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How Systems Have Failed My Son this Mother’s Day

Jennifer Hoff Thursday, 05 May 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

IMG 0065 3By Jennifer Hoff

The most difficult part of having our young, mentally-ill, adult son locked up in solitary confident in California State Prison for months at a time is not  the emotional and mental pain his father, little brothers and I experience as a result of him losing, “in person” contact privileges again or other punishments he might be subjected to that are analogous with such a placement. It is not the overwhelming sadness that arises when you realize you can’t remember your child’s smell because you have not been allowed to hug him for almost a year,  nor the missing of his sweet voice during a phone call.  It is not the daily emotional turmoil of having horrific mental images flash by the minds eye as an incessant reminder of his dire situation.  It is not even that he was allowed to suffer mentally for over three years, denied the very psychiatric medications that he was prescribed from age 12 to quell his frenetic thinking and allow him to process his interactions with the world in a safe and more humane manner. 

As a mother, what is most difficult is that his situation is the predictable outcome of our abysmal system of criminalizing those who “act out” despite lacking the cognitive capacity to do otherwise. We saw this coming for over 15 years and there was absolutely nothing we could do to prevent our son from being punished for his disability and being sucked into the revolving door of the criminal justice system once he turned 18. 

We sought out help for Matthew very early (age 5) as his mental health symptoms began interferring with him attending public schools.  We had access to private doctors and therapists, had the resources to pay for treatment and the wherewithal to request special education services from our school district.  We had the stamina to navigate, for years, a broken mental health system. A system in which no one who is “in charge” seems to be held accountable to help these sick children; nor informs you (the parents) that every provider at the case-planning meetings are hiding their ball under the table to effectively and covertly play the game of “pass the buck” shuffle. Ultimately, those “in charge” denied services for my son as long as possible to avoid costs and save the bottom line.…. For years, Matthew’s father and I paid out of pocket to send him to a clinical day program run by a team of doctors at a highly respected university.  The clinical-day program was eventually exchanged for a dozen failed special educational public school placements, which again failed our son.  Ultimately, we were faced with  all roads leading to the need for a intensive (and expensive) locked facility; an incredibly difficult decision had to be made.

As Matthew’s needs increased, the willingness of our county agencies to provide for them diminished.  Eventually, only legal action proved effective in forcing our school district and county behavioral health departments to meet their legal obligations of providing appropriate educational and psychiatric services for our disabled boy.

The worst part of this journey has been the nausea that comes with knowing my son’s experience is the norm; that this outcome is one of many predictable tragic end points for individuals like Matthew who “don’t respond” to the current protocol of medications and talk therapy.   He has found his peer group in prison.  The overwhelming majority of his neighbors are young men who also suffer from debilitating psychosis, paranoia and delusions, and who have lived in their awful set of circumstances from before they were even able to legally drive a car. 

Most of the prisoners Matthew has met have previously been in the foster and/or juvenile “justice” cog from the young age of 10. They have been labeled as “troubled” and “delinquent”, yet denied medications or treatment or even basic therapeutic services before the preventable tragedy occurs that drove them into the criminal justice system.  These young  venerable  young people do not stand a chance once they are “in trouble with the law” because necessary mental health interventions will be withheld and they will inevitably be funneled into youth or adult prisons… many before they even hit puberty. 

If you had asked me when Matthew was younger and still at home, cycling his way through ineffective treatments,  how I was doing, I would have most likely burst into tears; for navigating the pediatric side of this nightmare was an incomprehensible, demoralizing experience that  each year left its marks on my psyche and spirit.  The pain of watching your child be discarded like trash by the very agencies tasked with his care is not easily explained to even the closest friends.  Today when folks ask me the same question my response is less emotional but rarely is it a complete answer….. for even folks who actually might know our story, or who work in the “field of mental health” find it hard to grasp the reality that our system isn’t filled with “cracks” for these young people to fall into.  Rather, to everyone’s surprise and dismay, instead of cracks, there is a looming  cliff that we systematically push young people off of when they age into adulthood. 

Nowadays my response to the “how are you doing” question, yields a filtered mantra of “pretty good considering…” or “well I am still here…” .  I make it a point to share our story with anyone and everyone who will listen; not to be a source of pain for people, but rather to leverage the pain I feel into becoming the motivation they need to jump into action and become part of the solutions. 

This is our modern day human rights crisis…throwing away children into a churning system for the past 15-20 years  has not only been a costly, failed, social experiment of being “tough on crime,” but more egregiously, it has stolen the futures of thousands of young folks, by answering their cries of help with a lock and key. Most “troubled youth” are not born that way…they are generally created out of years of neglect, abuse, misdiagnosis, and failed treatment;  and then severely penalized when they act out with the very behaviors that textbooks outline-- the step by step progression from victim to offender.  We know these facts, yet somehow the past few decades have been marked with an all out war against the treatment of childhood offenders and a refusal to allow for the degree of cognitive functioning the individual possessed to be used as a method of defense aimed at rehabilitation over incarceration. 

We have criminalized behaviors psychiatrists say are “normal” for an immature, traumatized or sick brains…we know that some brains are different and lack capacity to fully function, yet our leaders have allowed generations of children to be swallowed into the pit of the criminal justice system to be forgotten.

I have hope though, and I know we are not alone. I know some families experience this same journey but with an even more tragic outcome.  I am grateful for the work advocates and non-profits are doing both in the mental health reform and juvenile justice fields.  These broken systems will not self-correct and it is up to impacted individuals and families to demand they change for the better.

I have perspective, our story’s tragic ending didn’t create catastrophic collateral damage to our child or to our community. For this, we know were are the lucky ones.

Last Mother’s Day when I went to see my son, he was able to visit me in person for a change.  We really enjoyed each other, holding hands and hugging…being face to face, looking in the same beautiful auburn eyes that peered up at me when he was a baby swaddled in my arms. Now, despite the new homemade tattoos he had someone ink on his beautiful face, (because it seemed like a good idea “at the time”…he says, “sorry mom”) he is still my boy deserving of help. 

Jennifer Hoff is a concrned mom and juvenile justice advocate.

White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett Addresses the Power of Choice with DYRS Youth

Tuesday, 03 May 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason and US Attorney’s Office Join National Reentry Week Efforts

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, US Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, and members of the US Attorney’s Office (USAO) spoke to young women at the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) about the power of choice and relationships yesterday as part of the Justice Department’s National Reentry Week efforts.

This visit started with a sexual assault awareness presentation to educate girls at DYRS’s Youth Services Center (YSC) on prevention methods and their rights in the District of Columbia.

The girls then participated in a group session with Jarrett and Mason, who addressed their 37-year friendship and the importance of building healthy relationships. “We weren’t much older than you guys when we met,” said Mason. “The relationships you have when you’re young are really important…the choices you make determine the future leaders that you are going to be.”

The young women enthusiastically engaged in a dynamic conversation where they learned about the roles Jarrett and Mason play in US Government and asked how they might be able to follow similar, important paths.

“Well, a lot of the challenges in this country happened over the course of years, and we’re trying to fix them in a relatively short period of time,” said Jarrett. “If we can help you all just a little bit, and give you the confidence to live up to your dreams, we’ll have done something.”

Both Jarrett and Mason agreed that “we need to do better by our young people because young people make mistakes,” a sentiment agreed upon by DYRS Director Clinton Lacey, who had welcomed the youth saying, “You are greater than your worst mistake and that’s why we brought you here today. It’s a time for women of color rising up to leadership, and we want you to have every opportunity possible to be a part of this.”

The visit coincided with the agency’s new strategy and heightened focus on girls programming and services, which recognizes that girls enter the juvenile justice system with personal stories of trauma, poverty, and physical, sexual and emotional violence. DYRS is developing and launching a trauma-informed, gender responsive program that is focused on healthy development, healing, restorative justice, and keeping girls closer to their home communities and families.

The event stemmed from biweekly girls groups that the USAO holds at YSC on topics such as sexual assault, self-awareness and domestic violence. These groups started three years ago to address the specific challenges of young women in the juvenile justice system.

National Reentry Week is an effort by the Department of Justice to encourage and highlight the importance of “supporting successful reentry…because by helping individuals return to productive, law-abiding lives, we can reduce crime across the country and make our neighborhoods better places to live.” (www.doj.gov)

This blog is courtesy of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services


#Implement PREA Week of Action: A Conclusion

Friday, 22 April 2016 Posted in 2016, Campaigns, Voices

By Maheen Kaleem, Equal Justice Works Fellow/Staff Attorney, Rights4Girls

In 2001, the United States officially recognized April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This recognition was the result of decades of activism on the part of advocates who worked tirelessly to end the silence that shrouds sexual violence. They have made incredible strides by educating the public about the inherently shaming nature of sexual violence, the importance of consent, and the knowledge that sexual violence plagues every community in our country. Throughout the U.S., 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college.

While much of our advocacy has focused on adult women, we know that girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence: one in four American girls will experience sexual violence by the age of 18, and nearly half of all female rape survivors report being first victimized before the age of 18. And yet our discussions, even among advocates, often leave out our most vulnerable and marginalized girls- girls who are subjected to the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.

In 2015, Rights4Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation published a report entitled, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.  This report outlines how experiencing childhood sexual violence as a girl can actually create pathways into the juvenile justice system. Girls in the juvenile justice system report experiencing childhood sexual abuse at alarmingly high rates—rates as high as 80%. 

Childhood sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of delinquency in girls. Put simply, girls in the juvenile justice system often find themselves there as a result of being sexually victimized as children. Among the most common offenses for which girls are arrested are running away, substance abuse, and prostitution. But oftentimes, girls are running away from abusive home environments or foster care placements. When they abuse substances, it is a coping strategy. And in many states, when girls fall victim to human traffickers who profit off of their sexual abuse, the girls themselves are arrested for prostitution.    

Research demonstrates that girls are sometimes arrested “for their own protection.” But detaining girls leaves them vulnerable to more sexual victimization. Once inside juvenile facilities, girls are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence: girls are ten to fifteen percent of the population in state and local facilities, and twenty-six percent of the victims of sexual victimization in juvenile facilities.

Both the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) include important protections to ensure that children do not become unnecessarily involved in the delinquency system, and that once involved, they are protected from additional sexual violence. In order to protect girls, we must ensure that that the JJDPA is reauthorized, and that PREA is effectively implemented.

But legislation can only be one piece of our efforts. If we are to realize a world where all girls are safe from sexual violence, then we must always remember our most vulnerable, our marginalized girls who all too often fall through the cracks.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act: Protecting Kids, Protecting Communities – Youth Voices Call on Congress to Act

Thursday, 21 April 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

On April 20th, the Act 4 Juvenile Justice Coalition (ACT4JJ) hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill about the importance of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has been due for reauthorization since 2007. The panel, “JJDPA: Protecting Kids, Protecting Communities” primarily focused on a proposed change to strengthen one of the JJDPA’s core protections for children in custody—the phasing out the valid court order (VCO) exception to the deinstitutionalization of status offenders requirement.   A status offender is a child who is not charged with a crime, but rather someone who is arrested for childhood misbehavior such as running away from home, skipping school, or speaking back to an adult. 

Years of research on evidence based practice and new developments in brain science and adolescent development have shown that incarcerating a child for a status offense creates trauma and can increase the likelihood of future risky or even criminal behavior.  Despite this knowledge, 7,000 children are still incarcerated each year for committing status offenses. 

The panel featured Judge George Timberlake from Southern Illinois and Jerry Walsh from Arkansas who has run youth emergency shelters, group homes, and programs for serious youth offenders.  Both unequivocally called for juvenile justice systems to keep children who have committed status offenses out of youth prisons and instead keep them close to home, with supports, to more effectively address the reasons for the risky behavior.  Two young women, Ashley Jackson from Tallahassee, FL and Jhanae Burnett from Minneapolis, MN, joined the panel to discuss community based alternatives that helped them get back on the right track. Ashley Jackson is a graduate of BoysTown USA in Tallahassee.  Ashley had been in 15 foster homes before she was incarcerated for running away from several of those placements.  She says, “No one listened. Not once.  I went to detention for six months which made me aggressive, hostile and less trustworthy.  But BoysTown fought for me.  They were the first place that made me feel like they wanted me there.  They listened to me.” 

Jhanae shared, “I was never a bad child. I worked and was in school, but was having some transitions at home and got arrested”, explained Jhanae.  She said that at her first court hearing, the judge wanted to put her on probation and send her to a scared straight program at a women’s prison to teach her a lesson.  Fortunately, her family moved and the district she was moved to embraced a more community-based approach and placed her at a program at the YMCA.  This program connected Jhanae with other young women a girls-specific program.  She was matched with a mentor who helped her with education, work goals, and housing assistance.  Jhanae shared, “I got off probation and never saw my probation officer again. But Stacey [her mentor] is still there in the community with me.” Indeed, Stacey flew with Jhanae out to Washington to be part of a youth-fly in advocacy day to encourage federal support of juvenile justice programs that work.  Both Ashley and Jhanae are attending college now.  

These young women were joined by Daniel Mendoza from Oakland, CA’s CURYJ program (Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ).   Daniel met with several Members of Congress to share how working in his community helped him get on the right path.  CURYJ trains formerly incarcerated youth in community organizing and entrepreneurship.  Daniel proudly relayed how CURYJ opened a coffee shop that only employs formerly incarcerated youth—and how this community program helped him and others stay on the right track. 

What was abundantly clear from all the panelists and youth that joined the discussion that day, was that black and brown youth bear the brunt of incarceration for status offenses and that there are much more effective ways to deal with youth misbehavior than incarceration.  The speakers, urged the packed room to join the movement and reauthorize the JJDPA THIS YEAR. 

You too can Join the movement !  Ask Senator Tom Cotton to release the hold on the JJDPA reauthorization so it can pass the Senate and move onto the House of Representatives for a vote. Each voice counts! Here are a few tweet samples you can use:

- 70% of Americans support requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. @SenTomCotton, pass S1169 now! #JJDPAmatters

- 83% of Americans support investment in community-based alts to incarceration. @SenTomCotton should listen and help pass S1169 #JJDPAmatters

- 83% of Americans think youth SHOULD NOT be locked up for status offenses like skipping school or running away: @SenTomCotton #JJDPAmatters

- Hey @SenTomCotton: 92% of Americans think its important the JJ system help young people get back on track. S1169 would do that #JJDPAmatters

- @SenTomCotton 73% of Americans say teaching youth to take responsibility for their actions does not require incarceration #JJDPAmatters

- Two-thirds of Ark's incarcerated youth did not commit a violent offense. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

- Arkansas children are among the most likely to be sexually victimized while incarcerated. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

- The time is now to pass the JJDPA and stop incarcerating our children for skipping school @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

- We need to get JJDPA through the Senate. Release the hold @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

- We need a strengthened #juvenilejustice bill to protect our most vulnerable youth. Get JJDPA through the Senate @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

- We need to get JJDPA through the Senate. Release the hold @SenTomCotton! #JJDPAMatters 

- Arkansas can do better @SenTomCotton and so can the US. Release the hold on JJDPA! #JJDPAMatters

- Two-thirds of Ark's incarcerated youth did not commit violent offenses. We can do better @SenTomCotton #JJDPAMatters

New National Poll Shows Americans Want A Different Youth Justice System

Thursday, 03 March 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

The Youth First Initiative   just released a national poll showing that across the polictical spectrum, Americans believe that the youth justice system is in need of  reform.  Ninety-two percent agree that what is most important is that the youth system does a better job of making sure youth get back on track so that they are less likely to commit another offense. The results also show that the majority of American people favor investing in community-based programs rather than in incarceration; and furthermore that they would like states to address the racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

Once again, this new poll demonstrates that our current youth  justice system does not reflect what most Americans believe is working and how they would like their own children to be treated if they were in the system.

The Youth First Initiative also released a juvenile prison inventory of the nation’s largest and oldest youth prisons, calling for the closure of 80 of the nation’s oldest and largest youth prisons.  This would reduce the youth incarceration rate in half by 2020. Among many findings, this inventory shows that 54,000 kids are incarcerated in the U.S. juvenile justice system on any given day, and that African-American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.

Governors from three states, including Connecticut, Illinois, and Virginia are calling to shut down youth prisons in favor of more effective, community based programs that help set children on the path to a brighter future.

Remembering Trayvon Martin: A Death That Brought A Movement To Life

Thursday, 25 February 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Aprill O. Turner, Communication & Media Director

It was four years ago on this very day that an unforeseen incident would be the catalyst to start a national movement.  On the evening of February 26, in Sanford, Fla., a 28-year-old man with a gun, got out of his truck, confronted, chased, and then shot and killed a 17-year-old unarmed Black kid. Young Trayvon Martin was merely walking home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea.

We watched in agony as the nation sought to digest the death of this young man. It exposed elements of a grim reality for young black boys. American society has been conditioned to see young black men as greater threats, as more violent, and regards them as more dangerous. In effect, blackness has become weaponized in a way that elevates a normal boy into suspicious, and then transforms suspicion into threatening. This affects how authority figures from schools to law enforcement all choose to engage young black men, and what society will allow or permit as acceptable in doing so. More alarmingly, is that this carries with it real consequences for those young men who find themselves at the mercy of a flawed criminal justice system that sets a low value on their lives.
In the months and years to follow, the tragic death of Trayvon has set off a national conversation about racial profiling and the role race played in the death of this young man.  Trayvon’s death, and those of other young black men, has served as a catalyst for a new generation of activists that seek to dismantle the structures that target and criminalize black youth. New organizations have been formed, new leaders have emerged, the spirit of resistance has been given a reboot, and a new modern day civil rights movement has emerged.

The question at the center of this movement is, “What does the world look like when Black Lives Matter?” Not just in terms of policing, which has become a major focus in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, but in all areas of our society. What does education look like when Black lives matter? What does economic opportunity look like when Black lives matter? What does the criminal justice look like when Black lives really matter?
It is a question those of us that advocate for criminal justice reform and ensuring that young black men and boys are treated fairly, ask ourselves daily. The racial and ethnic disparities that exist in our criminal justice system do not measure up to the standard of treating everyone equitably. Research has shown that this is fact. According to a report issued by the American Psychological Association, and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized Blacks were more likely to have used force against a Black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize Blacks. Dehumanization is the belief that a certain group should be treated as less than human.The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. It should be noted that dehumanization and not just police officers’ prejudice against Blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with Black children while in police custody, according to the study.
The same study also found Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime. There is a national crisis, and across the country our justice system is marked by disparate racial outcomes at every stage of the process -- especially for those that are most vulnerable, young black boys. This is exemplified by more frequent arrests for youth of color and ending with more frequent secure placement.
The anniversary of young Trayvon's death and the other tragedies, which have unfolded in the last several years should serve as a clarion call for anyone, committed to justice reform.Our youngsters of color are much more likely to be profiled-- and then subsequently, prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults than their white counterparts.
Young men who experience similar profiling by their local police, prosecutors and judges will not be seen for what they often are, young boys. Children.Unfortunately, Trayvon and so many others had to lose their lives in order for America to pay attention. But if Trayvon's death, their deaths, serve as a catalyst for change in the justice system, and more specifically the juvenile justice system, then their deaths will not have been in vain.
We remember Trayvon on this day because his death should serve as a daily reminder of the very real work left undone. His memory serves as our invitation to help fix a broken system. It will become better when we all become involved: What can each of us do that is different than what we have been doing to create a more equitable system for black men and boys, and therefore a system more just for all young people?

Florida: Unprecedented Media Support for Bills Restricting the “Direct-File” system

Wednesday, 13 January 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country, Campaigns, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Intern

In Florida, a wave of endorsements for reforming “direct-file” is rising. Local media in the sunshine state are increasingly vocalizing their support for SB 314 and HB 129, two bills that aim to reduce the scope and the impact of direct-filing on youth.

The current “direct-file” system allows prosecutors discretion to unilaterally decide that minors as young as 14 should be tried in adult court. As pointed out by the Miami Herald, this “nefarious practice in Florida continues to help ruin the lives of thousands of young offenders, and it must stop.” According to Human Rights Watch, Florida transfers more children into adult court than any other state. Yet, the Ocala Star Banner reminds us that only about 9 percent of the state’s juvenile offenders are described as “serious, violent, chronic offenders,” while the Pensacola News Journal highlights that “98% of the more than 10,000 children tried in Florida’s adult courts in the last 5 years were transferred there WITHOUT the benefit of a hearing before a judge.”

The bipartisan bill introduced in the Florida Senate (SB 314) would restrict the practice of direct-filing by requiring judicial sign-off on such juvenile-to-adult court transfers. The companion House bill (HB 129) has been amended to eliminate this central reform, but there are two months during the Florida legislative session (which begins this week) for it to be reconciled with the stronger Senate bill.

This legislation has received great support from Florida media, maybe following the lead of Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, who proclaimed last October Youth Justice Awareness Month. The Times Union in Jacksonville and the Orlando Sentinel agree that direct-file “does not make sense,” for kids, taxpayers or public safety, while the Gainesville Sun notes that fixing the direct-file system is a crucial step in the effort to break the school-to-prison pipeline in Florida.

Here is a complete list of recent editorials and articles that were published in Florida-based media to support SB 314 and HB 129 and/or oppose the direct-file practice:

-          Palm Beach Post

-          Miami Herald

-          Ocala Star Banner

-          Times Union (Jacksonville)

-          Orlando Sentinel

-          Tampa Bay Times

-          Pensacola News Journal

-          The Gainesville Sun

-          Treasure Coast Palm

-          Tallahassee Democrat

-          Sun Sentinel

The bills have each already passed out of one committee and are awaiting further review. For more information on Florida’s efforts to end this practice, go to www.noplaceforachild.com.

ALEC Endorses Raise the Age

Tuesday, 12 January 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country, Campaigns, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Intern

Another important voice has recently called for states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to align with brain science and youth rehabilitation. In early December, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) passed a resolution that endorses raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include all 17 year old youth. The resolution now awaits final approval from the ALEC Board of Directors.  This is a great step towards ending the practice of youth automatically being tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults.

ALEC, which bills itself as the US’s “largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators”, and claims to comprise almost “one quarter of the country’s state legislators and stakeholders from across the policy spectrum”, is well known both for its staunchly conservative principles and for its power in state legislatures. Recognizing that “research has found that 17 year-olds are less likely to recidivate when placed in the juvenile system,” the ALEC resolution pushes for all states to pass legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, regardless of the nature of the offense. It suggests that the juvenile court step should never be skipped, even if it is eventually decided that a youth should be tried as an adult. It is also worth noticing that the resolution does not separate violent and non-violent young offenders, but applies to all 17 year-olds. This is significant, as some state legislation has sought to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction for non-violent offenders or misdemeanants only, leaving behind a large group of young people just as open and capable of rehabilitation.

Considering ALEC’s impact among state lawmakers, this resolution could have great repercussions for tens of thousands of youth, for whom the practice of being tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults has devastating consequences. Youth housed in adult jails are more likely to commit suicide, to be sexually and physically assaulted and to be placed in solitary confinement, which is considered torture in most places across the world.  Youth who are sentenced as adults have also been found to be more likely to recidivate, as the adult system is focused on punishment, and not rehabilitation. In addition to that, youth sentenced as adults will carry their criminal record their whole life, thus diminishing their chances to find jobs, access decent housing, obtain student loans and go to college, join the military, or vote.

There are only 9 states left in the United States who set the age of criminal responsibility below the age of 18, resisting to the wave of change that has been taking place for the past several years to end this practice that does much more harm than good.  In North Carolina and New York, all 16-year-old youth are automatically tried as adults. In Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, 17 year-old youth are all tried as adults. Hopefully the initiative taken by an organization as powerful as ALEC, with strong credibility among conservatives, will convince these states to side with the other 41 states that have already chosen to follow scientific evidence and data to change their legislation, and hence create a better future for youth as well as a safer society. 

Staring at the Wall

Curtis, an inmate in solitary Friday, 23 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

A Poem Written About Solitary Confinement

This is poem written by an inmate named Curtis. He was 16 when he was charged as an adult, and was 22 when he wrote this. He is serving a 40 year sentence. Curtis wrote the poem earlier this year about being in solitary. As of this week, he is still in solitary. 


I was warned there’d be times like these

But nothing could’ve prepared me for Dr. Swartz

Who comes around once a week

Peeking in my cell like he knows me better than I know myself

I’ll bet he gets a kick out of seeing a 22 year old

Who has been locked away in a cell since he was 16

Who has 30 more to go if a blessing doesn’t come through this damn wall

That he’s been staring at for the past 6 hours

I often come to this wall to somewhat free my mind

Or to drown out my annoying cellie

Who can’t stop talking about his boring relationship with his girlfriend he can’t seem to stop fighting

Even though she calls the cops on him every time

Or sometimes when the lights go out and the prison raucous is done for the day

I guess to seek mental refuge from this place

Other times just to reflect on what life was like before 23 and 1

When it was cookouts, huggies and hamburgers

Yeah, that always brings a smile to my face

Lately that’s been the routine

I start reflecting and end up with this smile

Staring at this damn wall!

Then here comes this Dr. wanting to know why I’m sitting here smiling at the wall

I give him the usual “nothing”

But to be honest

I smile to keep from crying




 Illustration by JP Trostle

#YJAM: Family Engagement During Youth Justice Awareness Month

Keela Hailes Thursday, 22 October 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices



My name is Keela Hailes and I am a mother and juvenile justice advocate and I am sharing my story during Youth Justice Awareness Month in hopes that it will help other families.

A few years ago, while living in Washington, D.C., my son was incarcerated hundreds and hundreds of miles away from me and the rest of his loved ones. Every day in Washington, D.C., parents are being separated from their children because they are being sent to adult prisons in other states. All too often, these adult prisons are very far from home. Because Washington D.C. is not a state, and does not have a Federal facility, our children are sent to remote and often times inaccessible Federal adult prisons all across America. As a woman who has always prided herself for being a stickler for self-accountability, I'm not suggesting that my son should've gotten away with a slap on the wrists. However, research has shown that placing children in adult prison's, rather than juvenile facilities makes them highly susceptible to repeat criminal behavior, negative influence from adult prisoners, and physical and sexual abuse.
Typically, I don't go around discussing brain development, but it goes to the heart of an issue that's near and dear to me, as well as thousands of other parents, across the country. Brain science is crucial in understanding how teenagers make decisions and act upon them. The Myelin Sheath is essential to brain development; it covers nerve cells that allow impulses to travel fast and efficiently.  It’s not fully developed until the age of twenty-five with the frontal lobe being the last area of the brain to be myelinated.  The frontal lobe houses the area of the brain where we process higher brain functioning like reasoning, problem solving, planning and executing behavior, and impulse control. 
Because we know this about the brain, society is very careful about the things that we allow kids to do before the age of 18. For example, youth cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol. They cannot get a driver’s license or even vote for the President of the United States. These decisions take a higher level of reasoning and analytical skills that have not been properly developed in the teenage brain. If we know this is true, then why does it seem rational to treat kids with adult sanctions when they engage in unlawful behavior?
I think about these things because one day I received a call that my sixteen-year-old son was arrested for armed robbery.  I sat stunned on the other end of the phone and wondered if the caller had the right number or right mom for that matter.  After the initial shock, thousands of questions flooded my mind, “Why in the world would he do something this stupid?”  “What was he thinking?” or “Was he thinking at all?”  I was an involved parent who monitored my son’s friendships and education, what was going on?
After the details of the robbery were laid out on the table, I was no longer in denial about my son’s involvement. I wanted him to not only be held accountable but soundly rehabilitated.  I knew nothing about the juvenile justice system and had assumptions about what a juvenile judge would offer as next steps, which in my mind would include programs, counseling and therapy.
My world was rocked again when I learned that my son would be charged as an adult and sent to the DC jail. Again, those same questions permeated my mind, “Why in the world would the government do something so stupid as to send a child to spend even one second in a jail?” “What in the world are they thinking?”, or “Are they thinking at all?” 
Unfortunately, my questions were never answered because my son was swiftly sent to the DC jail, even before having a hearing.  He sat unproductively on the juvenile unit of the DC Jail waiting where he was physically assaulted by a Correctional Officer, received zero services, and was finally shipped 1,500 miles away to Devils Lake, North Dakota to serve out his 3 year sentence.
The negative effects of this experience are still felt today. In my eyes, my son went from a sixteen-year-old-child to a thirty-year-old-man overnight, absent the completed brain development.  In his own eyes, he had no other choice but to go from a child to a man overnight to cope with his new surroundings.  He served out his sentence, came home and tried to be a productive member of society; however, two years later, he reoffended and was sent back to jail.
I believe kids should be held accountable and am advocating for common sense measures that hold youth accountable and give them an opportunity to rehabilitate. Studies have shown us that this can, and should happen in the juvenile justice system.
Keela Hailes is a Program Manager for Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop and a spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, and is committed to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18, in the adult criminal justice system.
Below is some sample language that you can use to help spread awareness of National Youth Justice Awareness Month. 


  • To help their children, families need information about juvenile rights and responsibilities. #YJAM

  • Children charged as adults, are still children who need the support of their families. #YJAM

  • Families lack basic information about the process of the courts, and their legal rights, and the role of various players in the system. #YJAM

  • Without family engagement, effectively addressing any treatment needs of the child is difficult. #YJAM

  • Many inmates say that their success upon re-entry to society can be attributed to their strong family connections. #YJAM


  • President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring October 'National Youth Justice Awareness Month' and calls on Americans to "observe this month by getting involved in community efforts to support our youth, and by participating in appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs." http://sparkaction.org/content/president-proclamation-yjam #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters

  • Children don’t grow up in systems, they grow up in families. Help youth incarcerated as adults by finding resources and joining advocacy groups for youth. #YJAM
YJAM FB families 01 1
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