It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years. Thirteen years of courtrooms, appeals, trips to county jails and prisons. Countless hours full of anxiety, fear, terror and dread because of where they put my 17 year old boy and what they were accusing him of. Such a long road full of despair with only a glimmer of hope.
Every exoneree, every inmate who has won an appeal and every inmate who has faced the parole board time after time understands "trying everything". It is no different than banging your head against the wall in solitary confinement, no one hears. Somehow we get up again, we fight again, we try one more time. What happens when you have tried everything? What happens when you have filed appeal after appeal and every time you were shot down? What happens when the justice reform process seems to be moving in slow motion?
That is where we are now. That is the slow motion hell we are enduring now. We have done everything we were supposed to do. We lobbied legislators, called for medical research, gathered information and published report ,after report, after report. We have enlisted the help of human rights advocates the United Nations Campaign for the Rights of a Child and we have powerful advocacy organizations. The kids are still in prison.
Many seem to be satisfied with the fact that laws are changing that will protect future juveniles from egregious adult prison sentences. America seems to forget that there are 10,000 men/women sentenced as juveniles serving functional life sentences in adult prisons all across this nation. We took these young people and locked them away in a box, which we put in the back of the closet, buried and forgotten.
These juvenile inmates have a story to tell. All of those stories are painful, terrifying and some of them are downright outrageous. There are those sentenced as juveniles who never killed anyone, never pulled a trigger and some were not even present when crimes were committed. They are serving life or functional life sentences. There are some who were raised in poverty, abuse, neglect that was so horrific that they believed the only way out was to kill their abuser. There are those who had never been in trouble with the law in their young life, never been disciplined for fighting or violence and they lost their freedom for longer than they had been alive. There were those who had 3 minor drug infractions and they lost 20, 30, 40 years or their life.
Recently there have been articles and stories published telling of peacekeepers, judges and prosecutors who have come to realize how unjust and criminal our justice system has become. Bold men like Preston Shipp, former prosecutor for the Tennessee Attorney General's office, have come forward to advocate on behalf of juvenile's who have been sentenced to adult prisons. After meeting several juvenile offenders in a class he taught in prison he came to know these young people and the stories behind their crimes and their lives. He quit his job. Please see the video at the end of the blog for his story in his own words (thank you Campaign For The Fair Sentencing of Youth).
The Supreme Court has ruled that we have treated juveniles too harshly, states are battling trying to define what that means and still they sit in prison. We don't realize that these young men/women have spent as much, or almost as much, time in prison as they have been alive. Life to a 15 year old is 15 years. Life to a 17 year old is 17 years. They have not lived more so they cannot conceive more. STILL THEY WAIT, while everyone argues about their future, they wait; while legislators concern themselves with re-election or campaign promises, they wait; while America shakes their head but refuses to push for change, they wait.
But when you have tried everything else.......it's all you have to put your hope in.
This is national Youth Justice Awareness Month which was started by a mother who's son committed suicide rather than face 30 years in prison. His story, the crime he was convicted of and the grim reality of our justice system is a stark reminder that we must change the way we treat our children.
I am using this month to present facts that every parent and every child should know. We cannot protect our children, educate them or help them to navigate in this world unless we are armed with the truth.
FACT NUMBER ONE:
Your child, through zero tolerance policies can and will be remanded into the custody of juvenile detention facilities for minor infractions that were once handled through counseling, disciplinary actions and activities that redirected behavior. This puts your child on the outside of the education system, outside of his peer group and outside of future education or activities that may very well have shaped his/her future.
When did we become some fearful, so draconian that we had zero tolerance for children or their behaviors?
Many times I am confronted with strange peering looks and poigniant questions when I announce that I advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform. It seems implausible to those bystanders that our system could be as broken as I claim, as outdated as I describe and as destructive as I reveal. The truth is......it is.
Do we need to do something to intervene in the life of someone who is breaking the law? Yes. Do we need to provide re-payment for harm done? Yes. Do we need to deter others from choosing the same path? Yes!
If the current system of arrest, court hearings and prison were effective in addressing the above issue, we would be in a better place. However, as The Pew Charitable Trust reported, we have become a prison nation, a nation that knows how to lock people up but not what to do after that.
Our first issue to address is how easy it is to get arrested. We have laws governing everything with a suitable punishment to go with it. This is especially true when it come to our youth. Our zero tolerance policies in schools make it possible, easy and effective to deal with a truent student. They suspend them or even better we have them arrested and sent to juvenile hall. We have zero tolerance for any mistake a child makes. Try tucking your new knife into your backpack so that you can show your friends at school. You will land in the principles office and be suspended. If boys get into an altercation on the school ground (which boys do) you will be suspended and possibly expelled. At no time in history can I remember when we have placed such harsh regulations on children. Never have we placed such harsh punishments on children.
The result of these policies, laws, punishments and confinement is broken families. Families that find themselves thrown into a legal and justice system that they are not trained to navigate. It is terrifying at the least and destructive to all those involved....from grandma to mother, from father to brother. Yet the greatest harm is to leave a child alone, unprotected, unguided and in harms way as you are forced to leave them at the prison facility.
This week a new report was released that finally takes a comprehensive look at how our current juvenile justice policies actually feed our prison pipeline, destroy families and deteriorate our communities. It also presents viable solutions that can bring restoration to all. Worth the read. Families Unlocking Futures
Until now I have been re-posting articles written by Jonny. What you need to know is the experiences that Jonny has shared are not unusual and they are not unique. Jonny was a kid when he was arrested. He was a scared kid taken from his home and transferred into an adult arena, held in county jail in solitary, did not get to go outside for almost 3 years and then, after sentencing, sent to a facility where he was on 23 hour a day lock down. Four years of his life he endured isolation, fear and fought for his life. As a kid he was given a sentence of 66 years.... 3.89 times longer than he had been alive.
These are the conditions juvenile offenders face when they are transferred to adult court and face adult sentences to adult facilities. We like to believe that this only happens to juveniles that commit horrible crimes but as the above statistics show, that is not true. A life is a terrible thing to waste. Prison or Rehabilitation? Have our youth become disposable?
Help us Turn Back The Clock for juveniles who have been sentenced in adult court. They deserve a second chance. Help us turn back the clock on juvenile justice and let's get kids back in juvenile court, with juvenile consequences, juvenile sentences, rehabilitation, education and a future.
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We all believe that we have laws and a system in place that will protect our rights and our children. I found out, that day, that those things do not really exist. I found out (later) that my son had been interviewed the first time at his high school, without the presence of another adult, parent or attorney. They picked my son up from his place of work, they asked him to ride with the investigator while another officer drove his car to the police station. It was at that point that my son was in custody. They came to my place of business and asked me to come to the police station as they were holding my son. They would not tell me why. When I arrived, we went through several security doors. When I was taken to the room where my son was being held, they shut the door behind us. I was told that we were free to leave at any time. They never read him MARANDA rights and they never indicated, in any way, that he was a suspect in any crime. If these things had been done, I would have been able to make better decisions for my son. If the laws that protected juveniles had been in place, my sons rights, his name and the family would have been protected. None of this happened. And at the end of the day, they took my son. His last words to me, as he cried, were "Don't worry mom, the truth always comes out." They never searched my home or my sons room. No search warrant was ever issued. They did not know who he was, where he came from or who his family was. They knew nothing except what one scared 15 year old kid said.........
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