Thursday, November 20, 2014

In Recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

By Jessica Sandoval

In recognition of Universal Children’s Day (UCD), first declared by the United Nations in 1954 and the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),  Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute and the Juvenile Justice Clinic held a panel discussion titled “Children’s Rights and Juvenile Justice: Victories, Challenges, and Opportunities”.  The rich discussion covered the importance of having such a treaty and the need for the United States to finally ratify it. Currently, the United States remains only one of three nations to not sign the treaty—Somalia and Iran are the other two nations.  

It was a reminder that the treaty and conventions hold remarkable possibilities for improving the lives of children under the age of 18 in the youth justice movement and other fields.  These international laws set a higher standard of care for children than our current laws do and are grounded in the idea that children should have special protections.  

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, youth in conflict with the law should be separated from adults when incarcerated and receive treatment appropriate to their age, with a focus on rehabilitation.  This is obviously contrary to the current US practice, as youth are routinely prosecuted as adults. It is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 youth in the adult court system every year.   The automatic application of transfer to the adult court ignores everything we know about the harms to public safety, opportunities for rehabilitation, and the safety of youth who suffer in adult facilities. 

Today is the 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we should be steadfast in our efforts to encourage the United States to ratify the CRC to ensure that we will offer the same human rights protection that almost every country in the world offers to their children.  We must demand that there is more awareness brought to this issue through our networks and other fields.  We are capable of doing more to insist that these policies are applied to create the protections outlined in the CRC to all children in the United States of America.  

Let’s all hold each other accountable for protecting our children and work together to build a nation that is more healing than harmful.

For information about the CRC visit:

Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Child Rights Information Network (CRIN)

Friday, November 7, 2014

California: Poised for Juvenile Justice Reform in 2015

By: Carmen Daugherty

On November 4th, Californians took a major step towards rolling back harsh laws that put thousands of adults and youth behind bars and in the criminal justice system for years. Passage of Proposition 47, the SafeNeighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, signaled a change from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.” The Act amends penalties for crimes such as shoplifting, receiving stolen property, and drug possession. Such crimes now only can be charged as misdemeanors and such offenders will no longer end up in prison. 

It also allows defendants who have served time or are currently in prison to petition a court to have their sentences or criminal records adjusted to remove their felony convictions. Such a change can affect upwards of 10,000 prisoners in California, but not those convicted of rape, murder, or child molestation. 

This statute will positively affect the nearly 1000 youth subject to the adult criminal justice system in California each year. Just in October, the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice released a report, "Treat Kids as Kids: Why Youth Should Be Kept in the Juvenile System," documenting the harms inflicted upon youth when transferred to the adult system. The report shares that while black youth were only 6 percent of California’s adolescent population in 2012, they were more than a quarter of youth given adult court dispositions and nine times more likely than white youth to be sentenced to adult prison. Further, juvenile judges were more likely to find black and Latino youth unfit for juvenile dispositions and transfer them the adult system in California. 

California made significant changes to its laws in both 2012 and 2013 by enacting SB 9 and SB 260 which focused on the opportunity for parole hearings for defendants who committed crimes before the age of 18. Now is the time for California to continue pushing for reform and reverse the damaging trends of treating youth as adults. The California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice makes salient recommendations to reduce the number of youth in the adult system, including:

  1.  Eliminating Direct File: California gives prosecutors broad discretion to file juvenile cases in adult courts, without fitness hearings.Use of direct file has caused the rates of youth prosecution in the adult system to increase dramatically.
  2. Collecting and Publishing Better Data: To understand the full picture of youth in the adult system in California, policymakers should require systems to collect data on what happens, from charging to sentencing, of youth in the adult system. 
  3. Restricting Judicial Waivers: Currently, 25% of youth sent to the adult system are a result of judicial waiver. Therefore, the coalition recommends prohibiting its use for first time offenders and recommends that youth should be presumed fit to remain in the juvenile court.
As California gears up for another legislative session, the Campaign supports these recommendations and looks forward to the advocacy efforts ahead. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Healing From Trauma: Girls in Juvenile Justice

The National Crittenton Foundation
Jessie Domingo Salu
November 5, 2014

Imagine being a child abused or neglected by someone you know, feeling unsafe in your own home, being betrayed by people who you should be able to trust. Where would you go? How would you cope with such traumatic experiences? For girls involved in the juvenile justice system, their options are very limited, and none of them would be seen as good choices from a middle class perspective. Girls typically turn their rage inward — they run away from home, are truant from schools, become defiant, or engage in self-harming behaviors. As a result, girls disproportionately end up in the juvenile justice system for status offenses—actions that would not be considered criminal if committed by adults—rather than for violent or person-to-person crimes.

In October, during the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Girls Initiative Roundtable, a woman in her early thirties, who had been detained at the young age of 15, shared her story about the childhood experiences that led up to her involvement with the juvenile justice system. I sat still listening, moved by her strength and the courage it took to share the harsh realities of her childhood — a childhood marked by adverse experiences including sexual, physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and a lack of the kind of family support so many of us take for granted.

The reality is that her story of exposure to violence and family dysfunction is not uncommon. Through the 2012 pilot use of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire in 18 Crittenton agencies across the country, we learned that of the nearly 200 juvenile justice-involved young women surveyed, 62 percent experienced 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (abuse, family dysfunction and neglect). Compare this with the data for females in the original ACE study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Foundation—where only 15 percent had experienced 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences—and the reality of how childhood adversity impacts the lives of girls and young women in the juvenile justice system comes into focus.

The level of trauma experienced by girls now in the juvenile justice system is unacceptable. The challenge for the juvenile justice system is to accurately assess the context of girls’ lives in order to provide the programs and services they need and deserve to heal and thrive. Programs must be required to provide assessments and care that meet the unique needs of girls, and that are gender-appropriate, culturally-responsive and trauma-informed.

Such programs would encompass, but are not limited to, girls being treated in the least restrictive environment (absence of handcuffs, shackling, etc.) whenever possible, placed in a facility that is in close proximity to the girls’ homes in order to maintain family relationships, consistent with female development that stress the role of relationships between staff members and girls, address the needs of parenting and pregnant teens, and are absent of triggers that could cause re-traumatization, etc. Girls programs need to be implemented in that it reflects on the understanding of the realities girls’ lives and addresses and responds to their individual strengths and challenges.

So what can you do to ensure that girls in the juvenile justice system get the support they need?

  • Promote universal assessment for girls and boys involved in the juvenile justice system to better understand their exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.
  • Advocate that girls in, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system receive gender and culturally-responsive, trauma-informed services to heal from the violence and abuse they have experienced.
  • Push for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, with a focus on preventing detention for status offenses and the importance of gender-responsive and trauma-informed services.
  • Endorse and advance the important work of organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.

As for the woman who shared her story, while she did not get the therapeutic services she needed through the juvenile justice system, through the course of her life she was able to get the appropriate services and support, and today continues her journey of healing. Despite it all, she is determined to keep her past from dictating her future.

Jessie Domingo Salu started her career as a social worker in the late 1990's, where she supported girls and young women recognize their potential and achieve their goals in school and in-home settings. Today, she is the Vice President for The National Crittenton Foundation, the umbrella for the 27 members of the Crittenton family of agencies operating in 32 states and the District of Columbia providing a continuum of services to girls and young women in a variety of settings including in-home, residential, foster care, and community based to support girls and young women to heal and achieve their full potential.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turned 40 in September 2014. To mark this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA throughout the fall and winter. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cookhorne v. Fischer Settlement Provides Beneficial Reforms for Youth in Solitary Confinement

By: Courtney Thomas, Northeastern University School of Law
       CFYJ Intern  

Picture by Richard Ross/Collage by Rodney Herring
Prisoner’sLegal Services of New York (PLS) reached a landmark settlement with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in the case of Cookhorne v. Fischer which will result in significant and positive changes regarding the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary sanction for 16 and 17 year old inmates in DOCCS custody.

The settlement agreement contains several amendments to DOCCS policies and prohibits solitary confinement of youth for disciplinary purposes by limiting the maximum hours of confinement per day. The agreement mandates that a youth may be confined for no more than 18 hours a day, five days per week, and no more than 22 hours the other two days of the week. It further establishes a minimum number of hours for programming and recreation during this out-of-cell time. The settlement agreement also requires that regulations be amended to state that age is a mitigating factor in disciplinary proceedings where a youth has been accused of misconduct and requires a written statement of how the age affected the disposition.

Other important changes under the agreement include:

  • A one-time review of all youth and former youth currently in solitary confinement which shall consist of a clinical evaluation by DOCCS medical staff and a review of the youth’s institutional record to determine whether the inmate’s disciplinary sanction should be modified;
  • An assessment of every youth in solitary confinement and every former youth under the age of 21 who has been continuously held in solitary confinement to determine their need for an individual education plan;

  • The hiring of licensed master social workers with children and youth specialties;

  • The implementation of positive adolescent-appropriate programs for the treatment and management of youth including a plan to transition the youth back to general confinement;

  • The development of training materials for hearing officers which emphasize the requirement that the inmates age be considered as a mitigating factor;

  • And a procedure for the review of disciplinary confinement sanctions imposed on youth.  

This case originated from the sentencing of 17-year-old Paul Cookhorne in November of 2011 to four years in solitary confinement for allegedly assaulting a correctional officer.  According to a press release from PLS, inmates in solitary confinement in NYS prisons are held in a cell the size of small parking space for 23 hours a day.  Cookhorne was also denied phone calls packages, commissary, and good time credits for four years. The settlement agreement in this case is in line with a prior settlement reached last year in the case of Peoples v. Fisher which also challenged the use of solitary confinement in NYS prisons.  Knowing the physical, emotional, and psychological harm created by the use of solitary confinement, these settlements indicate a positive step in reforming the practices and policies governing solitary confinement in NYS prisons.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Advocates are a Powerful Voice at DC Council Hearing

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a public hearing on Bill B20-825, the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014 (YOARA). The hearing was chaired by Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairperson of the Committee. Wells began the hearing by highlighting the main provisions of the bill and the positive changes this would have for youth charged as adults in the District of Columbia. DC supporters of the bill made sure to have a strong presence, and with the leadership of the JOY Campaign team, over 100 people attended the hearing. 
What the YOARA bill does:
1) Prevents most youth from being held in adult jail while they are awaiting trial.
2) Allows youth who have been charged as adults to have the adult court judge review all the available facts to determine if adult prosecution serves the public interest. If not, the judge can transfer the case down to juvenile court.
3) Ends the practice of automatically charging all youth with a prior conviction in adult court, even for minor offenses and if local prosecutors think the case would be more appropriately handled in juvenile court.
Over twenty people provided testimony at the hearing in favor of the bill including individuals from local and national organizations, youth who had been charged as adults in the District, and other interested members of the public. While the testimony covered a wide range of issues associated with youth exposure to the adult criminal justice system, there were a few common themes among the testimonies.

Several witnesses focused on the substantive differences between the services offered at youth facilities and adult facilities and the impact that intervention with the appropriate services can have on these individuals. Charlie Curtis, a member of Free Minds Book Club, who had spent time in both adult and youth facilities stated that youth facilities have education, counseling, one on one support, training programs, and social workers and case managers equipped to deal with youth issues. Clinique Marshall-Chapman, a forensic social worker in the DC criminal justice system, also addressed the differences in services at youth and adult facilities noting that the adult facility, “has not, and cannot provide the proper resources and programming needed to effectively duplicate the rehabilitation opportunities provided to the juvenile counterparts [held at the youth facility].” Both Marshall-Chapman and Jessica Seitz, Policy Analyst with National PTA, also commented on the higher quality education and increased levels of family engagement available in the youth facility and the positive influence this has on young people.

The impact on public safety of charging and housing youth in adult facilities was another popular topic. Several witnesses emphasized that these youth will return to society one day and that services in the juvenile system better prepare these youth for reintegration in the community. Multiple witnesses identified research showing recidivism rates were higher for youth held in adult facilities including findings that, “youth prosecuted in the adult system are 34% more likely to reoffend than those in the juvenile system.” Witnesses also noted that charging and holding youth in adult facilities does not deter crime. Several of the youth who had been charged as adults stated that they had no idea being tried as an adult was even an option before they were charged. In his testimony, Juan Peterson said, “when I heard I was going to the DC jail I looked around to see who they were talking to because surely it couldn’t be me.”

The increased risk of harm for youth housed in adult facilities was also a major concern. Carmen Daugherty, Policy Director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, testified that youth are often victimized in adult facilities and that, “youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility.” In his opening remarks, Councilmember Wells discussed the heightened risk of sexual abuse for youth in adult facilities. Eddie Crist testified that in adult jail everyone could get their hands on a deadly weapon, which wasn’t the case at juvenile facilities, so youth in adult jails have to act tough to protect themselves. Mark Schindler, Executive Director at Justice Policy Institute, also noted that, “even short exposure to adult jail can result in negative and detrimental effects.”

Testimony presented at the hearing in opposition to the bill focused on the authority of the Council to enact this bill as well as the operational and logistical issues of implementing these reforms at the facilities that would be affected.

YOARA was introduced by Councilmembers Graham and Wells and is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Orange, Barry, Bonds, Grosso, Alexander, and Bowser. The full text of the bill can be found HERE. Councilmember Wells has encouraged the public to provide feedback, comments and suggestions on the bill by visiting HERE.   

For a full list of witness testimony, click HERE.

Monday, October 27, 2014

YJAM 2014: No One Should Have to Suffer a Lifetime Because of a Childhood Mistake

By Xavier McElrath Bey
Campaign For Fair Sentencing of Youth

At a recent event, someone commented to me that youth who are tried in adult criminal courts have to contend with a “life sentence” of consequences that result from a conviction and completely negates the prospect of positive change for most youth.

As a youth justice advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth I often speak out against the practice of sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, but this was the first time I had ever heard the term “life sentence” used in reference to the lifelong consequences that children face when they receive an adult criminal conviction. Such a conviction can limit access to financial aid for school, housing in many rental units, employment, voting and in myriad other ways. In that moment of clarity, I felt a sudden rush of energy and knew that what he just stated was absolutely true and unfair.

I went to prison after I was involved in a gang-related murder at 13. When I was released from prison in 2002 at age 27, I thought that I would be able to leave my past behind and start a new life. I was extremely optimistic because I had prepared for the day for many years. With my Pollyanna perception of the world, I had created step-by-step plan of action. I had never known what it was like to live as an adult, and especially as an ex-con, in free society.

What I had in my favor were two associate degrees, a certificate in computer technology and a bachelor’s degree in Social Science, with a 4.0 GPA. My passion was to find a job in social services, but over and over I was denied jobs or even a first interview because of my conviction. I had to survive, so I eventually started to work with my sister’s boyfriend, who demolished properties and cemented pavements around the city. I remember returning home after long hours of hard labor with dirt and cement lining the inside of my nails and nostrils and only 35.00 in my pocket.

My first real job came four months later when an outreach worker who was also formerly convicted spoke to the store manager of a Starbucks on the South Side of Chicago. I was finally able to work a real job part time as a barista. Many people coming out of prison are not so fortunate. Working part-time also gave me enough time to return to Roosevelt University and pursue my master’s degree—which, combined with the support of many people, eventually led to greater positions.

I can understand why some youth and young adults who are faced with these challenges—after having paid their debts to society—often give up These challenges make it difficult to make a clean break and avoid getting into trouble again.

As October comes to an end and we reflect on Youth Justice Awareness Month, we should remember that no one should ever have to suffer for a lifetime because of childhood mistakes.

Xavier McElrath-Bey is a youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Actions Matter: How We Can Show our Girls We Care

Maheen Kaleem

I met Lee-Lee six years ago, while she was in juvenile hall. She was 14. Her first child was six months old.  Her charge? Prostitution. Two days before Lee-Lee’sarrest, she was sexually assaulted by the man who bought her from her pimp. The next night, she was back on the streets. When I asked her if she reported her sexual assault to the police, she said, “of course not—they were arresting me.”

Federal law defines any commercial sex act involving someone under the age of 18 as a “severe form of trafficking.” And yet every year in the United States, hundreds of girls and gender-nonconforming children are arrested for prostitution, solicitation, and other-related crimes.

Child victims of commercial sexual exploitation, like Lee-Lee, enter the juvenile justice system with extreme unaddressed trauma. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) requires states that receive federal funds for their juvenile justice systems to develop policies for gender-responsive services and treatment plans to address the unique physical and mental health needs of girls and gender-nonconforming children.

The JJDPA has not been reauthorized since 2002. When the JJDPA was first introduced, there was no specific mention of gender-bias in the juvenile justice system—it was through the reauthorizations in 1992 and 2002 that increased attention and support was given to programs focused specifically on girls and gender-nonconforming youth. Over the last decade, funding for the JJDPA has drastically dwindled, although more recently Congress has appropriated some additional resources for system-involved girls, which is a step in the right direction.

The JJDPA is imperative because it:

  1. Requires each state to do an analysis of gender-specific prevention and treatment services and develop a plan to implement these services
  2. Incentivizes states to implement policies that prohibit gender bias in placement and treatment and develop programs that focus on young girls at risk of delinquency
  3. Allocates resources for local programs that are specifically targeted at girls
Through reauthorization, the JJDPA can be strengthened to better serve girls and gender-nonconforming youth by:
  • Making implementation of gender-responsive and trauma-responsive programming a core requirement for states to receive federal funding; and
  • Eliminating the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception to ensure that children charged with status offenses (who are disproportionately girls) not be detained.
Reauthorizing and strengthening the JJDPA is necessary because more and more girls and gender-nonconforming youth are entering the system. Many of these children are victims of abuse, are involved in the foster care system, and are victims of child sex trafficking. Many of these girls are mothers themselves. Young mothers like Lee-Leeneed therapeutic support so that they can heal themselves, and prevent their children from becoming trapped in the same cycles of poverty and abuse.

Like many victims of trafficking who are arrested, Lee-Lee’s poem tells us how worthless, misunderstood and cast away she feels. Traffickers capitalize on these feelings of worthlessness by convincing children that no one cares for them, and that they should put all of their trust into the trafficker.

If JJDPA is reauthorized and strengthened, Lee-Lee’s probation officer will be someone who understands the unique struggles that young girls face.  Her treatment and supervision plan will include therapy, parenting classes, mentoring, and support from probation officers and professionals who see her as a child and a victim of abuse, rather than a criminal. 

Every year that the JJDPA is not reauthorized, we send a message to our girls and gender-nonconforming children that the traffickers are right—that we do not value them, we do not care about their histories of abuse and trauma, and that instead of receiving support, they will be punished and judged.

If we are truly interested in protecting children from being bought and sold on our streets, we must demonstrate so through our actions. Reauthorizing JJDPA responds to Lee-Lee’s questions; it says to her:  “You are a child and you matter.”

Maheen Kaleem is the Equal Justice Works Fellow at Human Rights Project for Girls, sponsored by Toyota Motor Corporation and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. She has been working with system-involved youth for over ten years.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. 

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turned 40 in September 2014. To mark this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA throughout the fall and winter. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.