News and Advances from the Field

May 6, 2014, News and Advances from the Field


On April 14, 2014, thanks in large part to the work of Just Kids Maryland (an NJJN member), Maryland’s governor signed into law two bills (linked below) that repeal provisions mandating the processing of some youth through adult court. Though the bills retain exceptions for some serious violent crimes, the repeal of these provisions will give judges more discretion in whether a young person is tried as a youth or an adult, allowing judges to take into account factors like age, physical and mental health, and possibilities for treatment and rehabilitation.


While there is still much work to be done, these bills will allow more youth to avoid the damaging consequences of being processed through adult courts, leaving those young people with a better chance at rehabilitation and future life success.


» Download the full text of H.B. 1295.

» Download the full text of S.B. 515.

No Child is Born Bad

“No Child is Born Bad,”

CFSY youth justice advocate Xavier McElrath-Bey says in Northwestern TEDx talk

We are excited to share this powerful and moving TEDx Northwestern U talk by Xavier McElrath-Bey, who went to prison at 13 after he was involved in a gang-related murder. He joins the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth next week as our youth justice advocate.

In “No Child is Born Bad,” Xavier discusses the violence and poverty he experienced as a child and how that led him to seek family connections in a gang. He also talks about his arrest and incarceration, what led him to change and the need to reform laws that impose adult sentences upon children.

At the CFSY, Xavier will serve as a resource to formerly incarcerated youth and will support the Campaign’s public education and advocacy efforts.

Xavier, a restorative justice practitioner, most recently worked in clinical research at Northwestern University, where he conducted more than 800 clinical field interviews with individuals participating in a longitudinal study of the mental health needs, service utilization and outcomes of formerly incarcerated youth. He previously worked in Chicago for Alternatives Inc. as the juvenile justice diversion program coordinator, as a Catholic Charities street intervention specialist with children in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where he grew up, and as a cease-fire outreach worker.

Xavier holds an undergraduate degree in social science and a Master of Arts in human services, both from Roosevelt University.

View “No Child is Born Bad”

For more information about about efforts to end the practice of sentencing children to die in prison, please visit Join us on FaceBook and follow us on Twitter at thecfsy.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition and clearinghouse that coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement just alternatives to the extreme sentencing of America’s youth, with a focus on abolishing life without parole sentences for all youth.

For more information:



Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court is Not Correlated with Falling Youth Violence

Since the 1990s, nearly every state in the U.S. expanded its provisions for transferring juveniles to criminal court, especially provisions that do not require judicial approval. Entire classes of young offenders are transferred without the involvement of the court, based only on the discretion of prosecutors or the preferences of legislators… Read the rest of the article here

Growing up behind bars

Edel Gonzalez, sentenced to life in prison at 16, now has hope.

By Elizabeth Calvin
January 13, 2014
It could have been anyone in this courtroom. Your mother. Your lawyer. It could have been me.” The judge drilled down on the random murder of a woman for her car. Edel Gonzalez, a diminutive 38-year-old man, sat shackled in a prison jumpsuit before the bench and nodded in agreement. “It was brutal,” the judge repeated with force.
This was not your typical sentencing hearing. It was a historic moment. As the judge talked to the defendant, whispering in the courtroom stopped. The attorneys didn’t move, and the guard faded back against the wall. This was a conversation between two people: a judge and a man convicted of murder.
But that man was a boy when the murder was committed in 1991. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The United States is the only country that imposes life without parole on people under 18, and in California more than 330 such offenders have received this sentence. Edel was 16 at the time of his crime, and in December, he was back in court as the first case under a new California law.
The law, which went into effect a year ago, permits judges to review the cases of youths who were in effect sentenced to die in prison. It creates a chance for a parole-eligible sentence. It is, in essence, a recognition that a lot has changed since California first started sentencing children in 1990 to life without parole. Advances in neuroscience have made clear that critical brain development continues into the mid-20s for functions essential to evaluating risks, understanding consequences and the ability to resist peer pressure.
I first met Edel in 2007. Seated at a visiting room table in a maximum security prison, he was a somber 32-year-old. I was investigating California’s use of life-without-parole sentences for teens. Before his crime, he had been solidly ensconced in a gang since age 11. He had also been suppressing childhood abuse and loss, and dealt with his pain by drinking. He’d never met his father, so older gang members provided his only adult male role models. He was thoroughly drunk when he and two adult codefendants attempted to steal a car. One of the men — not Edel — unexpectedly shot the driver. Edel was convicted of murder for his role and sentenced to life without parole.
When we met, he had been in prison 16 years, and a coffin would be his only way out. He was a man with no reason to hope. Yet he had reflected deeply on why he had been so lost at 16, and described his efforts to be a good person since that time. His virtually pristine prison record supported his claim.
“I am a different person than I was then,” he said. “I wish I could change the things I did. But I can try to live an upright life now, even here.” When he spoke about his victim, he became overwhelmed. He turned away, hiding tears and shame. “I’d tell her, if I could … I’m sorry. I don’t know how to give you my life. I would give you my heart if I could.”
In several recent opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that, compared with adults, youths have “diminished culpability” for crimes. “Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders,” the high court has stated. “A juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for his actions, but his transgression is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.”
A few weeks before Edel’s December hearing, I got a call from a jail chaplain in another county. He said that a youth had just been sentenced to life without parole and that during sentencing, the judge turned to the boy and said, “You are a monster.” His crime was a murder with depressing similarities to Edel’s case. A monstrous act, yes — a truth about any murder.
But a child is not a monster. And that is what this law is about. Science and law compel a court to consider the fact that a young person still is developing. No one can know who a 16-year-old will be in 22 years.
Edel listened as the judge condemned his actions 22 years earlier. Nodding in agreement, he too condemned those monstrous acts. But despite two decades of believing he’d never be released, Edel had worked hard to become someone very different from the 16-year-old gang member he had been.
California’s law allowed this judge to reconsider a life-without-parole sentence in light of the man Gonzalez had become. He resentenced him to life with the possibility of parole. Edel has no guarantee he’ll ever get out, but one day he’ll have the chance to go before a parole board. It is a chance every child who commits a crime deserves.
Elizabeth Calvin, based in Los Angeles, is a senior children’s advocate at Human Rights Watch.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Sangamon Co. prosecutor supports recent change in juvenile law

By Staff Writer

January 08. 2014 10:37PM

Sangamon Co. prosecutor supports recent change in juvenile law


The new state law that classifies 17-year-olds charged with some felonies as juveniles rather than adults won’t have much effect on the Sangamon County justice system.

“Nothing has changed as far as the number of prosecutors and judges assigned to juvenile cases,” said Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser. “We may have some fewer cases in adult court, but the violent ones will still be adjudicated there.”

Gov. Pat Quinn in July signed legislation that raises the age of the state’s juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies. The reform is the second step in a process that began in 2010 when 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors were moved from adult to juvenile courts on the theory they will receive more rehabilitative services in the juvenile justice system.

The new law, effective Jan. 1, doesn’t change laws that automatically place youths age 15 or older who commit certain serious crimes in adult criminal court.

Milhiser said he supported the change.

“It makes sense to have it one way or the other instead of bifurcated like it was,” he said. “As long as we can still prosecute the violent offenses in adult court, and we have the ability to do that.”

Crimes including first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and certain gun crimes still are filed directly in adult court if the accused is 15 or older.

Others, such as aggravated discharge of a firearm at or near a school and some felonies done in furtherance of gang activity, begin in juvenile court for those 15 or older, but if probable cause is found, they are transferred to adult court, Milhiser said.

Other crimes are called “presumptive transfers,” but can stay in juvenile court if that presumption is refuted and a judge agrees. If the defendant is 13 or older, the case can be transferred to adult court at the discretion of the juvenile court judge.

Milhiser said his office has the same number of prosecutors — three — handling delinquency cases and abuse and neglect cases in juvenile court as it did before the law went into effect. Two judges also continue to rotate in handling juvenile cases.

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission last year released a two-year study of the impact of the misdemeanor change and recommended Illinois handle 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.

Prior to the 2010 change, 17-year-olds were treated as adults in criminal court, while those 16 and under were juveniles.

“The juvenile court has demonstrated a proven ability to hold youth accountable while reforming their behavior,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative when Quinn signed the bill. “Young people receive age-appropriate services and continue their schooling and are far more likely to change behaviors for the better than they would if locked up in a prison far from their families.”

Clarke went on to say that the law is in line with research findings concerning the development of the adolescent brain, as well as having a sound fiscal basis.

“Juveniles, who are developmentally less competent than adults, can and do change behaviors and better decisions when they mature,” she said. “This legislation will help them make those changes sooner and not suffer setbacks that often happen to youth spending their days and nights in prison cells.”

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Illinois House and Senate and had the support of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association and other groups.

Illinois joins 38 states that currently prosecute 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.

Contact Chris Dettro: 788-1510, ch**********@sj**.com,



Ilona Prieto Vila, Director

Stop charging kids as adults

By Benjamin Jealous and Rosario Dawson

Now that the federal courts have spoken on “stop-and-frisk,” many people think teens in our community have less to fear from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Far worse can happen to a child after being stopped.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said what needed to be said: New York’s juvenile justice laws are outdated.

Every year, almost 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults in New York State, and more than three-quarters of these charges are for misdemeanors like shoplifting and marijuana possession. Some 70% of the children arrested are black or Latino, as well as 80% of those incarcerated.

As Cuomo reminded us, now is the time for a change. The New York State Legislature needs to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility, and they need to do it this year.

Teens are far from perfect, and they certainly are not always innocent. That’s part of growing up. A teen’s brain develops well into his or her 20s, and as cognitive skills improve, so does impulse control. As a result, teens are often unable to focus on the consequences of their behavior.

But there are benefits, too. As their character and personalities change, teens are highly receptive to influence and intervention. Far more than adults, they can unlearn delinquent behavior, respond to interventions, and learn to make responsible choices. Study after study affirms this.

So what happens when a child makes a mistake – a serious one, like shoplifting? What happens when a minor is stopped and frisked and found in possession of marijuana?

One woman, who is affiliated with the group Families Together, recounted at a press conference how her 16-year-old grandson was charged with second degree robbery, a felony charge, for allegedly stealing Chinese food from a delivery car. He was sentenced to 18 months in adult prison where he was sexually assaulted by an older inmate. Though his record is sealed, he is currently being treated for trauma and schizophrenia and may never return to a normal life.

Tired of such tragedies, legislators in statehouses across the country have worked to reverse ineffective, destructive and expensive “tough on crime” laws that treat children as adults.

Yet despite significant recent reforms in New York’s youth criminal justice system, New York is one of only two remaining states (the other is North Carolina) whose laws define the age of criminal responsibility as 16.

Elsewhere, everyone from “Right on Crime” conservatives to children’s advocates to criminal justice experts agrees that youth who go through the juvenile justice system are less likely to commit crimes when they get out than youth who go through the adult system.

From arrest to cell, the experience of being prosecuted as an adult does violence to the life of a child. Parents are not notified of court proceedings—or even of the arrest itself. Children can be questioned without parental consent or presence. They are held in adult correctional facilities where they share rooms with real adults, the kind who put them at high risk for both sexual abuse and violence.

Perhaps because of this, corrections officers often place children in solitary confinement, trading one kind of violence for another: the documented emotional damage that comes from prolonged isolation. Is it any surprise that compared to their counterparts in juvenile facilities, these children are 36 times more likely to take their own lives?

Even after a child is released, the nightmare continues. A child who spent time in the adult system may lose their right to vote. They are often stuck with unsealed criminal records which prevent them from getting work or student loans, prevent them from living in public housing, or prevent their families from housing subsidies. It’s not hard to imagine how this has the potential to drive families apart.

In the end, what do we have to show for this “tough on crime” approach? Children held in adult facilities are 34% more likely to be arrested again for committing more crimes. This only serves to make our communities – particularly Black and Latino communities – less safe.

Children are different from adults as the Supreme Court has concluded three times since 2005. We can no longer sentence children to death. Neither can we throw away the key on teens by imposing life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide offenses. Nor can we forgo judicial discretion and impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on child offenders.

We should not be allowed to sentence children as adults, either. New York is shamefully out of step with the national consensus on this issue. We look forward to seeing the results of Cuomo’s forthcoming commission on juvenile justice, which will hopefully include individuals who were incarcerated as youth. The state legislature should follow his lead and pass a bill to Raise the Age this year. We hope they do so before even more lives are ruined.



Ilona Prieto Vila, Director

OJJDP Bulletin Examines Functional Impairment in Delinquent Youth

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has released “Functional Impairment in Delinquent Youth.” The bulletin is part of OJJDP’s Beyond Detention series, which examines the results of the Northwestern Juvenile Project—a large-scale longitudinal study of youth detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, IL. This bulletin presents findings on juvenile functional impairment in the school, work, home, and community settings; and in terms of behavior toward others, mood and psychiatric concerns, self-harm, substance use, and rational thought assessed 3 years after the youth were released from detention. The authors also assess youth functioning by gender, race/ethnicity, and age and discuss future implications.


Learn more about the Northwestern Juvenile Project, co-sponsored by OJJDP.

Find more bulletins in the Beyond Detention series.

View and download the bulletin.

Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

Views differ on juvenile court bill

Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

The ‘second chance’ bill

Under a state law that took effect in 1996, 17-year-olds charged with crimes are handled in adult court instead of juvenile court. Here are some components of a bill under consideration in the Legislature that would alter the law:
• Those charged with non-violent offenses would be processed in the juvenile system.
• 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes such as homicide or rape would remain in the adult system.
• Prosecutors and judges will have the option to waive youths accused of serious offenses into adult court.
Source: Media and legislative reports


In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are prohibited from voting, drinking alcohol or buying cigarettes. But if they break the law, they’re treated as adults.

It’s been that way since 1996, but a bipartisan bill under consideration in the Legislature would largely reverse the law and return many non-violent offenders to juvenile court.

Portage County Justice Programs Director Ross Dick said the proposal is overdue, because 17-year-old’s minds aren’t yet fully developed and a youthful indiscretion shouldn’t taint a person for a life.

“I’m not surprised, after this many years, that it’s being looked at again,” Dick said. “There were some things that were not well-thought out. I think it’s premature to send 17-year-olds to adult court for lower level crimes.”

Wisconsin is one of only 11 states where children under the age of 18 are automatically treated as adults. The law was passed in response to public sentiment to get tough on juvenile crime — especially violent offenders — by prosecuting them in the adult court system.

Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske said he wasn’t opposed to the proposal, but prosecutors often take the offender’s age into account when making sentencing recommendations.

“Protecting the victim is my No. 1 concern in any new criminal proposal,” Molepske said. “That being said, providing a treatment alternative and a diversion alternative for juveniles is important for first-time offenders in non-violent allegations of crime.”

While he supports the proposal, Portage County Judge Thomas Eagon said it wouldn’t address the costs of rehabilitation – juveniles would be handled by county services instead of state services, and the proposal doesn’t address any of the funding needed for more juvenile offenders in the system.

“Seventeen-year-olds are basically high school students,” Eagon said. “I think they, and society in general, would be better served as being treated as juveniles as they are in every other aspect of society.”

Van Hollen opposes change

Under the proposal, known as the “second chance bill,” non-violent 17-year-old offenders would be handled in the juvenile system rather than adult courts. But those who commit violent crimes would remain in the adult system, along with those who have a prior record of delinquency.


While the plan has drawn support from the State Bar of Wisconsin and the State Public Defender, it is opposed by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

“Proponents of the legislation have not made the case that current discretion already available in the system is not effective or requires changes,” said Dana Brueck, communications officer for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “Further, victims of crime never get a second chance.”

Brueck said courts often have sentencing discretion, district attorneys have charging discretion and law enforcement agencies can exercise discretion in crimes involving 17-year-olds.

“Diversion programs for non-violent offenders already exist,” she said. “These include first offenders’ programs. An offender’s age can be, and generally is, considered in these contexts.

“That said, we continue to believe that there is no need to change current laws and suggested changes to provide ‘second chances’ may diminish effective efforts to provide public safety, hold offenders accountable and lessen victimization.”

Flexibility for teen offenders

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families is among the groups that support changing the law.

“The reaction has been positive and there has been good bipartisan support,” said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the council.

The Assembly’s Corrections Committee unanimously approved the bill recently. Moeser is hopeful it will make it through the Legislature in 2014 so it can take effect in January 2015.

Moeser said there are a number of negative consequences for 17-year-olds who are prosecuted in adult court for non-violent offenses. Having an adult criminal record could prevent them from obtaining a college loan, getting a job or finding a place to live, he said.

The cost to Wisconsin counties of moving thousands of young offenders to the juvenile system is a consideration, according to Moeser.

“It does roll down to the counties,” he said. “We need to provide resources.”

The proposal to return non-violent 17-year-olds to juvenile court has the backing of Michael O’Hear, associate dean for research and professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

“It introduces more flexibility into the system,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

O’Hear said the changes that took place in 1996 were “part of a national movement to get tough on juvenile crime.”

He said placing 17-year-olds into an adult prison setting can create major problems.

“The juvenile system is set up to rehabilitate kids and the adult system has a much more punitive orientation,” O’Hear said. “There are some real concerns that putting kids into the adult system will make them worse.”

Guest column: New hope for smart justice regarding girls

The Florida-Times Union recently reported the sobering news that Duval and surrounding counties lead Florida in the number of girls who are incarcerated.

The Times-Union also reported that Voices for Florida and The Children’s Campaign recently partnered with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville sponsoring a community forum marking National Girls’ Justice Day.

Forum attendees heard about the treatment of girls from the center’s just-released report “A Wake-Up Call: Trends in Girls’ Involvement in the Justice System.” The report revealed shortcomings of the juvenile system, especially concerning the needs of girls.

Florida is lacking enough probation, treatment and diversion programs — the programs that research-based evidence demonstrates are needed to address the growing issues of girls being sexually assaulted, suffering from depression or other mental health problems.

This results in outcomes, such as girls running away from abusive homes and into a life of sex trafficking or other victimization.


As local citizens attending the forum sat in stunned silence, the news went from bad to worse. Speaker Jeffrey Goldhagen, a nationally recognized Jacksonville pediatrician, pointed out that until communities come together and change how we approach girls’ needs, “10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, we are going to be talking about the need with no improvement in the tragic loss of potential …”

Attendees got the message: Our daughters and granddaughters can’t wait another decade or more.

Why haven’t we made progress? A key factor is lack of a coordinated “system of care” for girls.

Without it, we can’t provide the supports that enable our daughters and granddaughters to experience the quality of life we want for them.

A coordinated system is like a team of rowers, their oars rowing in unison.The boat seems to skim across the water effortlessly.

Just like the rowers, in a coordinated system of care for girls everyone works together in unison — from individual citizens to families to government at all levels — to move forward in one direction, focused and synchronized in addressing the needs of girls.

There is, however, new hope. An initiative recently launched in Jacksonville called Voices for Florida Girls was developed by leaders in the First Coast Community. They believe our community is ready to “get engaged” and bring greater public attention and action to the needs of girls.


Voices for Florida Girls is an affiliate program of Voices for Florida. Voices for Florida works on five key areas to turn the tide for girls.

These include: developing fact-based public policies, conducting fiscal and budget analysis for girls’ programs, recommending improvements to laws, conducting educational training on policy issues and reporting to citizens how public policies really impact our girls, families and communities. This integrated approach provides a foundation for building a coordinated system of care model for girls.

Ultimately, it is the involvement of citizens that will determine the success of Voices for Florida Girls. Citizens have the power to expand public conversation and encourage debates that lead to gender-specific programs that help girls — especially girls at-risk — reach their highest potential. Voices for Florida Girls invites citizens to know, share and engage to build a better future for girls. Your daughters and granddaughters of the First Coast are depending on you!

Learn more about Voices for Florida Girls at


Linda Alexionok of Tallahassee is president of Voices for Florida, a nonpartisan, statewide 501c3 organization


Email: la********@vo**************.org.

School districts right to divert kids from life of crime


School districts right to divert kids from life of crime



While the state of Florida cynically shovels more money into building prisons, school districts, most notably Miami-Dade and Broward, are working to ensure that fewer students end up there.

It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, created by overreaching, life-damaging zero tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. But school districts across the country are stepping back from this approach and from the zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. Throw a spitball? Call the cops. Throw a punch? Call the cops. Curse at a teacher? Unacceptable behavior, for sure. But is it so egregious as to earn a student a police escort off the campus in handcuffs? Hardly.

In an age that has seen students sow real chaos in schools — bringing in guns and drugs, physically assaulting teachers — funneling every last undisciplined student to jail is antithetical to a school system’s mission, however hard it is to carry out.

Miami-Dade and Broward County school districts have realized the damage being done to young lives and are among many across the country that have reversed course. Instead of a ride to jail, troubled students get counseling; instead of handcuffs, mentoring. This is absolutely the right way to handle such incidents. As a result, each district has managed to significantly cut the number of arrests in their schools.

Both counties report that arrests are down 30 percent to 40 percent this school year. Suspensions, too, have been reduced, which is a boon for both students and the neighborhoods in which they live. After all, troublemakers on suspension tend to get themselves into more trouble. Schools with the most suspensions were located in areas with the worst juvenile crime.

Good for the leaders of these two districts. They know that schools, however troubled, exist to put young people on the path to becoming educated, self-sufficient members of a community, not to put them on a one-way track to incarceration, with police records for such trivial infractions. Applaud, too, the NAACP for working with Broward schools to help bring about the change, and a clergy-based group called PACT, which has pushed for better options to suspension.

Schools finally are rewriting a disturbing story that never should have been started in the first place. However, Florida legislators, with their tough-on-crime swagger, imposed a statewide zero-tolerance policy for even small fights and minor thefts in schools. The consequences were needlessly dire. One bad decision, typical of teenagers — many of them, no doubt, raised by inept parents — led not only to a police record, but to a harder time down the road when they sought to get a job or a school loan or join the military. Black and Hispanic students bore the brunt of the ridiculous arrests.

In 2009, the Legislature pulled back from its hard-line stance and urged school districts to find alternatives to arrests. In Miami-Dade and Broward, the results are clear.

Now that lawmakers are coming to their senses, it’s past time for them to reconsider their approach to imprisoning and prosecuting juveniles as adults. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, based in Washington, Florida transfers more teens to adult court than any other state — this, even though, says Wansley Walters, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the number of juveniles so charged has dropped 62 percent in two and a half years.

Clearly, the state must do a better job diverting kids from crime and not turn them into criminals.

Read more here: