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Fighting for justice

Friday, 12 August 2016 Posted in 2016, CFYJ Updates

By Ashley K. Speed, William & Mary Alumni Association

This story was originally published on the William & Mary Alumni Association's blog

From the courthouse to the jailhouse to the General Assembly, Jeree Harris Thomas ’08 is an advocate for children’s rights. It’s a passion so imbedded in her DNA that she self-designed her undergraduate major while at William & Mary to ensure her future advocacy work.

Thomas, an attorney, was recently named the recipient of the inaugural Youth Justice Emerging Leader Award given by the National Juvenile Justice Network. The award was given to Thomas for her advocacy work on issues related to the school to prison pipeline and reforming Virginia’s juvenile justice system. 

The characteristics of the award recipient are described as “an advocate for youth justice who embodies passion, boldness and perseverance, and who is committed to raising up the voices, experiences and expertise of system-involved youth and people of color to ensure that those most directly impacted by injustice are at the forefront of the youth justice movement.” 

“It was a huge surprise, but a really big honor,” Thomas said. “To be held in such high regard was really an honor.” 

Thomas, is a former fellow of NJJN’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute. She was one of 10 juvenile justice fellows selected nationwide. Thomas was previously an attorney with the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Va. Thomas began her work at JustChildren in 2011, with a two-year award from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation. 

“I worked with kids who experienced educational or mental health issues to make sure they had the services they needed while incarcerated and services they needed when they reentered their community,” said Thomas, whose work also entailed drafting legal briefs to show a child’s progress in hopes of swaying judges to lighten an imposed sentence. 

Thomas is currently the policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C. Her role is to advocate for youth who are tried as adults. She works with state advocates to change laws that push youth into the adult criminal justice system. 

“In some states, it’s about giving youth an opportunity to have a hearing in front of a judge to determine what is appropriate instead of youth ages 16 or 17 being automatically treated as adults, and in other states it’s about keeping youth, some as young as 13 and 14 from being incarcerated in adult facilities,” Thomas said.  

While at William & Mary, Thomas earned an interdisciplinary degree in social justice and community advocacy. 

“My degree at William & Mary focused on the intersection of race, education, gender and poverty and how those things impact people,” Thomas said. “I was very happy to be able to create a degree around my interests. That helped me leverage that knowledge when I went to law school.”

Thomas also said her involvement with the university’s Sharpe Community Scholars Program shaped her career path and influenced her focus on child advocacy work.  

“I decided to do a self-designed major in social justice and community advocacy as a result of the Sharpe Program,” Thomas said. "As a result of my major and a real commitment to service-learning, the College created a “Community Studies” minor program."

Thomas doesn’t know what the future holds for her professionally, but is committed to being a lifelong learner.

“I honestly thought my last job was my ultimate career goal, and it was incredibly fulfilling work,” Thomas said. “But I realize now that I have to leave myself open to learn about new opportunities and to continue to push myself to grow professionally and do as much good as I can.”

Raising the age of criminal jurisdiction beyond 18

Thursday, 11 August 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

By Anne-Lise Vray & Jessica Sandoval

Over the past few years, voices asking to raise the age of criminal responsibility beyond age 18 have emerged. As a leader in the youth justice field, the Campaign for Youth Justice plays an important role in ending the prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration of youth in the adult criminal justice system. CFYJ accomplishes this in three ways, through (1) state and federal advocacy, by providing technical assistance and training support, (2) strategic communications, by lifting the voices of those most impacted, and (3) research, by serving as a clearinghouse of information and effective alternatives. As the only national organization dedicated to this issue, we were interested in finding out what raising the age to 21 practically and logistically imply, especially in order to address the concerns of many stakeholders in the field – particularly those who fear that it is dangerous to house youth over 18 with younger children.

To determine current practice on the ways states with extended juvenile court jurisdiction beyond age 18, we interviewed juvenile justice department administrators in the states who have extended age of juvenile court jurisdiction 21 and up to 25.  From these interviews, the following themes emerged:

  • Programming looks the same across populations;
  • Housing youth up to age 25 in juvenile facilities does not add any extra challenges to behavior and safety;
  • The average length of stay in committed facilities ranges from 7.5 months to 37 months for 18-25 year-olds;
  • Risk assessment is always used, regardless of age; Re-entry programs are not different for older youth; Housing separation based on age is not necessary; and
  • The juvenile justice system is where this older population of youth belongs.

Overall, our interviewees agreed upon the fact that these older youth were better served in the juvenile justice system, where they can – unlike in the adult system - receive educational programs, appropriate treatments, and actually be rehabilitated. They also addressed the concerns about these young adults having a bad influence on younger children, and asserted that putting them together could actually have a positive effect, while no particular additional behavioral challenges could be observed. “There are 15 year olds housed with 24 year olds. The kids go where their needs are best met, regardless of their age. Instances of victimization are very rare because of the big brother mentality that develops between older youth and younger kids,” one of the interviewees told CFYJ.

According to adolescent brain science, a young person’s brain is not fully developed until they reached their mid-20s. The interviewees were aware of the research, and many of them used it as a base to defend the system in place in their state. “Brain development science shows that the juvenile justice system is still the appropriate setting for this older population, regardless of crime, based on culpability, etc…,” a juvenile justice department leader told us. The evidence presented by brain development science is indeed what one the main reasons to raise the question of extending juvenile jurisdiction to this older population in the first place.

This piece of research conducted by CFYJ modestly contributes to informing the field about the pros and cons of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction beyond 18, what factors may be present, and if it’s the appropriate time to consider this option.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 5 – Mentoring Incarcerated Youth

Monday, 08 August 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Last week, the CFYJ interns wrapped up the 2016 Summer Institute series with one last discussion led by Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, an organization that trains law students to be mentor-advocates for youth who have been sentenced in the juvenile system both during and after incarceration. With an air of genuine passion for her work, Penelope shed light on the most important components of mentorship.

Visiting the Youth Services Center: A reminder of why youth should never be incarcerated in an adult facility

Monday, 01 August 2016 Posted in 2016, CFYJ Updates

By Anne-Lise Vray and Francesca Sands

Last week, the CFYJ interns, new CFYJ Policy Director Jeree Thomas, and other summer interns from the juvenile justice field went to visit the Youth Services Center, an 88-bed secure residential facility for detained male and female youth. Our group was welcomed by a well-trained staff that shared with us their experiences working at the facility, and reminded us once again why it is so important for incarcerated youth to serve their time in juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons. The staff told us about the facility’s broad range of programs, activities, and treatments available for the kids, but most importantly, they told us about the kids themselves. They gave us a glimpse of the personal relationship they work every day to build with each child, and explained to us how they learn to respond to each specific, individual need. Some kids are so young that they are still afraid of the dark, and need to sleep with the light on. Some have never left their parents or community/neighborhood before, and are completely lost and scared when they first come in. “They are like our own children,” one of the staff members told us. When our group explained to another staff member that our work mainly consists in advocating  against trying, prosecuting and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult justice system, she thanked us and encouraged us to continue, because “it is so important for the kids,” she said.

The facility focuses its efforts on rehabilitation, and not only do staff provide schooling for children in their absence at their regular schools, but they also teach the kids how to positively contribute to society and fulfill their duties as community members. This is achieved by designing age-appropriate programming that includes activities as serious as short-term goal setting and journaling to as fun as having spa days with the teenage girls. Children respond positively to such attention and care, and will internalize the lessons implicit in such practices. A child, whose experience in society is so limited, will certainly not receive such individualized attention and age-appropriate treatment in an adult facility. Adult facilities don’t allocate any time, money, or thought to child- or adolescent-specific needs. In such facilities, the fragile stage unique to young people is disregarded, leaving kids floundering in a world for which they are neither developmentally prepared nor mentally equipped to handle. As a humanitarian, civil rights, and public safety concern, it is crucial to treat all prisoners as human beings. But it is equally as dire to treat incarcerated kids appropriately as kids.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 3 – Solitary Confinement of Youth

Nils Franco Thursday, 21 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By CFYJ Law & Policy Fellow Nils Franco

No evidence exists to support the use of solitary confinement on youth, according to Jenny Lutz of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, and better alternatives would adapt to what evidence finds effective in correcting young people’s behavior. This realization, Lutz said, has offered a powerful rallying point for practitioners, advocates, and academics alike.

Lutz, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), spoke to interns and fellows working with juvenile justice–related organizations at CFYJ’s offices Tuesday.

The lunch-hour discussion detailed the effects of solitary confinement on youth health, as well as the promising solutions proposed to address the widespread problem of isolating youth. These solutions most obviously hold promise because of the sound psychological and social-science research backing up alternative tools for behavior corrections.

But also, in an environment of gridlock and partisanship, Stop Solitary for Kids’ solutions inspire hopefulness because we can expect to see the solutions implemented relative swiftly, having found support from associations of probation officers and corrections leaders. This is no easy accomplishment.

Reflecting so many other successful areas of criminal justice reform in the past year, Stop Solitary for Kids is a coalition of strange bedfellows pushing for the same goals. This coalition – the CCLP, Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators – respectfully works together to find wise solutions.

Switching to safer and demonstrably effective practices to correct the behavior of inmates, after all, improves safety in the correctional facility and would reduce challenges faced by correctional officers and other staff. The successes of states that reduced the general use of solitary confinement support this finding as well.

With these mutual interests, and with reform advocates acknowledging the struggles faced by on-the-ground staff who have spent their careers serving youthful detainees, the groups came together to build smarter policy and offer help to juvenile corrections leaders.

Of course, changing the behavior and tools of corrections staff requires a change of mindset among the staff – something no legislation could accomplish. So, without that respect and teamwork, policy change would not only be more difficult, according to Lutz: without working with practitioners, any policy change enacted would fail expectations.

Data collection must still improve to better understand how different states and facilities practice solitary confinement of youth. Systems improvement still requires courageous action by leaders in state legislatures nationwide.

But, in the meantime, the campaign has built a sturdy foundation of legislative goals and of credible publications rooted in sound technical advice and research since launching in April, winning experts’ support at a federal and state level through an inclusive and evidence-based approach.

Governors Submit Assurances for PREA Compliance

Monday, 11 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

Texas, Alaska, and Idaho have made assurances for the first time; Arkansas and Utah Continue to opt out of PREA

By Marcy Mistrett

Last week, the US Department of Justice released the re-certification and re-assurance submissions for Year Two of the audit for compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

PREA, a bipartisan supported act passed more than a decade ago, was designed to end sexual violence behind bars. For youth (under age 18) who are charged and/or sentenced as adults, PREA’s Youthful Inmate Standard (115.14) offers unique protections—requiring separate housing (including common rooms and showers) from adult inmates in jails and prisons. PREA requires sight and sound separation between youth and adults outside of housing, unless the facility provides direct staff supervision when the two populations interact; that facilities must make their “best efforts” not to rely on isolation as way to meet these requirements; and finally, that facilities must offer youth large muscle exercise, comply with legally required special education services, and provide access to other programming as much as possible.

2016 Summer Institute Session 2: Sexual Violence in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 08 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

On Wednesday, the CFYJ interns hosted the second session of the 2016 Summer Institute speaker series. We welcomed Tara Graham, senior program specialist at NCCD’s National PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Resource Center, to 1220 L to speak on PREA and sexual violence among youth in detention. In a lively and informative presentation, Tara explained about PREA’s conceptions and applications, and how sexual violence is still a pervasive occurrence, especially among youth, in correctional facilities. Her extensive knowledge of the subject allowed for a deeply constructive discussion.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 1 – Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 01 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Every year since 2008, the Campaign for Youth Justice has organized the Summer Institute, a series of brown bag luncheons where we invite summer fellows and interns working in juvenile justice to listen to leaders and experts from the field for a time of lecture and discussion. To kick off the 2016 edition of CFYJ Summer Institute, we welcomed Maheen Kaleem, Staff Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow at Right4Girls, a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence against vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.

Maheen gave us a powerful presentation on the specific needs of girls in the juvenile justice system, and shared with the packed room several of her personal experiences and encounters with young girls who got involved in the justice system after being abused their whole life. She emphasized that despite the displayed narratives of girls being increasingly violent (which is supposedly why the number of girls in prison is increasing), the 3 biggest reasons for girls to become involved with the justice system are truancy (skipping school), prostitution (which, as Maheen stressed it out, is not a thing according to federal law, and is actually child trafficking) and running away. Girls are NOT becoming increasingly violent, she repeated. The overall problem is that girls are victimized, and instead of receiving helped, they receive punishment as a response.

Maheen also mentioned dramatic data, such a 2009 study conducted in South Carolina showing that 81% of girls involved in the juvenile justice system reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once in their lives. Additionally, girls are twice as likely as boys to report 5 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES, i.e emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, household substance abuse etc), and four times more likely to be victims of childhood sexual abuse than boys.

Maheen ended her presentation by highlighting a need of implementing the JJDPA and for a “trauma-informed juvenile justice system,” that is, a system that does not send to prison girls who are running away from abusive homes or communities.

We are excited to announce that our second session is already scheduled to take place next week, and we will be talking about sexual violence in the justice system.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: Free from what?

Friday, 01 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country

By Marcy Mistrett

As we approach our country’s 240th birthday, I am reminded of our forefathers’ preamble to the Declaration of Independence : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While history has uncovered the blatant shortcomings of this dictate, the rights to one’s liberty, or freedom, seem particularly important to highlight on the eve of Independence Day. With nearly 95,000 children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons each year, the vast majority of whom being children of color, we have a responsibility to question this concept of liberty in the shadow of our carceral state.

Liberty, defined as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views” has a long history of grotesque unequal application in our country: it certainly wasn’t a protected right for slaves, women, or children, nor was it promised to numerous other special populations--immigrants, the disabled, LGBT communities, Indigenous peoples to name a few--at the birth of our country.  Yet, as many scholars have noted, as unique populations have gained access to liberty through the Courts, other structures of oppression have emerged to stifle their ultimate achievement of freedom.  Perhaps the most well-known, yet egregious, obstruction of liberty is incarceration.

For our children who sleep in adult jails and prisons, the deprivation of liberty extends far beyond the restrictions on their movement.  Despite being treated as adults in the criminal courts, children under 18 who are prosecuted as adults are hypocritically denied the freedoms granted by adulthood (voting, serving in the military, living independent of their parents, completing compulsory education, getting married, etc.). This inconsistency begs the question, Is incarceration itself the punishment, or are we sanctioning further punishment once children are incarcerated? Sadly, the answer lies in the latter. 

Our country has become so reliant on punishing law-breakers, that we have decided that the deprivation of liberty is simply not enough.  Instead, we subject these young children to extensive punishment—to long periods of solitary confinement, repeated exposure to violence, sexual assault, and physical abuse involving pepper spray, Tasers, or prolonged shackling, and sexual assault, all on top of decades and decades of incarceration.  We prohibit them from visiting with their families if they face a long time in prison; they go to the bottom of the waitlist for school, vocational training, and mental health treatment—services that are considered necessary for those “returning back to society.”  And then, when this punishment isn’t enough, we also punish them economically: before they are legally allowed to establish credit, we set about eroding their finances.  We charge them fines; when they can’t pay, they accrue penalties. We charge them for their healthcare, for phone privileges, and for  buying a bag of Cheetos.  And then we ask, “Is this enough punishment? Have we deprived them of enough of their liberties?”

And still, the answer is NO.  For the vast majority of youth who come home after a period of adult incarceration (95% will be released by the time they are 25), they continue to face “oppressive restrictions” to their liberty.  As we cite in our collateral consequences report, children who return home from a period of adult incarceration retain that conviction for the rest of their lives.  This can (and does) prevent them from furthering their education, securing housing, finding a job, serving in the military, voting, and thousands of other activities that define the “liberty” of adulthood. Furthermore, as conditions of their release, they are often told that they can’t congregate on certain community blocks, or interact with certain people (including members of their family). They are restricted from using alcohol, and are under surveillance for anywhere from one to five years, or, in some cases, for the rest of their lives. We have heard others refer to this as “perpetual punishment,” but it can also aptly be referred to as “loss of liberty.”

And, because we have found it acceptable to treat not only adults this way, but also children who are younger than 18, we have effectively undone a core tenant of our country’s founding principles.

Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system

New Alarming Report on PREA Data

By Anne-Lise Vray Friday, 01 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 is a crucial law on many fronts, including for the safety of youth involved in the justice system. One of its provisions is a yearly data collection requirement, carried out by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This year’s comprehensive statistical review and analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape was just released, and it contains some pretty alarming numbers.

According to the report, “The number of youth held in state juvenile systems declined sharply, from 38,580 at year end 2006 to 19,095 at year end 2012. As a result, the rate of sexual victimization allegations per 1,000 youth held in state juvenile systems more than doubled, from 19 per 1,000 youth in 2005 to 47 per 1,000 in 2012.” Despite a significant decrease in the number of youth in the juvenile justice system and the tireless efforts made to widely and properly implement PREA, sexual victimizations have dramatically increased. Additionally, the report cites that 45% of the 9,500 allegations of sexual victimization reported between 2007 and 2012 involved staff-on-youth sexual victimization.

The report also highlights that LGB youth are much more vulnerable to be sexually assaulted while in custody.  LGB youth (10.4%) were more than seven times as likely as heterosexual youth (1.4%) to be assaulted by another youth.

Overall, this document shows that there is still a long way to go in the fight to end prison rape, and that one of the best tools with have to do so is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which has surfaced the increasing prevalence of the rape and sexual assault of children in custody.  While PREA was passed in 2003, it is unfortunately not fully implemented, though it has become the new standard of care for children in custody. 

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a federal statute focused on sexual assault and victimization in juvenile facilities, prisons, jail, lockups, and other detention facilities. The goal of PREA is to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in detention and correctional facilities.  BJS will issue a second report on PREA in November/December 2016 that will report on the safety of youth in adult facilities.

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