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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

YJAM 2014: Advocates Making Waves in Youth Justice Reforms

As we reflect on this year and in commemoration of Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM), we have seen the pursuit of many youth justice reforms across the country. Efforts to improve the lives of our youth come in many forms - whether it's pursuits to improve laws, efforts to change the hearts and minds of the public, or working to empower youth and their families - the Campaign for Youth Justice applauds the daily efforts of advocates who take a stand for youth. Today, we highlight what many say can't be done: change for the better. Our youth, our communities, and our nation have all felt the positive impact of your efforts. Thank you for all that you do.

2014 has seen a growing focus on collaboration. Advocates in Missouri, New York, and Nevada have worked diligently to serve, staff, and navigate commissions and task forces established specifically to study laws that funnel youth into the adult criminal justice system. In collaboration with legislators, professors, families, system stakeholders and law enforcement - these opportunities allow for distinct voices to come together and determine real solutions that can reduce the number of youth prosecuted in the adult court. Through coalition efforts, advocates in New Hampshire were successful in raising the age of court jurisdiction this year, ending the practice of sending 17-year-olds through the adult criminal justice system. Learn more HERE about HB1624, one of the most important pieces of juvenile justice legislation in New Hampshire over the past 30 years.

2014 has also seen community and youth involvement and leadership in reform efforts. Along with advocates working in coalition, many are also striving to ensure the voices of community members and youth are a part of their strategy development and actions. With the goal of building a statewide campaign, Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD) and allies have been hosting regional meetings to not only raise awareness about youth justice issues, but to also hear from the community and to provide opportunities for building advocacy skills.

Judge Our Youth Campaign allies
 In the District of Columbia, the Judge Our Youth Campaign has also spent 2014 engaging the community on the issue of housing kids in DC's adult facility. In trying to build community buy-in, the JOY Campaign has hosted briefings, presented information to DC community members, and engaged people through social media and online actions to enlist support. They are now prepping to pack the room of an upcoming public hearing that will bring critical legislation in front of DC leadership. The most valuable contribution to this campaign has been the willingness of DC youth to share their stories. Through the power of putting a human face to the issue, their experiences have been the reason the campaign has built support from council members, as well as a community that wasn't aware youth were being exposed to the dangers of jails.

NY RTA campaign youth leaders
In New York, advocates with the Juvenile Justice Project are invested in empowering system-involved and LGBTQ youth through the Safe Passages program and Youth Speakers Institute. Recognizing that youth voices play a key role in educating legislators and the public by countering stereotypes and misconceptions, both initiatives train and connect young people with opportunities to participate in advocacy and public education on youth justice reform. In creating safe spaces for youth, together they learn how to organize, and build leadership and life skills. Once they graduate, they become spokespeople and organizers for the Raise the Age campaign - an effort to end the automatic prosecution of 16-and-17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system.

NY youth in action
We believe all of these efforts are victories because they are both a catalyst and a product of positive movement in the criminal justice arena. Reform is not possible without the people who do the work on the ground every day. Congratulations to all of the advocates who are making tremendous things happen! We know there is much work to do, but for this moment, let us all sit back, reflect, and enjoy what you and many committed advocates have done to better the lives of youth and their families and the greater communities you serve.

In DC capturing youth impact stories
Join us today in celebrating those who fight for youth justice every day. 

Who inspires you to continue the fight? Share a #YJAM shout out online. Stay connected with other allies during Youth Justice Awareness Month this October, by following us on Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Take Action: Join DC's Judge Our Youth Campaign on Oct.22nd

In just one week, the JOY Campaign team and allies will attend the YOARA public hearing. This public hearing is a critical step in ensuring the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act (YOARA) passes this year. Thanks to the actions and support of allies, we have built a campaign that has a real chance to pass legislation that will improve the lives of DC youth. If you're in the DC area, make sure to join us next week! 
Join us in ensuring that we have a successful public hearing and move DC one step closer to a fair, humane, and effective justice system. 


1. PACK THE ROOM: The YOARA bill hearing begins at 11am on October 22nd. Join us in room 412 and don't forget to wear BLUE in solidarity! Let us know you can make it out for the hearing by signing up HERE. Are you on Facebook? Check in and share the event page with your friends:  

2. MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD: Community voices are valuable and central to this campaign. The DC Council needs to hear from families, youth, and organizations that support DC children. Consider the questions below, and let us know if you would like to testify. 
  • Have you or someone close to you, ever been incarcerated in the DC Jail or Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF)? 
  • Do you know of a youth who has faced adult criminal charges and/or been incarcerated in the DC Jail or CTF while awaiting trial? 
  • Do you work with youth in adult or juvenile justice facilities?  
3. GET OTHERS INVOLVED: This is the perfect time to get others involved. Speak to your class, forward this alert to your network, or tweet out the public hearing flyer - there are many ways you can join the JOY Campaign! Do you have some time to volunteer with us next week? Contact Angella, at: or 202-558-3580 ext. 1602

Can't attend the hearing? Support JOY Campaign's statement of principles and follow the conversation online at: #JOYDC

The Judge Our Youth (JOY) Campaign seeks to create a justice system that is more fair, humane, and effective than the one we have today. The JOY Campaign is advocating for reforms of DC's criminal justice policies that would limit the use of adult punishment against youth. We are currently promoting policy changes like the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014, which would prohibit youth being held pre-trial in adult jail and allow judges to transfer cases back to juvenile court when appropriate. We welcome the involvement of organizations and community members that would like to assist in this work. To learn more, visit: 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

YJAM2014: Unequal Progress: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Systems

The latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that the rate of youth in confinement dropped 41% between 2001 and 2011. Cause to celebrate during YJAM? Yes and no. Despite the remarkable decrease in the use of confinement for youth, The National Council on Crime & Delinquency (NCCD) reports that the proportion of youth of color receiving court dispositions grew substantially between 2002 and 2012. NCCD completed a statistical analysis of county-level data from five counties across the country that have worked on system reform. Through its analysis, NCCD found that youth of color represented 66.8% of sentenced youth in 2002 yet this percentage rose to an alarming 80.4% in 2012.

Youth in the Adult System: Gross Disparities

We know youth of color are over-represented at all stages in the juvenile justice system. African-American youth overwhelmingly receive harsher treatment than white youth in the juvenile justice system at most stages of case processing. African-American youth make up an astounding 30% of those arrested while they only represent 17% of the overall youth population. At the other extreme end of the system, African-American youth are 62% of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. States such as Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Washington, DC have recently reported on these disparate practices.

The number of delinquency cases judicially waived to the adult criminal justice system peaked in 1994 at 13,300 cases, more than double the number of cases waived in 1985.    In 2011, juvenile courts waived an estimated 5,300 delinquency cases, nearly 60% fewer cases than in 1994, yet the rate at which petitioned cases were waived to criminal court was 40% greater for black youth than for white youth.

Compared to white youth, Latino youth are 4% more likely to be petitioned, 16% more likely to be adjudicated delinquent, 28% more likely to be detained, and 41% more likely to receive an out-of-home placement.  The most severe disparities occur for Latino youth tried in the adult system.  Latino children are 43% more likely than white youth to be waived to the adult system and 40% more likely to be admitted to adult prison.

Native youth are more likely to receive the two most severe punishments in juvenile justice systems:  out-of-home placement (i.e., incarceration in a state correctional facility) and waiver to the adult system.  Compared to white youth, Native youth are 1.5 times more likely to receive out-of-home placement and are 1.5 times more likely to be waived to the adult criminal system.   Nationwide, the average rate of new commitments to adult state prison for Native youth is 1.84 times that of white youth.

The data exists. Now what can we do about it? 

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was established in 1974 to provide federal standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system.  Twenty years later, the JJDPA included a “Disproportionate Minority Contact” (DMC) provision requiring states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system. In the most recent JJDPA reauthorization over ten years ago, the term confinement was changed to contact to emphasize the racial and ethnic disparities faced by youth of color at all points in the juvenile justice system.

The JJDPA’s DMC provision has ensured funding to every state to reduce these stark racial and ethnic disparities.  There are promising efforts in a number of states.  Take a look at the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) efforts, W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the Models for Change (MfC) initiative.

The Campaign for Youth Justice, along with many other national and state partner organizations recognize the urgency in addressing the blatant disparities for youth in both the juvenile justice system and adult criminal justice system. We have been staunch advocates for reform efforts at both the federal and state level and hope that you will continue to join us in supporting and advocating for changes that will improve the lives of youth of color.

Trying youth as adults has negative consequences for all youth, but communities of color are particularly harmed by these policies and everyone including policymakers should be concerned that our system of justice is applied inequitably.

To continue to learn more about Youth Justice Awareness Month and the theme issues we will be raising throughout October, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.