. He was a person.”

Fuller said her father’s death sent her into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. But she recovered and became a police officer, and said Miller could have made similar choices. Instead, she said, her father’s killer hasn’t shown any remorse, “and I don’t think he ever will.”

“I truly believe with his lack of remorse that he will kill again if he’s ever released from prison,” Fuller said.

More related articles:

The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate

Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. 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.

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‘Get Tough,’ Then Another Positive Supreme Court Decision Drops

Judge Steven Teske(Part 3)

Does anyone want the rest of their life defined by what they did at 14?

I don’t think so, and neither does our Supreme Court.

We have come a long way since the first juvenile court in 1899. I have compared our juvenile justice journey to a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, and to the frustrations of piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

Just when things seem to be at the lowest, and we can’t find pieces that fit, the Supreme Court drops a landmark decision that sends our ride soaring again, and a few puzzle pieces are found. That brings a sigh of relief and the hopeful feeling that putting the remaining pieces in place is just a matter of time.

The court first slapped us into a sobering reality in the ’60s with the In re Gault decision. That reminded us that kids too are deserving of the due process needed to temper our passions when reacting to a kid’s misbehavior. Too often those reactions are impulsive and ineffective, if not harmful.

What happened to 15-year-old Jerry Gault not only violated his right to due process, but also violated the principles of good parenting.

Should a parent punish their child without some evidence that he is guilty of the accusation? And assuming the parent doesn't believe their child’s innocent plea, is it right for a parent to ground their child at age 15 to his room until age 21, and for a nonviolent prank committed by many teenagers?

Of course the answer is no, but that is what the judge did to Jerry. I wonder if that judge would have treated his own son the same way?

I seriously doubt it, but that's what happens when juvenile court judges fail to exercise the most basic parenting principles while sitting on the bench. The concepts of due process and good parenting are very similar and overlap.

In his book, “The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting,” Laurence Steinberg provides guidelines based on the top social science research for good parenting. Among those 10 principles, and the most important one, is that what you do as a parent matters. Kids are watching us, mimicking us and how we treat them will decide how they treat others.

Treat your child with respect is another important principle, he says, because “Children treat others the way their parents treat them.”

Steinberg states that not only is respectful treatment of children necessary, but it must be consistent, which goes to the heart of due process. Our disposition toward the kids in the courtroom must be consistent, and that disposition must always be respectful. That's why we call it due process.

What does it say about judges who don’t practice fair treatment when the kids before them have been treated unfairly at home?

When we fail to display common decency from the bench, we validate the mistreatment they receive at home. For children such behavior from adults becomes the norm, and so these kids treat others just as they have been treated, and they go on to commit crimes.

There are too many in our society who complain about the inconvenience of due process, how it works in favor of the accused and promotes crime. The irony is that fairness works to reduce crime, especially among kids whose brains are still developing.

Fairness is about doing what is right, and what is right is about dignity, and dignity is about decency, and decency is about respectability. When a system is not fair, children will not learn to do what is right, dignified, decent and respectable. It’s difficult enough that many kids come to our courtrooms without these values, and this is why many end up in our courtrooms, but we make them worse when the system behaves like the parents who don’t model good parenting skills.

[Related: The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls]

Good parenting also demands that we explain our rules and decisions to our children, and this is true in how we process fairness in the courtroom. The juvenile court is set apart from all other courts because they are places for “carpe diem” moments, to teach kids fairness by doing due process.

The Gault roller coaster climb lasted about two decades until professor John Dilulio’s prediction of “superpredator kids” created fear among lawmakers. This prediction was a myth, but the damage was done. States passed laws in response to this prediction, treating kids as adults and making incarceration an easier option for judges.

Looking back at this “get tough” trend of the ’90s, it can be characterized as a cancer recurrence. The Gault decision is the chemotherapy that sent the cancer that infected the adjudication stage into remission, but two decades later those unnoticed cells spread to the disposition stage.

Kids may be getting the process due them, but the cancer shifted its attack to hurting kids in a different way — executing or incarcerating them, sometimes for life, and sometimes without the possibility of parole.

Let’s lock ’em up and throw away the key, but no worries because on the way there we gave them notice, an opportunity to confront their accusers, a lawyer and a fair trial.

So long as we gave the kid due process, we can do whatever we want to him. Or can we?

“No, you can’t,” said the Supreme Court.

And just like that, when we thought we couldn't find any more missing pieces to our puzzle, and the roller coaster was at another low, the Supreme Court came through again, 38 years after the Gault decision, ruling that kids can’t be executed and they can’t be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The justices admonished us, saying it’s not good enough that kids are treated fairly on the road to sentencing. Once they arrive to be sentenced, the state can’t impose a sentence that’s contrary to “the evolving standards of common decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

They reminded us that due process is not only about the fairness of the process, but it’s also about the validity of the law for which one must be fairly processed.

The Supremes seized upon the medical findings that the prefrontal lobe of our brains, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25. That's right, kids are wired to do stupid things, and for no explanation except they are kids.

There is something wrong, or indecent, about executing an underdeveloped brain or incarcerating it for life with no chance for release.

It’s called the Eighth Amendment, or the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Those juvenile justice practitioners who had already seized upon the teenage brain research to reduce reliance on detention and emphasize evidence-based programs were empowered by the court’s decisions to stay the course.

Others followed suit beginning in the late 2000s, including governors, legislatures and even judges, executing, codifying and ordering reforms of different kinds and in places outside the justice arena. This continues to this day, which brands our contemporary era of juvenile justice as revolutionary.

With the election of a new president, many are anxious about what this means for juvenile justice. Will the roller coaster take its plunge, or will the puzzle pieces become difficult to find?

There is no turning back, even if the president tries to eliminate federal support of states doing what works for youth.

And that's because the revolution is grounded in what works, and that is forever. A president has a lifespan of eight years.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

More related articles:

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

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Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate

Teen Behind Landmark Juvenile Decision Back Before Judge to Be Resentenced

MOULTON, Alabama — Hundreds of others have received new sentences since the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole terms for juveniles.

Now, the man whose name is on that decision gets his chance.

Evan Miller goes back before an Alabama judge for what’s expected to be a multiday resentencing hearing Monday. Miller was 14 when he and a friend killed and robbed neighbor Cole Cannon in a haze of drugs and alcohol in 2003. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down his sentence in a landmark 2012 decision, and his lawyers will argue this week that he should have a chance at parole someday.

In addition to recounting his youth and a long history of abuse, neglect and depression, attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative — which took Miller’s case to the Supreme Court — are expected to bring evidence about the science of brain development, which underpinned the justices’ ruling. Scientists now believe the parts of the adolescent brain that control emotional, risk-taking behavior aren’t fully developed until after the teenage years.

“The result of this developmental process means that adolescents will not think like or process like adults will until probably their mid-20s,” said Robert Kinscherff, a forensic scientist and attorney at the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience — a joint venture of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“In midadolescence, they are wired for maximum stimulation and learning at exactly the same time that their ability to perceive risk and apply it to their own situation is at its least well-developed,” he said.

Scientists had “a pretty good ballpark idea” of that when Miller went to prison. “But the decade since, we’ve become much more precise in describing the process of development and correlating them with specific neural networks that are in the process of developing through adolescence,” Kinscherff said.

The justices cited that evidence in finding that teenagers shouldn’t automatically get locked away for life. But Kinscherff said lower courts have applied those findings unevenly. In some states, judges have struck down tough mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles based on what’s now known about brain development, while others have been slow to resentence teens eligible for reduced terms under the Miller v. Alabama decision and a 2016 follow-up that made it retroactive.

[Related: The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls]

A jury in Moulton convicted Miller of capital murder in 2006. Under Alabama law, the jury has a choice of one of two penalties for that crime: death, or life without parole. But since the Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty for juveniles before his case came to trial, jurors had only one option for Miller.

In striking down Miller’s sentence, the justices didn’t eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders completely — they just barred its automatic application. So Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could hand down the same term at the end of this week’s proceeding. But Miller’s lawyers say the state must show their now 28-year-old client is “irreparably corrupt” with no prospect of rehabilitation before he can do so.

In a November hearing, Craig said he “is not going to trivially send anyone to prison for the remainder of their life.”

Prosecutors from the Alabama attorney general’s office, meanwhile, will be arguing that Miller deserved every bit of that original sentence.

A jury in Moulton found Miller guilty of beating, robbing and killing the 52-year-old Cannon in 2006. Cannon was left for dead in his mobile home, which Miller and another teen set ablaze to cover up the crime. An accomplice took a plea deal that got him life with a chance at parole, testifying that he and Miller smoked marijuana and played drinking games with Cannon until the man passed out — then they beat him with a baseball bat, and lifted his wallet and baseball card collection.

By the time he got to Cannon’s trailer, Miller had survived years of physical abuse and four suicide attempts, according to testimony in his trial. He’d been placed in foster care at age 10, only to be returned to the custody of his mother, who was struggling with alcohol and drugs herself.

Much of that painful history is expected to be revisited this week, with family members on both sides of the case once again sitting on the courthouse benches.

“It’s going to be a very prominent hearing even and a very visible decision, no matter what the judge says,” Kinscherff said.

More related articles:

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

Righting the Wrong: Michael Johnson

Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate

Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. 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.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

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The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls

Have you heard of the Bordentown School? Founded by the Rev. Walter Rice, Bordentown — officially named the New Jersey Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth — was a co-ed public boarding school for black students, run by the state of New Jersey between 1886 and 1955. Dubbed the “Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the exclusive school focused on preparing young black men and women to be future leaders, emphasizing vocational training in addition to academics.

That was until the Supreme Court’s seminal 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation in public schools. Bordentown closed one year later.

And today, on a campus that once served as a pinnacle of black excellence and achievement, attracting visits from such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson, sits New Jersey’s only youth prison for girls — the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility.

Bordentown is, quite literally, the school-to-prison pipeline realized.

As we reflect on the importance of Women’s History Month, the transformation of Bordentown from a historic place of learning to a female youth prison should inspire us to fight for our state’s young girls now locked up behind these prison walls.

The stories of our young incarcerated women are too often ignored. But this disregard stands in stark contrast to the realities of how our prison system uniquely impacts girls. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of girls involved in the juvenile justice system has increased at every stage of the process, even as overall youth arrests have declined.

[Related: Next Administration Needs to Close Youth Prisons, Experts Say]

This increase is due, in part, to racially discriminatory policy decisions that determine which kids get sentenced to incarceration and which kids don’t. These policy decisions have had a particularly devastating impact on girls of color; black girls are currently the fastest-growing group in the juvenile justice population, even though black and white youth commit similar offenses at similar rates. Indeed, black girls were nearly three times as likely as white young women to be referred to court for delinquency in 2013.

These racial disparities are also present in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system — as of Feb. 10, 75 percent of the girls committed to state juvenile facilities are black or Hispanic.

In addition to these unacceptable racial disparities, incarcerating our state’s girls does not make financial sense. New Jersey currently spends $25,008,000 each year to operate the Juvenile Medium Security Center — which includes the girls’ youth prison and the Juvenile Medium Secure Facility, the highest-level youth prison for boys. And locking our girls away make even less sense because the girls’ youth prison is severely underutilized. As of March 2015, the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility housed only eight girls out of a capacity for 48.

Research has also shown that youth incarceration actually increases recidivism rates, and is contrary to the developmental and emotional needs of our young people. Incarcerated girls, in particular, come from particularly vulnerable and traumatized backgrounds: 90 percent of incarcerated girls nationwide report some form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Yet, instead of receiving the treatment and services they so desperately need, close to their families and communities, these girls are being locked behind prison walls far away from home.

So what can be done?

As the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice outlined in its recent report, “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child?” New Jersey must shift to a community-based system of care, where emphasis is placed on keeping our children home with their families. To achieve this goal, we must shift funding away from underused, archaic and overpriced youth prisons to community-based intervention, prevention, diversion and incarceration alternative programming.

Not only are these programs more cost-effective, but they have been shown to protect public safety and reduce recidivism. Specifically, these programs must be tailored to address the distinct needs of young women, and must also include such methods as trauma-informed care.

In the narrative of criminal justice reform, we cannot overlook our young girls and how they are uniquely impacted by the system. Instead of pouring our money into incarceration, we should return to making our investments in the types of facilities that Bordentown once was, not what it has become. Just as we must always remember the history of Bordentown, we should continue to speak the names of those young girls, now locked away behind closed doors on that once hallowed ground.

They must not be forgotten.

Andrea McChristian is associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She is the primary author of the Institute report on racial disparities in the New Jersey juvenile justice system, “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child.”

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New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

WASHINGTON — A large majority of Americans say the juvenile justice system must place more emphasis on rehabilitating youthful offenders and focus far less on punishment and prison, according to a survey released today.

The poll of 1,001 adults showed agreement across racial and political lines, with all demographics saying kids who commit crimes deserve a second chance, and that society is better off helping the teens than tossing them into prison. Sponsored by the nonprofit Youth First Initiative, the survey results were not markedly different from the group’s 2016 poll, but did show participants continue to want more aggressive rehabilitative efforts.

“I think the poll shows policymakers that they should be doing this,” said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the initiative. “Young people should be given opportunities, not punishment. You can hold people accountable without incarceration.”

The results are just the latest proof that Americans want to see a different approach, she said.

“For too long too many states have pursued a tough on crime strategy that falls back on past prejudices and assumptions and doesn’t take into account the large body of research identifying evidence-based practices that work,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, co-chair of the House Crime Prevention and Youth Development Caucus. “More and more states and cities are now moving towards intervention-prevention mechanisms that keep our kids from getting in trouble in the first place, and focus on rehabilitation."

Roughly 80 percent of participants favored education and preventative measures over a punitive approach when asked a series of questions about youth offenders and the impact on society. The number of respondents saying families should be involved in designing treatment and rehabilitation plans for juveniles charged with crimes reached 90 percent, slightly higher than last year’s survey.

For more information about Evidence-Based Practices, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Evidence-Based Practices

Ryan said she was encouraged by poll results that show support for rehabilitation was virtually equal in every region of the country. White people without a college degree — a sturdy base of support for President Donald Trump — had the same opinions on reform as minority respondents to the survey.

Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said that isn’t a surprise.

“I think there are a couple reasons for it, and the main one is that people really do believe children are different than adults and deserve a second chance,” she said. “The other is you’ve seen a 50 percent drop in youth incarceration over the past decade, and at the same time you are seeing less arrests of juveniles.

“I think the general public understands that locking up kids leads to more crime, not less,” she said. “If you treat people with dignity and provide services you can actually help reduce crime.”

The numbers in favor of more progressive approaches to youth incarceration become slightly lower when the subject turns to financial benefits of rehabilitation vs. incarceration, and on whether less punitive measures work as well as harsher methods.

For example, while 94 percent of participants agreed that the most important job of the juvenile justice system is to make sure teens get back on track and never commit new crimes, not all agreed on the best way to make that happen. Only 69 percent of respondents said that making sure teens take responsibility for their actions can be done without some time behind bars.

About one-quarter of the participants said counseling and education aren’t enough to keep youth offenders from committing new crimes. Still, nearly 90 percent said states should have financial incentives to keep offering preventive programs and counseling.

The survey results, and the slight uptick in support for progressive measures from a year earlier, continue a trend away from incarcerating youth. Ninety-four percent said the justice system’s most important job is making sure youth get their lives “back on track” and refrain from future crime.

Congress tilted toward that approach last year, although not without some resistance. A bipartisan reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act would have, among other things, blocked judges from jailing  juveniles for violating court orders if the underlying offense — such as truancy or underage tobacco use — was only a crime when committed by juveniles.

It sailed through the House and had the support of Senate leaders, only to be blocked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Cotton had insisted that local judges should be able to incarcerate youth at their own discretion if court orders are violated.

“I think Tom Cotton’s behavior is bad behavior. We’ve made a lot of progress in the past two years, but now we have to start all over with a new Congress,” Mistrett said. “We had great leadership from Sen. Chuck Grassley [R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee], and we are going to keep working with them.”

This story has been updated.

Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. 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.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Righting the Wrong: Michael Johnson

On probation by 14 and in prison by 19, 34-year-old Michael Johnson grew up around people who were dismissive of his hopes for a better future, and his history certainly dimmed his work prospects.

"Trying the positive thing out for so long and the doors are shut in your face, of course you're going to [focus on] the negative," said Johnson.

He talks about the impact of negativity and finding help in the latest installment of "Righting the Wrong" series.

The Night My Sister Saved Me

OK, this is a hard one for me to write for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that I must hold myself accountable, as well as be held by all who will read this.

This is not something that I freely talked about with anyone, and in holding with tradition in mi familia, once the initial repercussions were dealt with, it was generally left alone for each party to "deal with as they chose." I do not recommend this method of dealing with family ills.

My sister Barbara (Bobbi) is the oldest of five of us and I am the youngest, by 11 years to my next sibling and 26 years younger than my sis. And yes, technically they are all steps.

But hey, no one ever told me, and step or no, Bobbi and I have a connection that borders on mystical. She was also the only one who spoke up when my parents announced that they were going to have another child, saying "Great, and you two both think you're not gonna make the same mistakes you made raising your first two kids?" And then to herself she vowed to be there when they weren't, or couldn't be, which turned out to be quite a bit.

Now, for my parents. Let's just say that the only true function of my home was dysfunction. My father used to play a game, with permissions; I would ask him if I could do something and he would tell me to ask my mother. And if the answer was in the affirmative, he would instill his conditions. If the answer were in the negative, he would overrule the decision. Thus effectively cutting my mother off at the knees as a decision- making parent.

I was being shown daily where the roles and the rules lie; my father being the one with the power, my mother forced into the role of the nonentity. Make my dinners, clean my house and take care of the kids and make it work without complaint. You have everything you could ever want and it all comes from Me. I have everything under control. Yeah, everything except for me.

As I grew, I was fed information and beliefs that, while they may have worked for my father, they were no good for me.

My middle brother, who is 16 years older than me, fed me drugs from an insanely early age, which had me in the grips of a full-blown addiction and sent away to rehab at the age of 12.

I was an altar boy in a Catholic church, running the streets and using drugs, and trying to emulate an egomaniacal mob enforcer who I called Dad, never learning to defer to or respect the person who had carried me for nine months and brought me squalling into this world.

In the summer of '95 I had recently been released from state prison and my father was due home from federal prison within a few weeks. My mother was taking care of the home and Francis, my closest sibling, who is afflicted with high functional Down syndrome. With my father out of the picture and unable to contradict her, she decided to finally stand her ground.

Unfortunately, at 23 years old, I was already at a level of self-hatred that no matter who was in front of me, I was not to be refused, especially by a woman who all of a sudden wanted to play the parent. I needed the car to go to a friend. Yeah, I'd been drinking and doing cocaine, so what? You telling me I can't go where I want to go ’cause you all of a sudden want to play mom?

Are you kidding me? "Mom, do not do this. I am warning you."

"Mark, you do what you gotta do, but you are not getting the keys."

Now here I am, nearly 7 feet tall, 298 pounds and I never heard "no" and even if I did, it never stopped me, looking at a person who suddenly wants to make decisions concerning my life and is that a smirk on your face?

At this point I smiled, and this was probably where the situation began to sink in for her, for I rarely if ever smiled. It usually came as a precursor to my switch being thrown that allowed me to maneuver without remorse or feeling.

I've been told (unfortunately by two of my family members) that it is like watching a pricked balloon burst; one minute it's there, and snap! Gone. Only instead of hot air, what leaves me is all traces of humanity.

And as I walked into the kitchen, my mom said later "she knew, she knew, she should have picked up the phone, dialed 911, something," but she didn't and when I returned from the kitchen with a butcher knife, in her mind it was already too late.

Due to some cruel trick of fate, I have perfect recall of the events as if they are reoccurring on my own personal Imax.

The look of resigned comprehension on my mother's face as I walked up to the couch, flipping the blade around to a back-handed grip. The look as I straddled her, pinning one of her arms to her side and as I slid the blade under her chin, putting its edge against the skin of her throat, and at the time I remember feeling absolutely nothing; no anxiety or fear, no hurt nor pain, nothing.

There we were, locked in an unthinkable situation with naught but an unforgivable outcome as the only possibility, and the phone began to ring.

Now when I say what happened next was surreal to me, I understand that this situation in its entirely would seem surreal, even unbelievable to most. For me it was a reality that I was committed to. So everything that transpired next happened as though in a dream.

My mother took her one free arm, and very slowly without breaking eye contact in the slightest, reached over her head and removed the phone from the cradle, put it to her ear and said, "Hello, yeah ... yeah he's right here," and handed me the phone. I took it and without moving the blade so much as an inch said, "Yeah?"

Out comes my sister's voice saying, "Mark, what are you doing?" I'm like, what do you mean what am I doing, what the hell are you doing, you know what time it is? She said "Mark, what the hell are you doing? I'm sitting here trying to relax and watch TV and something keeps telling me to call my brother, call my brother, and it will not let me rest, so again, what are you doing?"

"I'm arguing with my mom,"

Then she said, "Look, Mark, whatever you have in your hand, put it down, put it down and walk to the front door, when you get to the door put down the phone and leave the house, walk to the corner and I will be there in five minutes."

And as I began to tell her how that wasn't possible, for she lived at least 25 minutes away, she snapped, "Mark, just do it and I'll be there!"

I remember removing the knife from my mother’s throat and passing it within inches of her face and placing it on the table above her head, getting up and walking away without a backward glance and doing exactly as she said and wouldn't you know it, she made it, against all logic, she was there.

The whole way to her house (which by the way took 23 minutes) neither one of us said a word, not until we were in her house sitting on her couch.

“How did you know?"

"Mark, I was sitting right where I am sitting now and something kept telling me to call my brother, and it was being real persistent, so I did and I'm glad I did. Are you gonna be OK?"

"I don't know. I guess we'll see?"

I wound up staying at my sister's until my dad came home and though I never asked, I knew my sister talked to my mom and that they had come to an agreement on that, and believe me, they didn't agree on much.

A few days after my returning home, I had a parole appointment and I knew, just like my sister knew, that something wasn't right. My dad tried to tell me everything was OK, but when I looked at my mom, I knew. I told my dad when we were walking out the door, because I paused and looked back at the house and said, "This is the last time I'm gonna see this for a long time."

I remember when my PO [probation officer] was walking behind me to her office I heard her playing with her handcuffs, and when I walked into her office, there were two police officers there to take me into custody. I'll never forget the look on my parents' faces when they saw me roll past them in a back of an unmarked police car. There was the look of genuine surprise on my father's, on my mother's, of genuine relief.

See, Dad didn't know it but Mom called my PO and told her what had happened. I guess I can't blame her, ya know, all things being considered. Of course, my dad wasn't happy; rule no. 1: Family deals with family. No one else needs to be in our business.

It was no surprise to me when they booked me in and I asked what I was being charged with. They started with attempted murder of one Virginia D'Ascenzo. From there on out it was a blur until I finally got to court and the real surprise came. The charge was dropped. I still had enough offenses behind that to put me back in prison where I stayed for the next three years.

Things were never again the same with my family at home, and my parents wound up splitting up quite noisily, ending with my mother disappearing with my brother.

It's now nearly two decades later and I have yet to break the cycle of incarceration or abuse. My father passed while I was in jail and I haven't spoken to my mother in nearly eight years.

She is still deathly afraid for me to know where she lives. She even went as far as remaining distant from my daughter, her granddaughter, for fear of her telling me where she is.

I always say that if you have to say I'm sorry, it's already too late. The damage is done, and it is, and I am.

My sister Bobbi continues to be an anchor in the ocean of possibilities that is me. Though things in our family fell apart, she will always be my sister. That night, she was truly a savior.

Mark D’Ascenzo, 44, is in the San Francisco County Jail for burglary.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate

A shot of solitary at Las Padrinos Juvenile Hall.

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County’s newly chosen chief probation officer and her new second in command, who will both take over in January, are entering LA’s troubled probation department at a pivotal moment.

Terri McDonald
Terri McDonald

For the top position, LA’s Board of Supervisors selected former Assistant LA County Sheriff Terri McDonald who until recently was in charge of LA’s massive jail system. She had been brought in to put in place reform recommendations following a series of public scandals.

To head the juvenile side of the department, the supervisors hired Sheila Mitchell, former chief of the Santa Clara (California) Probation Department, where she earned a national reputation for instituting innovative youth programs in the agency she ran for nearly 10 years.

Sheila Mitchell
Sheila Mitchell

Child advocates and community activists hope the new leadership duo will change what has been described as a punishment-centered culture into one that focuses on rehabilitation, treatment and the effective transition of probationers back to their communities, particularly for the kids under the county’s supervision. Thus many were cautiously optimistic last week about the choice of Mitchell given her extensive background in juvenile probation reform.

And the decision to hire two people in and of itself fostered more hope.

Peter Eliasberg
Peter Eliasberg

“Probation has two important and quite different functions in the populations it supervises,” said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “We think it’s important that the department move away from a law enforcement type of supervision on both of those sides. But juveniles are quite different than adults,” he continued, “and it appears that the problems of youth probation are as significant if not more significant than on the adult side. Therefore we are pleased the board did not take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

‘Deplorable’ conditions

LA County Probation, the largest of its kind in the nation, has been hit by a stream of problems in the past decade, many of them related to how the department deals with the youth in its care. Things got bad enough to bring Department of Justice monitors into the county’s juvenile halls and camps from 2004 to 2015. In 2010 a large class-action suit was filed “due to the failure” of probation “to provide adequate education to youth in the camps,” even “locking students in solitary confinement for weeks or months without attending school.” In the past few years, however, probation executives claimed that the bad old days were all but over when the DOJ signed off in April 2015.

LA_bureau_logo2-01But more recently, a string of new red flags suggested that, despite some improvements, there is much work to be done.

Among the issues that critics say demonstrated all was not well are recent allegations of kids being assaulted by staff inside two juvenile halls, evidence of fiscal mismanagement both on the adult and the juvenile side of probation and an April 2015 report by the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office that showed the youth detention programs weren’t doing anywhere near as swimmingly as everyone was claiming. The report came a month after a 155-page Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study that showed that a discouraging percentage of the youth who were in the department’s facilities or on home probation were not getting the help they needed, and recidivating in alarming numbers.

But none of these events pushed LA County’s juvenile probation into the national spotlight. Instead, it was the release of an in-house report that detailed what the author described as “deplorable” conditions in the main juvenile hall.

Sal Martinez
Sal Martinez

LA County Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez compiled the report in February 2015, mainly for his fellow commissioners, members of the LA County Board of Supervisors and probation department higher-ups. But in March the report was leaked to a couple of members of the press — namely WitnessLA and the Los Angeles Times, both of which wrote stories about it.

Martinez’s report was unusually frank, comparing Central Juvenile Hall to a “Third World country prison” and describing units lacking in running water and inmates kept in isolation without an apparent cause. Walls and other surfaces were reported to be covered in gang graffiti, and some urinals were said to be overflowing. Martinez noted an appalling stench due to an unrepaired sewage system. Doors to probationers’ rooms were allegedly propped open to air out the smell, not with doorstops, but their personal items.

He wrote the report after making an unscheduled visit to the facility early last year and being appalled by what he saw. After the initial two news articles, other media outlets wrote about it. People spoke out online and on social media. One LA Times online commenter wrote that he was housed in the facility 32 years ago and recalled similar awful conditions and mistreatment. Others argued that conditions were fair punishment for those who had committed crimes. Most merely expressed disgust.

The 15 probation commissioners are required to check the Probation Department’s juvenile facilities periodically and report back on their findings. When a commissioner reports a problem, the department is required to respond within 30 days.

The Probation Department was quick to investigate Martinez’s observations and allegations and act to correct the issues he listed. Some of the problems had reportedly already been hurriedly fixed by the time Probation’s inspector arrived. Other alleged violations, such as the stench from toilets,were not found during investigations, according to probation officials. Due to Martinez’s high-profile report, a significant amount of graffiti was reportedly washed away, walls repainted, bathrooms scrubbed and restored, and real doorstops bought.

The story raised significant concern. But while officials expressed their disappointment with the conditions and acknowledged the importance of fixing the issues Martinez reported, some viewed the report as a symptom of larger problems in a system that desperately needs significant reform.

Cyn Yamashiro
Cyn Yamashiro

“In the scheme of all the other stuff that’s going on with the department,” said Cyn Yamashiro, another probation commissioner, “the fact that there’s some graffiti on the wall and the urinals stink … Yeah, that’s bad, but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s going on.” (Yamashiro said he spoke on his own behalf and not on behalf of the commission.)

The physical condition of the facilities does hold symbolic importance in the rehabilitative process, especially for minors, he said. He is concerned that, even though these specific instances were reportedly resolved, they were allowed to occur in the first place. He also worries about similar conditions that might be occurring unreported elsewhere in the juvenile system, he said.

“I’m not a psychologist, but I would assume that there’s a relationship between the conditions of confinement and how youth see themselves,” Yamashiro said, “and [how they] see the institution that is trying to rehabilitate them.” The physical state of the department’s three juvenile halls and 12  juvenile camps can easily be viewed “as an expression of the institution’s desire to kind of create environments that are healthy for kids,” he explained. “If kids see that the institution doesn’t care enough to fix the plumbing and fix urinals and things like that, it doesn’t say a lot about the institution’s desire to help them.”

‘We are proud of what we do’

Kerri Webb, Probation Department spokeswoman, and Scott Sanders, consultant for the department’s juvenile detention services, have a more upbeat take on the problems. Central Juvenile Hall, the largest of the county’s three juvenile halls, currently houses somewhere around 200 youth, said Sanders, noting it has a swimming pool, recreation stations, a school and two medical units.

“A lot of [the] time these kids are receiving services and educational opportunities that they didn’t take advantage of when they were on the outside committing the crime,” Webb said. “Now they are in a facility and in a program and environment where they have to go to school, and there are educational programs where they will receive the credit towards graduation. There are health professionals who will evaluate them to see what their psychiatric needs are, what their mental health needs are. We’re really proud of the fact that a lot of the times these kids, once they complete their stay here, are armed with better opportunities and better services, and more prepared to be a better juvenile in society.”

An additional solitary hallway with multiple solitary rooms, in one of LA County’s juvenile facilities.
A hallway with multiple solitary rooms in one of LA County’s juvenile facilities.

Educational services and a swimming pool may play a positive role in rehabilitation, according to Yamashiro and others, but that doesn’t prevent the negative factors in the juvenile halls and camps from playing a harmful one.

“At some point, the conditions themselves become the punishment,” Yamashiro said. “The farther away the environment is that they’re confined in, the farther away that is from their own home life, is I think the extent to which it is a punishment.”

And according to Yamashiro and department officials, punishment is not supposed to be the point, at least in theory.

“The goal at this point when you’re working with youth,” Yamashiro said “particularly when such a high percentage of youth come into the system with mental health disorders, diagnoses of learning disabilities” and more is that this is “not [supposed to be] an exercise in punishment. It’s really about rehabilitating kids.”

That is why it is so essential to understand how the physical conditions of the county’s various juvenile facilities can have a great deal to do with a kid’s experience when he or she is in the county’s care, he said.

“If [the facility is] an environment that allows people to be comfortable and be in a position where they can learn, they can reflect on their own behavior and how they’re going to get better,” Yamashiro said. “[If] it’s so gross they can’t do that, then it kind of defeats the purpose of them being there.”

The Probation Department agreed, but said their quick response to the Martinez report’s allegations was less publicized than the high-profile news that resulted from the report itself.

“It doesn’t get out there, but we are proud of what we do,” Sanders said. “I stand on this, that our staff cares about these kids, that the department cares about these kids. And we are trying to do everything we can to provide the services that these kids need.

“I think the public misses the piece that a lot of these kids come in broken,” Sanders said. “They come in and our job is to try to stabilize them in the length of time we have. In Juvenile Hall, the average stay is 17 days. You might have some that are there longer. You have a lot that are there shorter. So our job is to try to help them leave as fast as possible, which is not a small task.”

Webb agreed.

“That’s our goal, that’s our mission,” she said, “to rehabilitate and get them back into their community and [to] be functional members of society. We’re really proud of that. [But] that doesn’t seem to really get across to the public. We’re not about just locking these kids up. They leave many times better than they were when they came in.”

Yet critics say these worthy intentions still beg the question as to how these practices were allowed to occur in the first place, particularly those with such a simple fix as rinsing the graffiti off the wall. What prevented this disrepair from being fixed the moment it was observed, not by a commissioner, but by a Detention Service Officer or other employee who works in the facilities every day?

Fiscal mismanagement and oversight

In the past, the department has been criticized for various kinds of financial negligence. The audit released in January said the department did not adequately track its expenditures. Money was spent on employee phones that no one was using and on phones for former employees, for example. The report also found $161 million in state funds designated for much-needed adult and juvenile programs that had never been spent. Why? This was unclear. And though this sum was comprised of funding designated for programming and not facility upkeep, it suggested a level of financial dysfunction that had the potential to bleed into all areas of the department.

The cost of keeping a young person locked up in the county is unusually high, for example, compared with other California counties with large juvenile systems, according to an audit completed in April 2015.

The Average Daily Cost Per Youth or (ADCPY) for the county’s juvenile halls is $640 per youth per day in the halls and $552 in the camps. San Diego County spends $351 and $206 for camps and halls, respectively. Orange County spends $497 and $284. Harris County, Texas, $232 and $272.


At the same time, the number of youth arrested and housed in the juvenile camps and halls is steadily declining. In 2005, the county reported 17,648 felony arrests of juveniles; that was 6,906 by 2015, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.

Fewer arrests means fewer youths in residential facilities. In early 2016, 535 youths were held in facilities designed for 1,469. Despite this low number, the department continued to pay for services for a capacity of nearly 1,000, even though the camps and halls were reportedly seriously understaffed at the time of the audit.

Yamashiro said that, like the graffiti, the fiscal issues pointed beyond themselves to larger management troubles and attitudes. “You have a department whose budget hasn’t really shrunken, but you’ve got a population of kids that’s far lower than it has been in any memory,” he said. “So there’s a lot fewer kids and the same [departmental issues] persist. And I think that’s a problem.”

So why is the cost per kid so high in LA County’s juvenile halls and camps? And what are the county’s kids getting for the money? The county auditors noted that they were not 100 percent sure about the details of how the money was being spent because, they wrote, “Probation does not adequately track expenditures for juvenile halls and camps.”

Policy change on juvenile solitary

One more issue addressed in Martinez’ original report is juvenile solitary. He wrote about a boy who was reportedly sent into isolation for 16 hours after trading his beverage carton for another inmate’s. While trading food is not allowed, Martinez noted that the punishment was a misuse of solitary confinement, which can only be used as a disciplinary action for no more than a few hours at a time. Exceptions are made for serious and rare situations.

The use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary action for juveniles has been a source of national controversy for some time, with many calling the strategy unproductive, cruel and capable of triggering permanent psychological consequences, especially with youth.

Last May, the county’s board of supervisors banned the use of solitary confinement, except in exceptional circumstances, in all the county’s juvenile detention facilities. While youth might still occasionally be separated for a cool-down period when all other options fail, the conditions of this separation were radically redefined and are supposed to now provide a more therapeutic and calming experience.

The day before these changes were approved in Los Angeles County, President Obama announced a solitary confinement ban for juveniles in federal prisons.

“Everyone agrees [solitary is] just not an appropriate way to handle crisis for youth for any lengthy period of time,” Yamashiro said.

Six months after the board of supervisors ordered solitary to be replaced with brief time-outs in a therapeutic environment, what are the results? Are staffers making use of the therapy-oriented procedures, like the newly created Hope Centers in the halls and camps? Some probation sources say that many staff feel a vital tool has been taken away from them, and are unsure what to use in its place, so often use extended periods of room confinement as a replacement. This is not what the board of supervisors had in mind.

Even more pressing than the need for a progress report on the isolation issue is the matter of the growing number of reports of alleged assaults of youth by staff in the department’s halls and camps. Video surveillance caught the beating of an unresisting boy by staff members earlier this year. The instance does not appear to be isolated. Another alleged incident surfaced the next month, and a third in October, with more rumored still to come. A report officials compiled this summer at the request of the probation commission found that monthly use of force incidents in the county’s three juvenile halls had increased 85 percent from January to July of 2015.

The two new chiefs will face a long list of key decisions and daunting challenges when they arrive in January, especially given the agency’s need for many major and vital reforms.

Which should be the priority? “In working with the last two chiefs,” Martinez said, “there’s one thing that I learned: No matter who’s in charge, there’s still a big disconnect between the executive offices in Downey and the line offices. And that disconnect needs to be fixed if we want to reform this department.”

This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, which is the product of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.

Next Administration Needs to Close Youth Prisons, Experts Say

Young man in handcuffs

WASHINGTON — The next presidential administration should build on the momentum researchers, advocates and policymakers have created to close youth prisons, experts say.

They are hopeful a new report that lays out the case for investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration will be a valuable guidepost as the transition to a new administration begins after the election.

“Maybe having this teed up early on will make it a priority. They have a tremendous opportunity to be successful,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a co-author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice.

The report released Friday at the Department of Justice highlights problems with incarceration for juveniles, including poor facility conditions, abuse scandals, stubborn recidivism rates and high costs.

Youth would be better served in a system that drastically limits the number of juveniles who are incarcerated, expands community- and family-based programming, and reinvests money in additional prevention and alternative strategies, the authors said.

While a small number of juveniles may need to be housed in secure confinement, those facilities should be reimagined as smaller and closer to juveniles’ homes, as well as better prepared to offer the rehabilitative programming that will put youth on a healthy path, they said.

[Related: Prosecuting Youth As Adults Creates Racial Disparities and ‘Justice-By-Geography’]

“The time has come — in fact it’s way past time — to recognize the justice, the rightness and the inevitability of a simple idea: We need to and we can close every youth prison in America,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, who co-authored the report with Schiraldi and consultant Miriam Shark.

Youth detention policies generally are set at the local and state level, but the federal government offers guidance and regulation tied to funding for states that can help determine the direction of those policies.

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of Youth First, a national advocacy group that campaigns to close youth prisons, said the report makes an “airtight” case for a community-based approach.

“I think the next administration could really take this and figure out how to invest in states and help them to close youth prisons,” she said.

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, urged reformers to continue pushing federal officials to support overhauling the juvenile justice system. Relentless advocacy does make a difference, she said.

“No matter who has my seat, you need to be demanding things from him or her,” she said.

Schiraldi and McCarthy said the field is at a key moment. The number of juveniles in custody has declined significantly, the science of adolescent development that supports a new system has wide support among policymakers and lawmakers, and there’s a body of evidence about what works best for young people.

“Now is not the time for half-measures. We don’t know when there will be a similar scientific, political and policy alignment,” Schiraldi said.

As cities, states and the federal government decide if and how to enact policy changes, young people and families who have had contact with the system must be part of coming up with a new system, said Tracey Wells-Huggins, associate director of Justice for Families.

It’s not enough to invite families to one conversation or meeting, she said. Engagement is a constant, evolving process that requires all participants to acknowledge families are a valuable part of their children’s lives and do have skills and resources to help them, she said.

“Families and youth are the experts on their own experiences, on their own lives and on the plans for their success. We can’t define that,” she said.

This story has been updated.

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It’s Time to Stop Funneling Youth of Color Into Criminal Court

img_0812Lawful but awful. This is the phrase that is now commonly used to describe the deadly shootings committed by the police against people of color. From week to week, quite often day to day, there rises another egregious incident involving law enforcement, a person of color and an unnecessary lethal use of force that often reduces his or her life into another mournful statistic.

Michael Brown and Tamir Rice are some recent names whose young lives came to a tragic end at the hands of law enforcement. But before their names came into our consciousness, there were young people of color like George Stinney, who was accused of murdering two white girls. After the 14-year-old was arrested, an all-white jury was assembled, a trial was held, a guilty verdict was declared, and Stinney was sentenced to death by the judge. All this took place in one day.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

George Stinney was executed in 1944, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty was unconstitutional for people who committed their offenses when they were under the age of 18. Since 1985, 22 people were executed for crimes committed in their youth, and not surprisingly, the majority were black.

This serves as one of the starkest reminders that our juvenile system, once created for the primary purpose of rehabilitation, has veered off course and has disproportionately harmed youth of color.

Although these executions are no longer lawful, bias against youth of color is an endemic quality of most juvenile justice policies. In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 21, a tough-on-crime initiative, with nearly a two-thirds majority vote. One of the provisions of Proposition 21 gave prosecutors unfettered discretion in charging youth as young as 14 as adults, removing them from the juvenile court and having them tried in the adult system.

Since 2000, more than 10,000 youth have been tried as adults in California. In 2015, approximately 88 percent of youth tried as adults were youth of color. This is a staggering indictment against a system that ignores the implicit biases saturated in its policies and its decision makers.

Juvenile courts were established under the legal doctrine of parens patriae, in which the state assumes the role of the parent to the extent that it can intervene when the child’s welfare is at stake or to address delinquency matters. The juvenile justice system serves as an acknowledgment, based on research and science, that youth are fundamentally different from adults.

The divisions we create between youth and adults are evident in all corners of our society: who can vote, who can consent, who can buy a lottery ticket, who can watch an R-rated movie. But with our juvenile justice system, efforts are still made to blur the boundaries and to soften those distinctions in order to subject children to adult accountability.

And to be explicitly clear, black youth are, by landslide numbers, subject to the worst of these policies. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, perceptions of race have a particularly harmful impact on black children who are perceived to be older (as much as 4½ years), guilty and more likely to face police violence if arrested.

In California, some relief is in sight. One provision of Proposition 57 would take away prosecutorial discretion, known as “direct file,” to charge youth as adults. With the passage of this proposition, a prosecutor’s ability to arbitrarily charge youth as adults is taken off the table.

Instead, youth will face “fitness” hearings during which a judge makes the determination of keeping the case in juvenile court or transferring it to criminal court, based on a series of factors including the youth’s amenability to rehabilitation. While no youth should be in the adult system, ending direct file will ensure that they receive greater due process rights and a greater chance at remaining in the juvenile system.

George Spinney, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown — these are just five names out of millions of black youth who have suffered at the hands of an intrinsically biased system of American law and order. To honor their suffering and loss, it is not enough that we merely hope for change, but demand and seek it. Even the most herculean of tasks can be accomplished by transforming a ripple into a tide. Proposition 57 may be the ripple that we need.

Jennifer Kim is an attorney and the director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights based in Oakland, California.