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LGBT youths especially vulnerable in adult jails

Tuesday, 28 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Rick Mula

The visitation room at the Alabama county jail was tiny. The beige cinderblock walls pressed in on the public defender and me as we waited for the guards to escort our 17-year-old client into the room.

J.W. had already spent four months confined to an adult jail cell. He hadn’t even been tried for a crime yet. But in Alabama, as well as other states, children as young as 16 can be automatically tried as an adult for certain crimes. They can also be held in adult jails as they await trial.

And that’s why J.W. was now sitting in this tiny room.

He’d been swept up in the adult criminal justice system, like so many other kids. An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the U.S. What’s more, LGBT youths are vastly overrepresented. Despite making up no more than 7 percent of the overall youth population, they make up about 20 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system. Most of these young people, like J.W., are children of color.

J.W. tells me that he used to identify as bisexual. He says that after he disclosed his sexual orientation, a corrections officer assumed he was promiscuous and called him a “ho.” The message was loud and clear: Bisexual individuals would be singled out. J.W. says he now identifies as straight. As someone who works to educate LGBT youths about their legal rights, I can’t help but wonder if he is avoiding identifying as bisexual to protect himself from more mistreatment.

What is certain, and worth remembering during Pride month, is that there are many LGBT youths in adult jails across this country. High rates of family rejection, hostile teachers and classmates at school as well as inappropriate foster care placements take their toll on LGBT youths. They may run away from home, skip school or abuse substances to cope – all activities that increase their chances of a brush with the law. LGBT youths are also more likely to be prosecuted for age-appropriate consensual sexual activity than their peers.

Once in adult jails, there’s little opportunity for rehabilitation or education that can get a young person’s life back on track, whether they are LGBT or not. I learned, for example, that J.W. attended a GED class sporadically for a couple months, but the class ended without warning or explanation.

Of course, one of the greatest concerns about placing a child in an adult jail is the threat of physical and sexual abuse. The problem is particularly acute for LGBT youths. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that 6.3 percent of LGBT youths reported sexual victimization compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youths.

Authorities may point out that federal law requires facilities to maintain “sight and sound separation” between young people and adults, but solitary confinement is often the only way to accomplish this goal. Confining a child or teen to a small four-walled cell for hours on end raises a host of other dangers – depression, anxiety and psychosis, for example – particularly for kids because of their developmental vulnerability.

It’s clear that jail is no place for young people, such as J.W.

The statistics and stories may be grim, but the situation is not hopeless. There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system and help youths in adult facilities. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Promote family acceptance interventions, which can help a youth avoid rejection that can put him or her on a path into the criminal justice system.
  • Urge your senators and representatives to support reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
  • Promote the development of LGBT-inclusive policies and procedures throughout your community to prevent LGBT youths from feeling isolated.
  • Learn more about campaigns to raise the age a juvenile can be tried as an adult – an important step toward preventing children from ending up in adult facilities.

As I think back to my visit with J.W., I remember how he beamed. He was so happy to have a visitor. Despite his situation, he eagerly chatted about Ariana Grande’s greatest hits and talked about his favorite movies and TV shows. J.W. may be behind bars, but he’s not that different from other kids his age. He’s just doing his best to survive an environment that was never meant for any child.

We need to do our best to keep kids like J.W. out of adult jails.

Rick Mula is an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.

Want to maximize your impact? Partner with the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Kara Aanenson

For the past five years the Just Kids Campaign partnered with Campaign for Youth Justice to end the automatic prosecution of youth as adult in the state of Maryland.  During those 5 years we:

  • Stopped the construction of a youth jail in Baltimore,
  • Passed five pieces of legislation,
  • Built our statewide membership to over 5,000 members, and
  • Created a statewide coalition.

None of this would have been possible without technical assistance from the Campaign. They were with us every step of the way from organizing to legislative sessions. We adopted their theory of change, including working with youth who were charged as adults and their families. Working together with youth and their families multiplied our output and provided credibility to our work.

The Campaign helped us organize by hosting strategy sessions where we hashed out our action plans. They provided insight on what worked in other states and helped us brainstorm how to implement those strategies in Maryland. They created Youth Justice Awareness Month, uniting all states working on adultification of youth, and increased our fundraising efforts. The Campaign provided spokesperson training to enhance our messaging.

During Maryland’s 90 day legislative sessions we checked in weekly and they provided a sounding board for legislative strategy.  If amendments were added to a bill they would help us review them to determine our next steps. If we needed help finding a national expert to be a member of our taskforce or testify at a bill hearing, they would reach out to all their contacts to help make sure we got someone there.

The Campaign can maximize state impacts because they practice what they preach. They have run their own campaigns in D.C. and have assisted so many other states. They understand when you are frustrated because your coalition is fracturing, they know what it’s like to have a bill fail in committee, and they know what it feels like to get a victory. This work is rewarding, but it is also exhausting. Some days you feel like you are on top of the world and others days it feels like you are pushing a huge boulder up a hill in the rain, and on those days the Campaign is there standing beside you and helping you push. That is what makes them the best partner.    

Kara Aanenson is the Director of Family Engagement at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services since April 2016. Before that, she was the Director of the Just Kid Campaign for 5 years. 

This post is part of the CFYJ #IMPACT Blog Series, a project celebrating CFYJ's 10 years of commitment to juvenile justice reform.

Oregon Considers “Age and Sophistication” of Youth before Treating As Adults

Monday, 20 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country

In May, the Oregon Supreme Court made an exemplary decision when they reversed a 2015 ruling made by the state’s Court of Appeals in the State v. J.C.N.-V. case. In State v. J.C.N.-V., the appeals court upheld the initial decision to transfer a 13 year old, J.C.N.-V, who was charged with aggravated murder, from juvenile court to circuit court for criminal prosecution. State law in Oregon permits the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction and hand over cases to the jurisdiction of the circuit court if it finds the youth to be of “sufficient sophistication and maturity to appreciate the nature and quality of the conduct involved.” This happened to J.C.N.-V., whose case was originally transferred to the circuit court for criminal prosecution, and whose transfer was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Enter Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel at Juvenile Law Center, and Angela Sherbo, J.C.N.-V.’s attorney from Youth, Rights, and Justice. They successfully argued a reversal of the transfer in the state’s Supreme Court, which responded with an avowal that the “sophistication and maturity” of a child is too simplistic a measure for determining whether a transfer from juvenile court to circuit court is warranted. The Court urged the legislature to use a more nuanced approach in dictating the guidelines for any potential transfers.

A couple weeks after this decision, District Attorney of Oregon’s Multnomah County, Rod Underhill, announced that his office will no longer automatically prosecute teens ages 15 to 17 in circuit court for certain Measure 11crimes. Unlike the defendant in State v J.C.N.-V., children charged with Measure 11 crimes do not have the benefit of a hearing before a juvenile court judge; instead they are automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.  Furthermore, if convicted, they serve the same mandatory sentences that would apply to adults; however, they can begin serving their sentence in a youth prison until they are age 25.

District Attorney Underhill has agreed that if certain considerations are met, his office will be willing to start some Measure 11 cases in juvenile court.  Examples of these considerations include: Whether the teen has no past criminal record, whether he or she didn’t seriously hurt anyone, or whether he or she wants to get treatment or turn his or her life around.  Cases that will now originate in juvenile court would then be bound by the ruling in J.C.N.-V, and judges would have to consider the “sophistication and maturity” of the child before determining whether or not to transfer the child to the adult system.

While the Campaign for Youth Justice advocates that all children’s cases should originate in juvenile court, these are still steps in the right direction, and nice examples of the ways that litigation and practice interface forpositive reforms.  All these efforts combined will hopefully set an example for other states to come around on this issue.

June is Children’s Awareness Month

Monday, 20 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

June is Children’s Awareness Month. One would typically think of a child as a 10 year-old in the prime of his/her life, happily going to school, swinging on the playground with friends, helping parents around the house, growing and learning more every day. Unfortunately, for many American children this is not the reality. In 22 states and the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted as adults. In fact, fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. Some states set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13, which is still way too young.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has found 5 times in the past decade, children are not the same as adults, and Courts need to ensure they are considering the age, maturity, and brain development before issuing adult punishments.  

Children’s Awareness Month is a great occasion to remember these too often forgotten children, and to act on their behalves in order to end the harmful practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth as adults. Instead we should invest in age appropriate approaches that work and tend to the underlying trauma that so many of these youth are exposed to before they ever come in contact with the law. This failed policy of treating children like adults is contradicted by neuroscience leads to poor outcomes for public safety, since youth prosecuted as adults are 34% more likely to recidivate than those handled by the juvenile justice system.

All children deserve to be children, and provided the opportunity to correct bad decisions and afforded second chances.

Happy Father's Day!

Monday, 13 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Across the Country

This month like every year, the Campaign for Youth Justice celebrates Father’s Day, a time to recognize the amazing dads, grandfathers, and other men who have served as role models to so many children.

Dads can play many roles in children’s lives—they can help provide for their well-being, coach them through difficult times, advocate for them when they need extra support, celebrate their accomplishments, and provide the structure and stability that is needed if children fall off track. They even play and roughhouse on demand! In short, dads make a big difference in the lives of children.

This month we’re asking you to make a contribution in honor of fathers everywhere.

A few years ago, CFYJ CEO Marcy Mistrett met two fathers who, back when they were still in high school, were arrested for carjacking. Dwayne Betts, and his friend, Marcus Bullock, just fifteen and sixteen at the time, were tried and sentenced as adults and spent a significant part of their young adulthood incarcerated in adult facilities. Now, years later, both are married and dedicated fathers to their children.

While incarcerated, Dwayne completed high school and began reading and writing poetry and is now a nationally renowned poet and author, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, an advocate for those facing parole and returning home, and member of the CFYJ Board of Directors. Marcus, also a married father of two, is a successful entrepreneur, having started several businesses since he has been home. He is the CEO of Perspectives Premier Contractors (PPC), where he regularly employs other returning citizens, and a technology entrepreneur – he created Flikshop, a mobile app that allows those in prison to connect with their families. Marcus also developed the Flikshop School of Business, classes that he brings to incarcerated youth to help them develop the life skills needed for reentry, he also was recently appointed by the DC Mayor to serve on the board of returning citizens. Both dads are featured at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer to generate support for their re-entry work.

Dwayne and Marcus are not only committed fathers, but serve as mentors to hundreds of others who are returning home and trying to get their lives back on track—a transition that is riddled with challenges. As CFYJ writes in our recently released report, Collateral Consequences, incarcerating youth as adults very often results in long-term mental health issues, lowered employment opportunities, restrictions to further education, and thousands of other barriers to re-socialization.

By supporting CFYJ, you’re supporting spokespeople like Dwayne and Marcus to help mitigate these consequences and keep youth out of the adult criminal justice system altogether.

We often get asked what type of financial support is the most helpful for a nonprofit organization. With so much uncertainty in nonprofit fundraising, a recurring monthly contribution of $50, $25 or even $10 a month (as little as $120 a year!) would help give CFYJ more stable funding from month to month as we seek to invest in people like Dwayne and Marcus who are working to turn the system around.

Your monthly contribution is a perfect way to help sustain our important work – just like so many dads have sustained us throughout our lives.

Please join us as we thank all the fathers and others that support our young people through good times and bad. 

The Story of Kalief Browder

Friday, 10 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

In memory of Kalief Browder, whose life was uprooted at Rikers Island, and whose death we remember this month.

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Based on excerpts from interviews of Kalief Browder conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

In 2010, sixteen year-old Kalief Browder of the Bronx was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was charged with robbery and assault, but he said he didn’t commit the crime. Still, he was imprisoned at Rikers Island to await his trial…for three years. Kalief sat and waited while his life went by. Most of this time was spent in solitary confinement. He used a vent in the cell to communicate with other inmates through the walls, which offered some solace, expect for the frequent times he heard head banging, wall kicking, or distressed screaming from his neighbors at any hour of the day or night.

The only education offered to teens like Kalief in solitary is Cell Study, which is when an officer slips a worksheet under the cell door for completion, and then picks it up a few days later. Despite playing around in the hallways with friends, flirting with girls by their lockers, and doing what other young teens do, Kalief had always taken school seriously. But whatever scholastic promise he held before Rikers was disregarded within the prison’s confines, and Kalief missed out on his junior and senior years of high school.

Kalief endured violence from guards and other inmates, but he felt that the psychological and emotional trauma caused by his circumstances was worse. He was hungry all the time. The guards would sometimes skip over his cell when delivering meals, let alone ever give him the few pieces of leftover bread they always had. He was constantly stressed out. If he ever needed to communicate with the guards, the only way to get their attention was to quickly stick his arm through the slot in the door when it opened briefly for passing in meal trays. If he didn’t “hold his slot,” as they call it, he was subjected to various forms of mistreatment and disrespect such as no showers or no food. He was entirely helpless.

Still just a boy, Kalief was naturally accustomed to and dependent on asking his mother for help when he found himself in tough situations. But all his mother could do in this situation was cry on the phone. He attempted suicide after about two years at Rikers. Every so often, Kalief would get called to stand before a judge to hear whether he would get his trial. During one such meeting, Kalief was offered release only if he pleaded guilty. Despite wanting more than anything to go home, he turned down the deal, guided by his moral grit that prevented him from admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. And he was well aware that if he ever got the trial he was hoping for, he could face up to 15 years in state prison if he lost.

In the spring of 2013, the judge dropped all the charges against Kalief and he finally went home. He enrolled in a GED class, and passed his GED exam about a year later. He then enrolled at Bronx Community College, where he did well, but his mental health problems resulting from his time at Rikers formed insurmountable obstacles. After more suicide attempts and visits to hospital psychiatric wards, Kalief ended his life in June of 2015 at the age of 22.

As we remember the life and struggle of Kalief Browder this month, the reality of incarceration-induced mental illness continues to affect youth everywhere. In a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a longitudinal study reveals that nearly 50 percent of male juveniles and nearly 30 percent of female juveniles had at least one psychiatric disorder five years after their initial, baseline interviews for the study, which were conducted while they were awaiting adjudication of their cases. Substance abuse and disruptive behavior disorders were found to be the most common, and with additional long-term gender and race-related effects that put some groups at significant mental and social disadvantages, the need for more age-appropriate criminal justice is apparent.

At no point during or after Kalief Browder’s trial did anyone in power apologize to him or even acknowledge that he lost three years of his life, the rest of his youth, and ultimately his will to live, in solitary confinement at Rikers Island.

California Moves Closer to Eradicating Direct File

Wednesday, 08 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

In California, ongoing efforts backed by Gov. Jerry Brown have inched the state that much closer to eradicating the direct filing of youth into the adult justice system. Direct filing, a practice that allows prosecutors to determine whether to charge a youth in adult criminal court, has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of youth serving lengthy sentences.

A new report by the W. Haywood Burns Institute suggests that direct filing is a worsening problem in the state. Despite decreased youth crime rates, California prosecutors are increasingly using direct file. The inconsistency is apparent: there has been a 55 percent drop in felony arrests from 2003 to 2014, but 23 percent more direct files during the same timeframe. Currently, direct filing is responsible for 80 percent of youth prosecuted in the adult system. Juvenile court judges can also waive youth into the adult system, and there are certain crimes that are statutorily excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction that, by law, originate in criminal court.

The Burns Institute’s report also points out growing racial disparities with direct file. Direct files for white youth are actually declining, while direct files for youth of color are rising. In 2003, youth of color were 4.3 times as likely as white youth to be directly filed, but by 2014, that likelihood had risen to 11.3 times as likely.

The report also includes the evidence of psycho-emotional trauma experienced by youth who are subjected to the adult system. This trauma, caused primarily by intense stress associated with higher stakes prosecution, is found to increase recidivism rates among these youth.

This report comes in the wake of a California Supreme Court decision in favor of a ballot measure that would let voters decide whether a judge can determine if youth are processed through the juvenile or adult court, rather than a prosecutor. The ballot initiative is just part of a series of measures proposed by Brown.

Advocates and paid signature gatherers have collected more than a million signatures in support of the ballot initiative—tens of thousands more than needed. The signatures should be certified by the end of the month, which is the final step to getting the direct file reform discussion on the ballot in California this November.

New OJJDP Report Shows New Trends in Residential Placement of Juveniles

Wednesday, 01 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

 By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

A new report of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention analyzes the juvenile residential placement data for the year 2013, and finds that overall, more than 60,000 youth were in residential placement across the United States on October 23, 2013, a drop of over 12% compare to 2011 and of more than 44% since 2003. 

While this report shows some encouraging trends, some others are worrisome. On the same date, 2,524 youth were locked up for status offenses, i.e. for misbehavior such as running away from home, skipping school, or speaking back to an adult – actions that are not considered crimes when committed by adults. Although the number of kids incarcerated for status offenses has decreased, it still represents almost 5% of all juveniles in residential placement, which is proportionally about the same as in 1997.

The report cautions that state variations in upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction influence placement rates. It points out that if all other factors were equal, one would expect higher juvenile placement rates in states where older youth are under juvenile court jurisdiction. Juvenile placement rates are also influenced by extended jurisdiction laws and transfer laws. States with laws allowing for youth to stay in juvenile facilities beyond the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction have higher placement rates than states with stricter laws, while states with broad transfer provisions would be expected to have lower juvenile placement rates than other states.

With those caveats in mind, the report highlights the geographic disparities in juvenile placement rates on the state level. The District of Columbia, South Dakota, and Wyoming have the highest juvenile placement rate per 100,000, while Vermont, Massachusetts and Hawaii have the lowest. Nationwide in 2013, 173 juvenile offenders were in placement for every 100,000 juveniles in the U.S. population.

Collateral Consequences: CFYJ's new report highlighting the long-term ramifications of incarcerating children as adults

Monday, 23 May 2016 Posted in 2016, Research & Policy

Today the Campaign for Youth Justice released Collateral Consequences, a new online report seeking to raise awareness on the long-lasting damages caused by the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating kids as adults. These consequences range from having a hard time finding a job to never being able to vote or to get education loans. 

The report also includes policy recommendations directed to the different levels of government, from local to federal representatives. 

Check out a video from Rev. Rubén Austria, the founding Executive Director of Community Connections for Youth on the damaging effects that collateral consequences can have on youth that have gone through the adult criminal justice system.

Click here to read the report and learn more about the collateral consequences of incarcerating youth in adult criminal justice system.

Please help us by spreading the word on social media:


Check out the new online report by the Campaign For Youth Justice, “Collateral Consequences”, and learn more about the long-lasting damages caused by the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating kids as adults. http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/collateralconsequences/ 

CFYJ’S NEW REPORT: “Collateral Consequences” highlights the long-term ramifications of incarcerating children as adults, even far after they were released. http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/collateralconsequences/

Each year, approximately 95,000 youth are held in adult jails and prisons.  While locked up as adults, children often face inhumane conditions including physical and sexual abuse, prolonged solitary confinement, and insufficient health and educational resources. CFYJ’S NEW REPORT: “Collateral Consequences” on the damaging impact http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/collateralconsequences/

VIDEO: Check out a video from Rev. Rubén Austria, the founding Executive Director of Community Connections for Youth on the damaging effects that "Collateral Consequences can have on youth that have gone through the adult criminal justice system. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLCGAf-Uevk#YouthJustice


.@justiceforyouth has new report about the long-term damages done to kids incarcerated as adults http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/collateralconsequences/

Incarcerating kids as adults is harmful & will hurt them their whole life. Check out a new report http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/collateralconsequences/

VIDEO: @rubenaustria of @CC4Y on collateral consequences of having youth in the adult criminal justice system https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLCGAf-Uevk

Why Campaign for Youth Justice is Awesome

Wednesday, 18 May 2016 Posted in 2016, CFYJ Updates

 By Abby Anderson

Connecticut and I got involved with the Campaign for Youth Justice in late 2005.  They were a new organization, I was a new advocate and Raise the Age CT was a new challenge for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA).  We were all a great fit for each other.  It’s been ten years; neither of us is new anymore and Raise the Age CT is in its second iteration, now referring to efforts to bring young adults up to the age of 20 into the juvenile justice system.   Connecticut’s progress is partially due to the ongoing support, networking opportunities and relationships the Campaign provided to CTJJA.

Raise the Age CT was a success because of a broad coalition of stakeholders across the state.  It was my job to stage-manage and organize among the advocates here.  Like I said, I was new and relied mainly on instinct - and the Campaign.  They provided technical, practical and moral support throughout the Raise the Age CT efforts, staying involved long after many supporters would have moved on.

As we worked to produce a short video, develop a presentation for community meetings, and coordinate an educational hearing, the campaign was there at every turn, pointing us in the direction of the latest research, experts and best practices.   They helped us understand how to get our information to a wide variety of stakeholders in a short period of time - technical support.  When legislative champions said, “It would be great if you could get a whole mess of people to the Capitol for a rally,” we turned to the campaign and said, “we didn’t plan for a rally – we don’t have the budget for buses!”  And the Campaign said, “plan the rally, we’ll cover the buses.” - practical support.   Of course, the staff added, “Also, do you need one or two of us to come up that day to help with coordination and crowd control?”  - moral support.

I joked (though it was true) that for a 12-18 month period I talked with the people at the campaign as much as I spoke with anyone in Connecticut.  They helped me, and the whole Connecticut coalition, through the stressful, unpredictable, exhausting – but ultimately successful Raise the Age process.

When the legislation passed in 2007, I didn’t fully understand that our work was just beginning.  Getting a state to say it’s going to do something is (I learned) much easier than getting the state to actually implement what it said it would do.  Luckily, the people at the campaign knew that an advocate’s job doesn’t end when legislation passes.  They provided the same supports and guidance to us as we moved through the more technical, less visible process of moving Raise the Age CT from a legislative  idea to an on-the-ground policy and practice reality.  The five years from original passage in 2007 to full implementation in 2012 required the full attention, investment and skill set of Connecticut advocates.  Skill sets that the campaign helped us to develop, augment and master.

Perhaps the most important legacy of our relationship with the campaign is just that – the relationships.  The people we met at the campaign and through their network remain friends, allies and partners in the work to this day.  The campaign is focused not on building and retaining knowledge for its own storage and use, but on exporting best practices, expertise and ideas as broadly as possible.   We are so proud to be part of the Campaign family and congratulate them on their first ten years. 

Abby Anderson is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance whose mission is to to reduce the number of children and youth entering the juvenile and criminal justice system, and advocate a safe, effective, and fair system for those involved.

This post is part of the CFYJ #IMPACT Blog Series, a project celebrating CFYJ's 10 years of commitment to juvenile justice reform.

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