One Student Takes On Injustices in Minnesota’s Bail System

University of Minnesota student Simon Cecil’s Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that aims to level the playing field by helping low-income people post bail has picked up support from local judges. It’s one of 10 similar funds around the country.

University of Minnesota student Simon Cecil's Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that aims to level the playing field by helping low-income people post bail has picked up support from local judges. It’s one of 10 similar funds around the country . . .

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How to Keep Kids Out of the Criminal Justice System

In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, the ‘System of Care’ focuses on schools—the place where police most often come into contact with juvenile offenders. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, it offers middle- and high school students therapy, workshops and counseling to address the kind of behavior that otherwise might have landed them in court.

When a middle school student in La Crosse, Wisconsin, swore at his teacher, he risked a criminal charge that would establish his juvenile record.

But instead of a referral to the juvenile justice system for disorderly conduct, he was accepted into a new program designed to address the root of his behavior and make it less likely to recur.

The program, which involved months of cognitive behavior, appeared to work. He hasn’t reoffended or faced discipline since for other misconduct.

Called “System of  Care,” the program is changing the way the county addresses juvenile crime since it was launched November 1.  One of only a handful in the country, it focuses on the place police most often came into contact with juvenile offenders:schools

Curt Teff, a La Crosse School District supervisor who helped develop the program, says the aim is to hold students “accountable” for their actions.

“It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” he said.

The collaboration that crosses agency lines spent years in development to address the county’s disproportionate juvenile arrest rate.

System of Care fills a gap between how schools handle misconduct and what the juvenile justice system provides by addressing [troublesome or acting-out] behavior without a ticket or arrest. Stakeholders believe that the program, while still in its infancy, is working, although the extent of its impact could take years to determine.

“If we didn’t do something different, we would continue to see the juvenile arrest rate climb and see more kids on supervision,” said Bridget Todd-Robbins, who oversees the System of Care.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce barriers to learning and to reduce the amount of referrals to juvenile justice.”

‘Call to action’

Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse County’s juvenile arrest rate was higher than the state average and those of three similar-size counties, according to a study by the Carey Group, a consulting firm retained in 2008 to examine the country’s juvenile justice system–although few juveniles were committed to the Department of Corrections. The consultants also hinted that minority juveniles may be over-represented in the juvenile system.

“It was surprising and absolutely concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, who supervised the county’s Juvenile Justice Unit until taking over Justice Support Services. “It was a call to action.”

In 2013, stakeholders in the justice system, police, schools and community members formed the Juvenile Justice Arrest and Disproportionate Minority Contact Inter-Agency Task Force. State Department of Justice data revealed the arrest pattern continued in each year between 2007 and 2011.


While whites were the most-arrested racial group, black youths had the highest arrest rate each year and were nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The leading arrest charge was disorderly conduct.

About 62 percent of juvenile arrests occurred on weekdays and 25 percent of those were at public schools.

About one-third of cases referred to the criminal justice system resulted in the juvenile being counseled without formal charges. Juveniles were placed on supervision in about 16 percent of cases.

A majority of juveniles cited or referred for charges were not high-risk offenders; they engaged in impulsive behavior that’s typical of adolescent development, Teff said. But there are risks involved if a juvenile enters the justice system, including continued criminal behavior and a decreased chance of graduation.

The Inter-Agency Task force found that without a clear policy on the type of misconduct that warrants arrest and with few arrest alternatives, juveniles were being pushed into the system in a misguided approach to get them help.

It recommended creating a formalized agreement between schools, police and the juvenile system for clear guidelines on when to arrest a juvenile and when to offer a different intervention.

For guidance, the county turned to Clayton County (Ga.) Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped establish the country’s first System of Care.

Juvenile arrests in Clayton County skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent between 1996 and 2003, after the school district stationed police inside schools. The problem, Teske said, was that officers had no alternatives to arrest.

“They acted like street cops on a school campus,” he said. “I saw all of these cases and juveniles being detained and I thought, ‘Something has to give. This isn’t right.’”


Research showed that arresting and jailing low-risk juvenile offenders increases their likelihood to reoffend and that many will age out of delinquent conduct, Teske said.

“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “And when we arrested them, we were contributing to making them worse.”

In  2003, when Clayton County adopted a memorandum of understanding between the court system, police and school district to reduce juvenile arrests by offering alternatives that held kids accountable while addressing the root cause of the misconduct, school arrests plummeted 54 percent in six months.

“It goes to show how many arrests were for minor offenses,” he said. “And that was the problem.”

By offering students workshops to address conflict and theft, drug treatment and wrap-around services for families, juvenile arrests in schools have fallen 71 percent since 2003, while graduation rates rose 30 percent, Teske said.

“The System of Care seeks to help kids who need it,” he said. “We identify causes for the behavior and match them with resources so they can develop coping skills that will help them function in school.”

The system

In La Crosse, the System of Care is built on a partnership involving the La Crosse School District, La Crosse police and the county juvenile justice system.  Students who skip school, steal, hit, damage property or are disorderly while on school property during school hours are eligible for the program.

Juveniles who commit those offenses while on supervision for other crimes are not.

The program is voluntary and requires consent from parents and victims. Each offender must undergo a risk and needs assessment that will determine what led to the behavior and how to correct it.

“Overall, they’re just kids,” Longfellow Middle School Associate Principal Jon Baudek said. “But there are kids making bad choices over and over again.”

Students may be offered counseling, mentoring, anger management training, drug treatment, mental health counseling and, along with their families, referrals to other services for ongoing support. System of Care’s  Todd-Robbins also is working with school staff to remove barriers to learning.

“It is not about excusing behavior,” Todd-Robbins said. “It’s about addressing behavior through skill development.”

Some 29 juveniles have enrolled in the System of Care between its November launch and late March.  Most of those accepted into the program are middle school students, and truancy, punishable by a citation, was the leading offense.

“I have kids who haven’t been to school yet this year,” she said.

The early results have been encouraging. Truant students are back in class and others who faced repeated referrals for discipline now have none.

Todd-Robbins hopes to establish the System of Care as a nonprofit organization so that it would be eligible for grant funding and could expand to neighboring school districts and include offenses students commit off school property.

To address disproportionate minority contact, school district administrators, teachers, social workers, police and others who come into contact with juveniles can participate in the La Crosse YWCA’s racial justice training series to recognize and change how personal biases and prejudice, even on a unconscious level, affect how they deal with kids.

“The issue isn’t always the kid, but how we’re perceiving the behavior,” said YWCA’s Social Justice and Advocacy Director Molly Hilligoss. “If we can look at how we react in our situation and realize our own biases, we can counteract those biases.

“Hopefully, we can continue to lessen the disproportionate minority contact and mitigate the bias.”

Anne Jungen, a staff writer for the  LaCrosse Tribune, was a 2015-2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.  This article, part of her fellowship reporting project, is a slightly condensed version of a story published earlier this month. Read the full version here. Anne welcomes comments from readers.


Too Quick to Shoot?

A Sacramento Bee investigation finds a small suburb leads the state of California in the per capita rate of officer-involved shootings. It underlines concerns that the new administration’s promise to back off civil-rights probes of police departments will put the burden of police oversight on cities and counties with scant resources or little interest in making reforms.

A suburb of Sacramento, California’s capital, is the newest addition to the national debate over officer-involved shootings.

An investigation this month by The Sacramento Bee found that officers in suburban Citrus Heights (population 87,000) lead California in the per capita rate of shooting deaths at the hands of cops.

The actual numbers were comparatively small.  But according to the paper, of the eight officer-involved shooting deaths between 2010 and 2016, six occurred in a three-year period between 2013-2016 —the same number of fatalities caused by police in Oakland, a city with five times as many residents and a much higher violent crime rate.

Local authorities say the numbers are misleading, and don’t reflect the police force’s overall work. They say that the number and type of calls the police receive should be considered in any analysis of officer-involved shootings, and claim the department’s professionalism is responsible for a decline in crime.

“We don’t have a problem,” Citrus Heights Mayor Jeff Slowey told the newspaper. “I have seen nothing except what I see as positive results from our police department.

“Yes, we’ve had several shootings in a period of time, but I’m not sure that means anything but that the bad guys didn’t look at a calendar and they all fell together in the same period of time.”

The paper based its analysis on an examination of four police shooting databases and official state population estimates.  A further review of each of the department’s officer-involved shootings was conducted using police reports, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office investigations, court documents, interviews, and information obtained through the California Public Records Act.

It found that two of the six people killed by Citrus Heights police since 2013 were unarmed. One suspect had a gun. Another had a knife. One of those fatal shootings resulted in a $2 million payout to the victim’s family, among the largest such settlements ever in the region.

[Yet a final assessment of the shootings is hampered by the lack of a civilian or independent review board. Unlike many police departments in California, (but like many smaller police forces around the country),]  Citrus Heights, with a force of 90 sworn officers, doesn’t have a process for public scrutiny of police shootings. Moreover, officers do not have cameras in their patrol cars or on their bodies. Police personnel records, including disciplinary actions, are kept confidential by state law.

[Some of those personally affected by the fatalities believe that such limitations encourage police misconduct.]

“They’re a scary police department,” said Gayla Hernandez, whose ex-husband, Jason Wilson, 42, was fatally shot by Citrus Heights police in May 2014. The police department said Wilson assaulted a woman and then fled from responding officers. Hernandez disputes that official account. She said police knew Wilson and may have targeted him.

“Any time they would approach us for any reason … we were afraid something bad would transpire,” she said.

The string of shootings by Citrus Heights police comes as law enforcement nationally has faced pressure to provide more accountability over fatal shootings, particularly of African Americans and mentally ill people. None of the people shot by Citrus Heights police was black, but family members said some may have been mentally ill.

The shooting of Joseph Mann, black and mentally ill, in North Sacramento last July led to significant policy changes within the Sacramento Police Department, including the release of video in critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

Scrutiny of police shootings has also fueled a pro-police movement highlighting the dangers of the job and the complexity of the work. The administration of President Donald Trump recently said it will back off of federal civil rights investigations of local police departments. With that change, police oversight and reform will largely revert to cities and counties.

Critics say they’re concerned the city does not provide enough direction and oversight to avoid deadly force. The department functions with a limited budget and busy staff that struggles to respond to a large volume of calls, city officials confirmed. A focus on controlling costs may have hampered its hiring, some said.

Experts on police use-of-force policies also said the “off-the-shelf” version in Citrus Heights focuses more on legalities than protecting lives.

Police Chief Ron Lawrence, who took over the force in October from former chief Christopher Boyd, said he has reviewed the shootings in question. In each case, he said, officers acted appropriately and lawfully to protect themselves and the public.

“They were either under physical attack, they were confronted by an assailant with a weapon and their lives were threatened, or there was an imminent threat,” he said.

Boyd added that he believes some of the victims, whom he did not identify, intentionally provoked police to kill them, committing “suicide by cop.”

The Citrus Heights force would not have the highest rate of fatal shootings by police if its entire history of more than 10 years was taken into account, Lawrence said, an assertion that is almost certainly true given that the department had no fatal shootings during its first four years.

Still, some community members and police experts said that the numbers uncovered by The Bee deserve attention.

Editor’s note:  A video of Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence responding to The Sacramento Bee investigation is available here.

“This kind of rise in the statistics for a town that small … should give rise to concern and the need to look deeper,” said Stephen Downing, a use-of-force expert and former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who has been involved in numerous reviews of shootings.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville and an expert in policing issues, cautioned against “drawing conclusions” from the data, but he said it “is certainly something to raise an eyebrow … I would certainly want to take a closer look.”

Deputies from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department patrolled the area until 2006, when Citrus Heights formed its own Police Department.  The city formed its own department in part to cut costs, said Mayor Slowey.

In 2016, Citrus Heights patrol officers handled an average of 5,691 calls per month, or about 187 calls daily, Lawrence said. He said officer deployment varies depending on call volume, with up to 21 patrol officers on duty each day. Officers regularly ride without partners and dispatchers sometimes must ask officers to leave less-urgent situations to respond to other calls.

On a recent Saturday night, The Bee rode with officers for more than four hours, during which police responded to a string of incidents that highlighted the pressures and pace of the department.

During one call early in the shift, a 63-year-old-man told dispatchers his girlfriend had hit him. Police found him in front of his trailer, where a gorilla mask on a stick stood sentry in a garden of dead roses. Lacking evidence of assault, the officers persuaded him to spend the night at his mother’s house.

Soon after, a man called to report that unknown enemies had implanted a device in his head. When officers located him, he was calm but said the device was telling him to kill himself. Officers gave him a ride to a hospital.

Later, on the department’s 228th call of the day, officers surrounded a domestic abuse suspect in the parking lot of his apartment complex. One officer pointed his gun at the man while a K-9 dog barked and strained at its leash. The man cooperated as a third officer cuffed him and the encounter ended peacefully.

Despite what Lawrence described as a relatively high number of calls, statistics do not suggest that Citrus Heights officers are dealing with a more violent population than other police departments in the Sacramento region. FBI data show that Citrus Heights police reported 44 violent crimes per 10,000 residents in 2015. Four area cities had higher violent crime rates but lower per capita officer-involved fatalities: Sacramento, West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Woodland.

One of the difficulties in evaluating police shootings in Citrus Heights is a lack of independent information. With no civilian oversight board for the department other than the City Council and no official video footage of events, police largely control what the public knows about critical incidents.

Lawrence said that the Police Department does not have car or body cameras because both technologies cost too much and raise issues of privacy. Officers do have audio recorders, but there is no department policy mandating officers use them when responding to calls.

Slowey said city officials have talked about getting cameras but “our department thinks we don’t necessarily need (them) right now.”

“We don’t have a trust (issue), or we don’t have an issue where people are saying, ‘Hey, the police did this or the police are doing that,’ ” Slowey said. “If we believed there was an issue of public trust, we’d be on it in a heartbeat.”

All of the fatal shootings by Citrus Heights officers have been reviewed internally by the department, Lawrence said. But disciplinary and personnel records for law enforcement are private by California law, leaving the public in the dark about findings.

Slowey said that the City Council receives reports from police about officer involved shootings, but that he doesn’t consider it his purview to critique specific police actions if the command staff doesn’t find fault.

“I am a banker by trade, a politician by night, so I don’t try to second-guess our Police Department,” said Slowey.


Citrus Heights does not routinely release the names of officers involved in fatalities without a request, though it is public information by law. Another piece of information only available by asking is Policy 300, the department’s rulebook for using force.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert recognized by the federal government, said the “off-the-shelf” policy on force used by Citrus Heights, while legally sound, doesn’t reflect specific community values or expectations for behavior. Obayashi said that many small departments purchase policy in ready-made manuals, instead of crafting their own, as a cost-saving measure.

Boyd said the policy was purchased from Lexipol, a major publisher of policy manuals for law enforcement and emergency service providers nationwide, as a way to ensure that policies were current.

The Lexipol policy follows established legal guidelines that give officers wide discretion based on the threat an officer perceives in the moment. Deadly force may be justifiably used, according to the Citrus Heights policy, to protect an officer “from what he or she reasonably believes would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”

Obayashi cautioned that such one-size-fits-all policies don’t address the culture of an agency or community values.

Downing described some of its rules as “antiquated” and “thin.”

The Citrus Heights policy, Downing pointed out, mentions the value of human life but doesn’t place a priority on preserving it. Recently, Sacramento’s City Council passed a resolution affirming that, “the sanctity of life is inviolable,” and instructing its police to craft a policy that allows deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to life and such force is “strictly unavoidable.”

“They are way behind the times,” Downing said of Citrus Heights.

Some family members of those killed by the Citrus Heights police question whether the same financial constraints that pushed the city to buy a policy manual also influence its hiring, preventing it from landing the most sought-after recruits. The department’s salaries are among the lowest in the region.

Attorney Ellen Dove said she is concerned that “some of the officers there are worse because of inexperience and because of poor management. The rogues there are more rogue because the tightness with which some supervisors hold the reins is not there from all supervisors. They do not have a consistent policy, which is a bad thing.”

Dove filed a lawsuit against the department in 2012 for excessive force, one of six excessive force lawsuits reviewed by The Bee. It alleges that in three separate instances with three different suspects, Citrus Heights police let a police dog named Bruno continue to bite people after they were subdued.

The city hired a notable defense lawyer, Bruce Praet, and claimed the officers acted lawfully and that the defendants failed to provide enough details, including medical records. Dove said she dropped the suit because she doubted she could win it because of the criminal history of her clients, but that she stands by the filing’s claims.

Mary Beesley said she has similar questions about the training and tactics that led to the shooting of her granddaughter, Gabriella Nevarez, 22, in March 2014.

Beesley said her granddaughter was mentally ill and disliked taking her medications. Nevarez died from a barrage of 17 shots fired by Citrus Heights police Sgt. Jason Baldwin and Officer Alexi Fanopoulos after officers said she rammed a patrol car with her vehicle and drove toward them. At least one witness said Nevarez was in the driver’s seat of her car, with her hands up, when she was shot, according to the district attorney’s review of the case.

Officers disputed that account. They said they feared for their lives.

Many updated use-of-force policies ban officers from shooting at moving vehicles precisely because of what occurred with Nevarez: Officers wounded her with initial shots, causing her to lose control of the car, according to the district attorney’s investigation. Departments including Sacramento instruct officers to move out of harm’s way when faced with a moving vehicle when possible.

Beesley, who called police after Nevarez took her car that morning, said she wonders whether Citrus Heights officers know how to handle situations involving mentally ill suspects.

“Gabriella was bipolar,” said Beesley, who is raising her granddaughter’s son Vincent, 6. “Maybe she was scared, and trying to escape the police. But why did they have to shoot her? Why couldn’t they have used a Taser or something? I just don’t understand it.”

Lawrence maintains that his officers are highly trained, with an average of 12 years’ experience in law enforcement. Officers take special training in techniques for defusing volatile situations, including those involving mentally ill people, without using deadly force, he said. The city also has a grant to work with a local provider on better interventions and understanding for domestic abuse calls.

The chief said his officers receive crisis intervention training in-house “multiple times” each year and also attend sessions on how to use words, “defensive tactics” and tools other than firearms to defuse potentially deadly encounters.

Boyd said that the department has earned multiple awards for community policing, and crime has dropped 28 percent during his tenure. The department is taking part in a regional pilot program that allows a mental health technician to work in the field with officers, Lawrence said.

Fatal shootings, Lawrence said, represent a tiny fraction of the number of incidents and arrests that Citrus Heights officers handle. “While unfortunate, compared to the volume of police incidents we handled, our use of deadly force represents a very small percentage of our work.”

But Frank Straub, former police chief in Spokane, Wash., and current director of strategic studies for the national Police Foundation, said small numbers can matter.

“There is an intangible damage to the community when an officer-involved shooting occurs, because no one is shot in isolation,” he said. “The person has brothers, sisters, mothers and friends. So there is this ripple effect … that maybe to some degree is undermining the trust and confidence that a segment of the community has in its police.”

Hernandez, who lost her ex-husband, feels that distrust. “I have bad things to say about them,” she said of her interactions with Citrus Heights police.

“I don’t care for the way they do things,” Hernandez said. “They are not there to serve and protect.”

Where the numbers came from

This is an edited and condensed version of a story that appeared earlier this month in The Sacramento Bee.  One of the authors, Anita Chabria, is a  2016 John Jay/Quattrone Reporting Fellows, and her  work was assisted by her participation in the Fellowship. The complete story is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.



Waiting for Justice: Still No Reprieve for Terrence Graham

The young man at the center of the Supreme Court’s landmark Graham v Florida ruling on juvenile lifers is still behind bars. But former inmates from around the country tell Terrence Graham the court’s 2010 ban on sentencing juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole saved their lives.

Terrence Graham receives hand-written notes from men just like him, all across the country. They thank him for their freedom, and tell him he’s changing lives.

One letter writer mentions a family gathering.

“We were sitting next to a young man & his mother who told us he is getting out in 3 months on the Terrance [sic] Graham Law. … He said to tell you thank you so much & you will always be in his prayers.”

In 2010,the  U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Graham v. Florida,  that juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that aren’t murder. To do so would be cruel and unusual because kids can change, the court said.

As a result, Graham and 128 others like him got a chance for new, shorter sentences. A handful were released.

Graham, the Jacksonville teen whose life sentence led to the landmark decision, reads the letters in prison.

“Any time you can be of some assistance or help somebody, it’s like nourishment to the body,” Graham, now 30, said in an interview at the Florida State Prison at Raiford.

“That’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Graham will be in his late 30s when he’s free again. His release date, according to the Department of Corrections, is Aug. 27, 2026, though it might be a couple of years earlier with gain time.

For now, he’s more famous around Raiford for his Twix cake than his historic case.

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said it is not an overstatement to say Graham’s case was “groundbreaking for youth involved in the criminal justice system.”

“By striking (life without parole) sentences for youth convicted of non-homicide crimes, the court placed concerns about hope, redemption and rehabilitation at the center of justice policy for young offenders,” Levick said. “Future gains for children involved in the justice system will likewise rest [on] the shoulders of Graham and the early decisions that came with it.”


Graham was 16 when, in 2003, he and two accomplices tried to rob a restaurant using metal pipe. They didn’t get away with any money, but one of the accomplices beat the manager before they left. Graham pleaded guilty for being there and served a year in jail for armed burglary and attempted armed robbery, followed by probation.

An arrest for home invasion robbery when he was 17 constituted a probation violation; and his attorney at the time, Jacksonville attorney Bryan Gowdy,  asked the court for five years. The Department of Corrections recommended four. Prosecutors wanted 30.

The judge gave Graham the maximum: Life without parole.

Like Graham, Gowdy landed unexpectedly in legal history.

He had never worked on a criminal appeals case before October 2006. But that first case would take him to the United States Supreme Court, change the way juveniles in the adult system nationwide are sentenced, and alter his perspective and career forever.

“I think the first thing that struck all of us, and perhaps it struck us because we were primarily civil lawyers, was just, a ‘Really? Really? A juvenile, non-homicide and he gets life without parole?’” Gowdy said.

“It was shocking, putting aside being a lawyer, it was just shocking that that was going on. So I think we recognized it was a shocking practice and that maybe the justices higher up would want to review it.”

Gowdy dug in. He appealed Graham’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted it in May 2009.

“There was no stopping Bryan,” said Mary Graham, Terrence’s mother, who likened Gowdy to a pitbull. He’s brilliant, she said, but with “swagger.”

Gowdy says his perspective as a civil attorney led to him approaching Graham’s case in a new way.

“I used to represent big banks, and corporations, and when we had a case with a $100 million (at stake), we unearthed everything,” he said.

“Well, I just applied those same principles to a kid who was effectively facing death in prison.”

Gowdy argued that a life without parole sentence for a non-homicide crime was cruel and unusual punishment. Amicus briefs poured in, arguing that kids are different and kids can change.

The new approach worked. On May 17, 2010, the court said life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile, calling it “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In writing the opinion for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of non-homicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”

Graham heard about the ruling after being called in from a prison yard game of flag football

“When I answered the phone, it was Mr. Gowdy’s assistant,” he said. “‘I’m calling to tell you the results came in. You won.’”

He asked, “You serious?”


Terrence Smith was in a common area of the Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville on May 17, 2010, when Katie Couric reported the ruling on the CBS Evening News.

“Today in a new ruling,” Couric read, “the court said juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless they killed someone.”

“I jumped up in the TV area, ran to my room, told my roommate to get out, and I just got on my knees,” Smith said. “The tears just came down, like, ‘This is it. Thank you, Lord.’”

Smith, of Tallahassee, was 17 when he was charged with armed robbery. He served five years in prison before he violated his probation and was sentenced again in 1994. He thought the most he would get was seven more years. He got life.

After losing all of his appeals, Smith said, reality sank in. Then he heard about Graham v. Florida and found it applied to him. He was released from prison in 2012.

Today Smith is a 49-year-old newlywed. He’s got a 3.8 GPA at Florida A&M University, where he is studying construction engineering part-time while working full-time as a project engineer for a construction and development company.

After his release, he wrote to Graham to thank him, and to encourage him.

“His case was the miracle in my life that I needed,” Smith said, “and it’s the thing in my life that I’m never going to take for granted.”

Of Graham he says, “I just want him to know that through this a lot of good has come about. He really needs to know that.”


After the Supreme Court victory, Gowdy sat him down for a frank talk.

“Look, I don’t want you to think that you’re just going home. It’s not going to be that easy,’” Graham remembered Gowdy as telling him.

“I don’t want you to just get your hopes up.”

The Graham family couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Mary Graham thought her second-oldest boy would finally come home. Terrence Graham was thinking he’d get some leniency since his second set of charges were dropped.

Circuit Judge Lance Day was not lenient.

“All right, Mr. Graham,” he said at the February 2012 re-sentencing, “The Court at this time sentences you to the violent crime of armed burglary with assault or battery to a prison term of 25 years.”

Graham was crushed. For the first time during his nine-year ordeal, he cried.

His mother said Judge Day didn’t want to admit he was wrong.

“We beat him in a mighty way and we made him look bad,” she said.

Since his incarceration, Graham said, three of his closest friends have been killed. His two younger brothers have been locked up, too. He’s worried he won’t have a relationship with his young nieces, and he can feel the distance growing between him and the rest of his family.

He sees his parents aging, and he wonders if they’ll be healthy — or alive, even — when he’s finally released.


Jacksonville native Lavon Butler thought “my life would end in prison.”

Now 45, Butler, was 16 in 1988 when he shot a police officer. The officer survived with no lasting injuries, and Butler was sent to spend the rest of his life in prison.

When, under Graham v. Florida he became eligible for resentencing, Butler was a trusted prison worker, running the canteen, and had earned a number of program certificates.

The judge who resentenced Butler in 2014 was moved by his efforts to better himself and gave him 25 years, which he’d already served.

Today he’s living in Sarasota, working full-time. He’s married, has dogs and rides a motorcycle. He’s always upbeat about life.

Butler said he’d tell Graham, “’Don’t give up. Stay positive. Work them programs.’ He has to show everybody that he has changed beyond a shadow or a measure of a doubt.”

He said, “I wake up every day thanking God for my second chance. I’m blessed. It’s through Graham; he was the vehicle who allowed my blessing.”


Graham can go months without a visit or a phone call, but any time there’s renewed attention on his case, people come back around. He knows people on the outside don’t always know what to say to him, but anything is better than nothing.

“I guess they feel like they don’t know what to tell me or the pain of not being able to do anything or say anything to make the situation better,” Graham said. “They tend to run away from it.

“That hurts the most. In this situation, you tend to seek love. I want to hear from my family. I want to see my family.”

LaTonya Hall, Graham’s best friend, said she’s never seen him so down. The usually positive, uplifting Graham is worn down.

“The whole time he’s been there, he’s always helped me out tremendously from there. Always been been there for me, always more worried about me and what I have going on and my kids. More than himself,” Hall said.

“Now, I just think he’s getting real tired, and it’s leading to frustration. But this is the first time in this whole time that he’s been like that.”

Graham says he feels like he’s in a tug-of-war between planning goals for his future while still fighting his case. He still hopes he can see his sentence reduced further, so he can go to college and get his degree in business management sooner. He wants to have his writing published, and maybe turned into a movie or TV show. He wants to speak to teens about his story.

He wants to own a home, get married and have kids.

“The more time I spend in here, the more those dreams and goals become dull. I’m stuck living between two lives,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of things I would like to experience in life and there’s a possibility that I have to keep in mind that I may not get out of prison. … The shorter it gets, the further it is away.”


Ralph Brazel, one of those released because of the 2013 graham case is now married with children, and regularly speaks to teens about his life story. Photo Courtesy Florida Times-Union

Ralph Brazel was one of just a handful of inmates serving life in the federal prison system for non-violent drug crimes committed as a juvenile. Because of Graham, he was released from Federal Correction Institution Jesup in Georgia in 2013 after 22 years behind bars.

Brazel’s uncle, Ronald “Romeo” Mathis, was one of Florida’s most notorious drug kingpins until his arrest in 1991. Brazel was involved in his uncle’s operation as a minor, and received three life sentences in federal court for sales and possession of crack cocaine and conspiracy to distribute crack.

The Graham case “was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Brazel, 43. “When you look at it, going in as a teenager, they’re telling me society no longer wants me and I’ll be in prison for the rest of my life.”

Brazel is living in Southern California and is the operations manager at a local mosque. He’s married with a one-year-old son and five step-children. Brazel said he never lost hope that he’d get out and have a family, even after his two-year-old son was beaten to death by his mother’s then-boyfriend and that man was sentenced to less time than he was.

“I don’t have any complaints,” Brazel said. “I have a wonderful life and great kids. That’s a tremendous blessing.”


When Graham v. Florida was decided, there were 129 juveniles serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses. Of those, 77 were in Florida and the rest were in 10 other states and the federal system, according to the court’s opinion.

Graham and nine other black men from Duval County were serving life without parole for non-homicides, according to a list provided by the public defender’s office. Nine have been re-sentenced, and only one — Butler — had his sentenced reduced enough to be released. Excluding Graham, the remaining seven can expect to be in their 60s or older when they are finally released.

Though attention given the case has waned, its ramifications endure.

Stephen Harper, director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University’s College of Law, said Graham’s case expanded on a 2005 decision that ended the death penalty for children.

With Graham, the court settled a debate: Is it death that is different, or is it kids?

“That sealed the fact that kids are different,” Harper said. “It changed the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and made the fact that kids are different a part of constitutional law.”

Rob Mason, director of juvenile public defenders in the Jacksonville area, said sentencing children to life without parole is another kind of “death sentence.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Graham alerted the states — particularly Florida — that juvenile sentencing and incarceration required a major overhaul.

Graham provides hope for immature, peer-driven, impulsive juveniles by affording them a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Mason said.

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said that Graham, and cases that followed it, brought hope to many who were told as children that they would die in prison.

Miller v. Alabama in 2012, for example, said mandatory life without parole for juveniles, even for homicide, was unconstitutional. There are currently around 2,500 people nationwide serving juvenile life without parole. Lavy’s group wants to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles.

“Hundreds have been resentenced and dozens have returned home to their communities after proving they were deserving of second chances,” she said.

However, Graham v. Florida does not mean a juvenile still can’t serve a life sentence for a non-homicide. The court wrote that defendants like Graham must be given some “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”


The reality of Graham’s childhood was laid out in the first sentences of the Supreme Court’s opinion: “Graham’s parents were addicted to crack cocaine, and their drug use persisted in his early years. Graham was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school. He began drinking alcohol and using tobacco at age 9 and smoked marijuana at age 13.”

He says, “Our house was where everybody came to get high at. They used to run all the kids out and it could get to the point where we didn’t eat all day.” He says he said to himself, “One day I’m going to get out of this environment.’”

More than 12 years after receiving a life sentence, Graham is the first of his brothers to earn his high school diploma, and he did it behind bars.

He’s also completed AA- and NA-style classes to show he’s bettered himself, even though he wasn’t an addict. He works cooking for prison staff five days a week, and he reads voraciously. One day, he’d like to publish a book, or have a film made based off a script he’s written.

Looking back, Graham says, “It’s been some type of experience.”

Most days, he doesn’t care about being the Graham of Graham v. Florida. He’s gotten used to being addressed as “Terrance,” the common mispelling of his name that’s followed him since 2003. He forgets about it all until a new letter comes in the mail or a newspaper mentions his name.

Last week, Graham sent a letter of his own.

“It gets so hard in here sometimes that I just wish that I can die and get it over with instead of watching life pass me by. … Now I just want to live long enough to get out of here and show everyone that I am a man that was dealt a bad hand in life but overcame it, and can be someone positive and productive in society.”

Tessa Duvall, a staff writer for The Florida Times-Union, is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is an abridged version of a story prepared as part of her Fellowship project and published on  The full story, additional articles, and a photo album can be accessed here. Tessa welcomes readers’ comments.


How One School District Fights Decades of ‘Punishment Culture’

The Syracuse, NY School District has embraced “restorative practices” in an effort to reduce racially disparate suspensions.

A sixth-grade student with curly brown hair walked into the behavior intervention center at Lincoln Middle School and let out a big sigh. She scanned the spare white walls and mustard-colored rug and said, “I was just sent here.”

Kim Shane, the assistant teacher who heads the behavior intervention center (BIC), asked why.

“Because people started saying things that didn’t happen, so I started throwing paint at them,” the student said.

“OK,” said Shane. “Get a reflection sheet and go sit down.”

She then turned to a male student. He sat quietly as he filled out his reflection sheet.

“Are you able to go back or no? I heard you were climbing the bleachers like Spider-Man,” she said.

The student handed her the reflection sheet and went back to class.

Research shows that the more students are suspended, the more likely they are to earn poor grades and drop out of school. They are also more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system. Moreover, suspension is not effective in reducing incidents or increasing school safety.

Like the students who sat in the behavioral intervention room at Lincoln Middle School, many of the students who experience high rates of suspensions and expulsions are black and Latino. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately expelled and suspended.

All of these groups are more likely to receive harsh student discipline in segregated school settings where most students are black and Latino.

To reduce these disparities, Syracuse is taking a new approach to student discipline, called restorative justice practices, which focuses on community-building and conflict resolution instead of punishment to improve the quality of education for students. Without Lincoln’s BIC, one or both of these students may have gone to in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension, where they would have missed more instructional time.

Nationwide, there were 363 open investigations into racial discrimination in school discipline at the K-12 level and 103 investigations open in K-12 involving disability-related discipline issues as of October 27, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Oakland Unified School District, Denver Public Schools, and San Francisco Unified School District have adopted restorative justice practices, with some success, but there are still only a few major districts embracing this approach.

Illinois’ law on school discipline, which eliminated zero tolerance policies, went into effect in the summer of 2015. This work is still relatively new, so educators and policymakers are watching these efforts closely.

Syracuse School District has the widest poverty gap between its district and neighboring school districts in New York state. The city is very economically and racially segregated, according to a 2014 report from CNY Fair Housing, a nonprofit organization. Compared to white people, Hispanic people and Asian people in Syracuse are more than three times likelier than the city’s white residents to live in poverty and black people were two and a half times more likely, according to the report.

A June 2014 report by an independent consultant, Daniel Losen, who is a policy associate at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, sheds light on Syracuse’s approach to student discipline before it instituted reforms. In the 2012–2013 school year, the district’s suspension rates were very high, even in comparison to districts with similar demographics and district size.

When compared to 32 districts with similar numbers of black students and where black students made up similar proportion of enrollment, Syracuse had the fifth highest suspension rate in the 2009–2010 school year. The average black student enrolled in Syracuse would lose 21.3 days of instruction over the course of their K-12 education.

After the attorney general’s office investigated racial disparities in student discipline, the office and district agreed to a plan to reduce suspension rates and improve the quality of education for Syracuse students.

Poster at Dr. Weeks Elementary School Behavior Room. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Poster at Dr. Weeks Elementary School Behavior Room. Photo by Casey Quinlan

The plan required a commitment to awareness of implicit bias, cultural competency training, and restructuring the code of conduct to include restorative practices.

Restorative practices resolve conflicts and bring students back into the school community.

They also emphasize social-emotional learning, and attempt to foster a better relationship between educators and the families they serve.

Administrators must continue monitoring suspension rates to understand whether new approaches are working or need to be revised.

There is a lot more work to be done, but the latest comprehensive report on the school district’s progress shows that the district reduced suspensions from 22,922 in the 2012–2013 school year to 10,377 in the 2015–16 school year.

The number of out-of-class referrals that were considered restorative versus punitive has increased, according to a district spokesperson.

In 2014, 58 percent of referrals were punitive, compared to 35 percent in 2016. However, black students are still disproportionately suspended, since black students accounted for 66 percent of overall suspensions and white students only accounted for 14 percent of suspensions.

The district is in its second year of a four-year agreement with the attorney general, which costs $10 million a year for the district to comply with.

Patricia Clark, ‎assistant superintendent for student support services, said she is hopeful that with further training and modeling of the right behaviors, administrators and teachers will do the work to reduce racial disparities and disparities between disabled and non-disabled students.

“We have definitely seen a decrease in referral rates and suspension rates,” Clark said. “But our disproportionality remains pretty steady for students with disabilities and students of color, so we are focused on cultural competency practices as well as restorative justice training.”

The school district’s new code of conduct is laid out in a 52-page booklet that describes four levels of behavior, concerns, violations, and responses before out-of-school suspension is considered.

The code makes it very clear that teachers and administrators need to develop an understanding of why a student disrupted class so they can address the root of the issue. Students can resolve conflicts and concerns through restorative mediations and circles.

Behavior intervention center staff help students develop better responses when they get frustrated by something that happened in class.

The code also clarifies the role of “sentries,” or officers who address school safety concerns. Policymakers and the media have focused on the role of officers in schools recently, since there have been high-profile incidents of officers yanking students of color out of desks and slamming them on the ground. In the fall of 2015, an officer in a South Carolina high school threw a black student to the ground and last spring, a Texas officer used force on a Latino sixth grader.

Following recommendations of the Department of Education, released earlier this year, Syracuse’s code of conduct makes it clear that officers should not get involved in minor incidents, such as classroom disruption.

Sentries only intercede in situations where student safety is at risk. The district also recognizes the role of officers in providing guidance to students and staff on law-related issues, as well as conducting student workshops on issues of public safety and the role of law enforcement.

The code also removes some of the potential for subjectivity in judging the severity of students’ behavior. The suspension rates for minor incidents, where individual judgment has a bigger impact than severe incidents, involved far more suspensions of students of color and disabled students.

By removing some of the ambiguity regarding which minor incidents require what type of response, Syracuse school officials hope to reduce the influence of racial bias on suspensions.

Sweeping Changes at Lincoln Middle School

Lincoln Middle School is part of a pilot program with the organization Peaceful Schools, which provides mediation and conflict resolution services in schools.

The program gives Lincoln more support staff to address student behavior and conduct restorative circles. Last summer, the state took the school off of its “persistently dangerous” list.

Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Suspension rates and referrals shrank from the 2015–2016 school year to the 2016–2017 school year-to-date. Out-of-class referrals fell by 29 percent and out-of-school suspension incidents declined by 16 percent.

Jen Harris, instructional coach at Lincoln Middle School, said administrators are pushing teachers to resolve minor classroom disruptions on their own.

“Sometimes I don’t even go to [the assistant principal] anymore, because I know he won’t give me what I want,” Harris said. “So I have to resolve it on my own. No teacher can go to the administrators and say ‘Do something with this kid.’

“Because it’s like, ‘What have you done restoratively? How have you built a relationship?’”


Syracuse is working on improving the school climate overall by creating school climate teams to monitor progress, and building a sense of school pride and enthusiasm for learning. Heavily segregated schools can feel like prisons; and, too often, teachers — most of whom are white — show students they have low expectations for what students of color can achieve.

Lincoln Middle School is working on improving school pride by calling students “scholars,” providing a school motto, “Good, better, best,” and starting the day with morning announcements that highlight students’ acts of kindness, such as returning someone’s lost purse.

Teachers also have students start the day by gathering in a circle and sharing what they have in common — a practice teachers say cuts down on bullying and builds a sense of community.

In October 2016, ThinkProgress observed students gather for an exercise in their homeroom during which a student recites the phrase “The warm wind blows for…” and share a common interest, activity or description. Students called everyone who wore black that day or played basketball last weekend to come forward.

Then the students who share that interest or quality gathered in the center of the class. Sometimes these morning activities are more serious and allow students to share how they feel about bullying.

Students said that the restorative meetings helped them solve problems in class, such as how they interact with other students or express themselves when they’re upset. The students interviewed by ThinkProgress had all experienced some kind of mediation at Lincoln Middle School. The names of students have been changed to protect their anonymity.

The mediation allows students to express why they reacted the way they did, understand why it violated the code of conduct, and work on repairing relationships with the teachers or peers.

“She [the other student] say stuff and we got over that. Like we still don’t talk … She wants to fight, but we just look past each other … just stay in the zone,” Kayla said of the student she didn’t get along with.

Kayla called her teacher an expletive after the teacher took away her phone, as per school policy. Then Peaceful Schools set up a mediation with the teacher. When asked what the relationship with the teacher was like now, Kayla answered, “We cool. We’re not all that yet, but we cool.”

Students said higher expectations, along with the involvement of the Peaceful Schools team, have improved the quality of education at the school.

“I think the expectations are changing,” a seventh grader, Sam, said.

Strengthening Relationships with Students

When teachers and students participate in morning circles and mediation, they can broach the issue of how some teachers make students of color feel.

Harris, an instructional coach at Lincoln Middle School, said one student began a conversation about racial bias through a morning circle. She said the student talked about “how they’re treated by different teachers, and how they trust different teachers.”

Lincoln Middle School Assistant Vice Principal Richard Richardson is trying to tackle racial bias and disability bias through professional development training on recognizing implicit bias, and through cultural competency training.

“Everyone has implicit bias. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge it,” Richardson said.

Richardson is also working on fostering more positive relationships between students and teachers, so that teachers know students’ lives well enough to realize that, for example, a student may have a good reason for being absent or may be more irritable because a holiday is next week and being home is stressful for the student.

Richardson described an incident where two students were about to get into a conflict, but a teacher stepped in.

Courtney Marx talks to 2nd grade students at Dr. Weekls school. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Courtney Marx talks to 2nd grade students at Dr. Weekls school. Photo by Casey Quinlan

“She was immediately able to say ‘Come with me,’ and the student went right with her because they already had that relationship,” Richardson said.

If the teacher had not stepped in to take the student away from a potential conflict, the student may have gone to in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension, he said.

Richardson, who grew up in Syracuse and knows many of the students’ parents, grandparents, and uncles, said schools should first acknowledge that the majority of teachers in Syracuse public schools come from suburbs and serve a low-income population within the city. As a result, there will be implicit bias, Richardson said, but teachers can overcome their assumptions by getting to know the communities kids come from.

That’s why part of professional development included getting staff out of the school building and into the neighborhood around the school they serve. A scavenger hunt in the city created an opportunity for teachers and administrators to have a positive experience in the impoverished neighborhood of Northside Syracuse.

“If everybody is not coming from the same place, then we need to bridge that gap, and that is some of the work that we continue to spend time doing,” said Richardson.

“…It makes a difference helping adults understand more of our students’ lives.”

The principal of Dr. Weeks Elementary, Carin Reeve-Larham, was sitting in her office with several students during ThinkProgress’ visit. Students who can’t cope with the overwhelming environment of the cafeteria, which can be sensory overload for many of them, come to her office to eat lunch.

During this lunch session, a student, Josh, burst into the room. After the principal told him to close the door and knock, he came back in and said another student, Nathan, “was talking about my mom.”

“Nathan doesn’t know your mom and I will follow up with up him,” Reeve-Larham said.

“I’m going to punch him in the face!” Josh yelled, on the verge of crying.

“You’re not going to punch him in the face,” she said calmly before Josh slammed the door.

Although it may seem worrisome that one student said he wanted to hit another, the student only went to the principal’s office because she built a relationship with him and he trusts her. Josh anticipated that he would be angry and went to an adult for help.

Last year, there were only 16 suspensions at Dr. Weeks, a school of 797 students, Reeve-Larham said, but suspension rates are still racially disparate. The suspension rate may be lower thanks to Dr. Weeks’ social services supports and extended school day.

The school functions as a community school, which means it provides social services to students and their families on campus, such as medical care and advice for parents.

Reeve-Larham said the extended school day makes it much easier to teach students while resolving any classroom disruptions. In a regular school day, it may be more tempting to get the student out of the room as soon as possible to avoid wasting instructional time.

Reeve-Larham said she could use more social workers and support staff to help design behavior management plans for students and make sure all of them receive the support they need. But she also said she knows she is lucky to have two social workers, since many schools don’t.

“We don’t always have enough support enough people to help change that behavior soon enough and so that is the hardest part,” said Reeve-Larham.

“Sometimes, when the problem starts, it’s at such a high level that it’s hard to like get them calmed down enough to drill down and be like ‘So what is really going on here?’”

Elementary school staff encounter different challenges than educators at the middle school and high school level, since, many elementary school kids get frustrated about the same issues, such another child refusing to share, as if it were the first time, every time.

Whereas the behavior intervention center at Lincoln Middle School was a spare white room with a few posters, the BIC at Dr. Weeks is much more welcoming. When you walk into the behavior intervention center at Dr. Weeks, you hear classical music.

Two accent lamps take the place of the harsh fluorescent ceiling lights. A red beanbag chair sits under a poster identifying healthy ways to resolve interpersonal problems.

Another wall displayed posters with cartoon faces representing different emotions, such as angry and sad.

Sometimes behavior staff ask the students to point to one of those faces to identify how they feel at that moment. These posters are also placed next to what are called “cool down corners” in the classroom, where students sit for five to seven minutes to regain a sense of calm. Unlike many “time out” corners, these are close to the center of the room, not isolated from the rest of the group.

At the behavior intervention center, kids sit down and fill out a “reflection sheet” that identifies what they did in the classroom which got them sent to the center.

Then the students explain how it affected their education and their classmates’ education and how they plan to resolve the problem and come back to the classroom community. (Lincoln had similar sheets but required more details from students.)

Renee Mason, who has worked at the school for 18 years, is in charge of the behavior management center.

“In here, we’re coming up with strategies, like what could you have done instead? I have a couple kids who would write [strategies] down on a piece of paper and put it in their pocket. And some say, ‘I tried that and it worked for me,’” Mason said.

Robert Skibinski is in charge of in-school suspension. He said that although he makes it clear suspension is not playtime for students, he compensates for the fact that they’re missing physical education by letting them them do pushups or other physical activities if they lose interest in work. Sometimes the kids in in-school-suspension do role-playing activities to figure out how they can address stressful situations or conflict differently in the future.

Skibinski said the new discipline policies have changed student attitudes.

“I have noticed this year, kids seem to be more invested in making the apology to the whole class, or writing it out to people because they may be shy in front of people,” Skibinski said.

Robert Skibinski and Renee Mason at Dr. Week's Behavior InterventionCenter. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Robert Skibinski and Renee Mason at Dr. Week’s Behavior InterventionCenter. Photo by Casey Quinlan

“The kids know we’re invested and we show up every day because we care about their success. And some of them — knock on wood — we haven’t seen them this year.”

Skibinski and Mason have dealt with challenges, such as teachers sending kids to the room too readily, but they said most teachers understand not to use the BIC room too liberally. Substitute teachers have been more likely to send students to BIC because they aren’t as knowledgable about the code of conduct.

Dr. Weeks Principal Reeve-Larham said it can take a while for teachers to look past what they see as bad behavior and look for the best in their students. But once they do, they’re on their way to being effective teachers.

“If your expectations are defined by the behaviors kids show you, then we’re dead in the water,” Reeve-Larham said. “So you have to know what our kids can do, even if what they show you is the worst stuff, so you can move them to high expectations.

“That’s when we have really successful classrooms, is when teachers are able to see kids for their best selves.”

A Culture of Punishment

The work of restorative justice is easier said than done for many teachers. In October, Jamie Cook, Peaceful Schools’ external school climate coach at Lincoln, hosted a professional development session for teachers on the effects of trauma on students.

Teachers were provided anonymity as ThinkProgress observed so they could more freely participate in the session. Teachers were asked to identify signs that students have experienced trauma. They were also taught to recognize how trauma affects behavior in the classroom. Cook explained that trauma causes students to produce a fight-or-flight response to things that may remind them of said trauma, or a “trigger.” That trigger could an adult yelling at them, since there may be abuse at home.

Cook asked teachers to name different indicators that a child may have had an adverse childhood experience.

“Verbal abuse,” a brunette 40-something teacher said.

“Sexual knowledge beyond one’s age,” a blonde teacher in her 20s mumbled.

“And do you see any food hoarding?” Cook asked.

“Oh yeah,” a few teachers said, nodding vigorously.

One of the teachers told Cook that she works one-on-one with students to get to know them better, but that students don’t feel like there are repercussions for their actions.

“The BIC room was designed not to be punitive,” Cook said. “If we get past the idea that the BIC room is a place for punishment and see it as a place for students to get support, I think that we will be much further ahead in our school community.”

A male teacher in his 30s interjected and said he feels “there aren’t a lot of consequences.”

A teacher who once taught at Danforth Middle School, which was taken off of New York’s persistently dangerous list last year, said teachers should hold students accountable for being inappropriate, but that they have to be careful about reacting too quickly and losing their cool. The odds are that the student will want to fight back in the moment, he said.

“It is difficult. It’s tough as hell. Don’t get me wrong. I heard, ‘Suck my this,’ so many times that it almost did become second nature, but you still have to come back with them, [and say] ‘This is not appropriate,’” he said.

“I wanted to lash back out but it never worked with that group … It was more about having to stop and come back and have a discussion later on.”

The local teachers union, Syracuse Education Association (SEA), has not embraced restorative justice. Last year, the union ran a survey showing teachers were unhappy with the approach and said they felt unsafe. The SEA would not return ThinkProgress’ multiple requests for comment.

Robert Spicer, who does trainings for educators and is working with the Syracuse School District, said it helps to approach discussions about restorative justice by calling it “restorative practices.” Using this phrase makes his trainings friendlier to educators who may not be familiar with justice terminology, he said.

“You need to speak their language,” Spicer said.

He said he ties these practices to education concepts teachers already know, such as social-emotional learning, which helps students learn healthy interaction with peers. Spicer also referenced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,, which reinforce positive behavior instead of negative behavior, to explain how restorative practices are beneficial to students.

Marsha Weissman, senior policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives, said it will take a long time for attitudes about punishment to change, but that she’s optimistic Syracuse is taking the right steps to address high rates of suspension.

“Teachers are part of American culture, and America is a very punitive culture,” Weissman said. “We’ve really become addicted to thinking punishment does the trick. It takes time to change those attitudes.”

Weissman said she understands why teachers feel it’s unfair that they should be expected to “do it all,” because poverty isn’t something teachers can reduce on their own. But Weissman said she hopes that teachers don’t “fall into the easy response that this [restorative practices] doesn’t work.”

She said she hopes that when teachers are frustrated because a child’s behavior hasn’t changed, they will advocate for more supports in schools. The easy response would be to reject restorative practices entirely, but that ultimately, it wouldn’t solve the problem, she said.

Where Syracuse Goes From Here

Syracuse has enforced its reforms much more effectively than local advocates and attorneys expected. Hearings to determine whether incidents of school misbehavior should result in long-term suspension used to be handled by administrative staff, but now the district hires hearing officers from New Justice Conflict Resolution Services, a conflict resolution organization funded by the New York Unified Court System. The Center for Community Alternatives automatically handles all cases where students need representation.

When disciplinary cases rise to the level of a superintendent’s hearing and the decision goes against the parents’ wishes, parents can appeal the case. The CCA does not take cases on appeal, so parents may contact organizations such as Legal Services of Central New York for representation.

Susan Young, an attorney for Legal Services of Central New York, listens to the recordings of these hearings to decide whether to take them on appeal. She said she sees fewer findings of guilt than she did before the attorney general reached an agreement with Syracuse schools. Legal Services sometimes handled these cases before the agreement with the attorney general, when students had to scramble to find a representative for their hearing instead of automatically receiving one.

“I can’t say I always agree with their decisions, but they clearly allow all the evidence that should be allowed in and students are given a fair chance to testify and present any witnesses. So I’ve seen a big change in the quality of the hearings and in the number of students who are found not guilty,” said Young. “In the older days, it was a very rare occurrence that a student would be found not guilty.”

Young said she still sees situations where the district makes more serious allegations than she believes are warranted. She gave the example of a student who, after flipping over a chair, was accused of using an object as a weapon with intent to cause injury.

It will take a long time to unlearn the culture of punishment, as well as the racial biases, that contributed to high rates of suspension in Syracuse. As more new teachers come in to schools and learn restorative practices, it will become part of the school culture, district officials say.

It may take three to four years until these reforms become automatic instead of something teachers and administrators “have to grind through,” said Peaceful Schools CEO Lura Lunkenheimer.

She said she read the case histories of other school districts that pursued restorative practices, such as Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, and Oakland Schools to better understand how long it will take for staff and students to fully adjust to the new approach to discipline. Students who have grown up with restorative practices automatically know that they need a restorative circle when they want to discuss something that is frustrating them.

But for now, many Syracuse students are still adjusting to this new system.

“Those incoming sixth graders are coming with knowledge about circles and expectations,” Lunkenheimer said. “So by middle school, you have maybe two-thirds of students who have already been doing this. We will know we’re successful when a kid says, ‘Let’s circle up.’”

Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter for Think Progress, is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story published Jan. 30  for her fellowship reporting project. The complete version is available here.  Casey welcomes readers’ comments.




A Prisoner’s Death, 3,000 Miles From Home

No federal agency keeps an up-to-date tally of thousands of prisoners transferred every year under so-called interstate “corrections compacts.” That often makes it impossible to know what happens when something goes wrong, as a Honolulu Civil Beat investigation discovered.

Frank Pauline Jr. died a sudden, violent death more than 3,000 miles from home.

It was April 2015, and the Hawaii resident was walking laps around the recreation yard of the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility when an assailant sneaked up behind him with a rock wrapped in a green shirt.

Three swift blows to the head with the rock, and Pauline was down on the ground, lying lifeless in a pool of blood.

Back in Hawaii, the news of Pauline’s death made big headlines, owing to his checkered history: In 1999, he was convicted in the kidnapping, rape and beating death of Dana Ireland — a notorious case on the Big Island that garnered much attention.

But none of the media coverage of Pauline’s death went on to tell the story behind the story: What was Pauline doing in a New Mexico prison in the first place?

It turned out that Pauline had been sent to New Mexico under a little-known arrangement called the “interstate corrections compact,” which allows prisoner transfers across state lines — typically arranged as prisoner exchanges.

Much of the details surrounding the corrections compacts — how often and under what circumstances transfers are made — are shrouded in secrecy.

But, through a public records request, Honolulu Civil Beat has learned that the Hawaii Department of Public Safety currently has 58 prisoners housed on the mainland under the corrections compacts — in addition to about 1,400 prisoners housed at a for-profit prison in Arizona under a separate contract with CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

According to the department, 27 of the prisoners were transferred as part of prisoner exchanges with seven states — California, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia.

The remaining 31 prisoners were transferred to mainland facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which, in lieu of prisoner exchanges, charges Hawaii $83.26 per prisoner per day to house them — though not for those who are serving federal and state sentences concurrently.

The department denied Civil Beat’s request for more detailed information — such as specific reasons for the transfers, as well as the locations of where each prisoner is housed.

Shelley Nobriga, the department’s litigation coordinator, would only say that all transfers were made because of “security and safety concerns,” and that other information would be off-limits, citing privacy exemptions and “the frustration of a legitimate government function.”

How ‘Corrections Compacts” Work

In Hawaii, prisoner transfers across state lines are authorized under two provisions in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

The provisions — adopted in 1965 and 1996, respectively — formalized Hawaii’s membership in two of four corrections compacts that currently exist in the U.S.

One is called the Western Interstate Corrections Compact, which has Hawaii and 10 other states as members; the other is called the Interstate Corrections Compact, which is nationwide in scope and has another 30 states as members.

According to the provisions, which outline a broad framework of the two corrections compacts, the goal of transfers is to provide “adequate quarters and care” or “an appropriate program of rehabilitation or treatment.”

The provisions also direct that Hawaii prisoners — who remain under the “jurisdiction and discretion” of the state — be guaranteed equal treatment and any legal rights that they’d have in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the logistics involved in transfers are detailed in separate contracts that Hawaii currently has with 14 states — specifying, for instance, that the sending state is responsible for covering the expenses for transporting prisoners, as well as any non-“ordinary” medical services.

But the details are thin when it comes to what circumstances can trigger transfers.

Inside its policy and procedures manual, the (Hawaii) Department of Public Safety has only one short section set aside for the corrections compact — instructing that transfer decisions be based on “classification, individual needs, resources and facilities available (to the department), the exigencies of the community,” as well as prisoners’ re-entry preparation needs.

The paucity of information is in stark contrast to what’s available in some states.

In Virginia, for instance, the public can review a detailed, 11-page operating procedure that explains how transfers are made under the corrections compacts — including a step-by-step explanation on how the state’s prisoners can request their own transfer.

In a statement, Toni Schwartz, Hawaii’s public safety spokeswoman, said that Hawaii prisoners can also make a transfer request.

The department “will take the request under consideration and, in rare cases, approve it, if the reason is justified,” Schwartz said. “Examples of requests that may be approved include: relocation to a state so the individual can parole near family and for someone who committed the crime in Hawaii but is a resident of another state.”

Prisoners Can’t Refuse Transfers

But Schwartz said prisoners can’t refuse an involuntary transfer, which she said can be made for an array of reasons — such as facilitating “dual-jurisdiction” sentences, accommodating “protective custody,” and dealing with prison gang leaders and those with “continuous violent and disruptive tendencies.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many prisoners are transferred under the corrections compacts across the country.

That’s in part because no federal agency keeps an up-to-date tally, let alone oversees how such transfers are made.

The only formal research into the corrections compacts came in 2006, when the National Institute of Corrections, an agency under the U.S. Justice Department, sponsored a study after realizing that there was “no literature” to be found on the subject.

The study, based on survey responses from 48 states, found that, under the corrections compacts, 43 states collectively had more than 2,000 inmates transferred to prisons in other states and another 345 inmates to federal facilities.

The tally didn’t include Hawaii prisoners — the (Hawaii) Department of Public Safety failed to respond to the survey.

According to the study, the most-cited reason for transfers was inmates’ safety — such as when an inmate requires protection for being a state’s witness.

The study noted that many transfers were also made for special program needs and “post-incident/disturbance cool down,” as well as “compassionate reasons” to allow inmates to be near their families and avoid “undue hardship on visitors.”

Amy Fettig, the deputy director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, says more information should be made public.

“Clearly, there are good reasons for doing it sometimes, but, if the public doesn’t know when such action is taken, it’s easy to abuse such a great power over people,” Fettig said. “You don’t want it to be used as a form of retaliation against people who complain about unconstitutional and unlawful conditions, for example.

“The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to make sure that the guidelines for actually using it are limited and are overseen.”

The Case Of Frank Pauline

What happened to Pauline in New Mexico highlights why more transparency is needed.

Frank Pauline Jr. Photo courtesy Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Frank Pauline Jr. Photo courtesy Hawaii Department of Public Safety

The Department of Public Safety first transferred Pauline to the mainland shortly after his conviction in 1999, part of an effort to relieve severe overcrowding at the state’s dilapidated prisons and jails.

But the transfer wasn’t made under the corrections compact; he was transferred through the state’s longstanding contract with CoreCivic that at the time allowed Hawaii prisoners to be housed at a number of mainland prisons.

Pauline then bounced around at different CoreCivic-run prisons before ending up at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.

After several years, though, the department decided to transfer Pauline again, this time to New Mexico using the corrections compact.

It’s unclear what prompted Pauline’s transfer out of Saguaro — or why he couldn’t be housed in Hawaii, instead of New Mexico.

Schwartz declined to comment on Pauline’s transfer, except to say: “The interstate compact is a tool that keeps facilities safe and secure for the inmate population and the staff members.”

Charlotte Decker, a Big Island resident who exchanged letters with Pauline for several years, says she believes his transfer was a form of punishment.

Decker says Pauline told her that Saguaro officials considered him a troublemaker and kept harassing him.

‘You Won’t Get Out Alive’

In one letter shared with Civil Beat, dated Aug. 3, 2011, Pauline wrote that he had been threatened by an official, who told him that he’d send him to a place where he “won’t get out alive.”

Decker says Saguaro officials eventually managed to get Pauline transferred to New Mexico.

But Steve Owen, managing director of communications at CoreCivic, points out that the company is not a party to the corrections compact.

“As such, any (transfer) would be carried out under the decision and guidance of a government partner in whose custody the resident ultimately resides,” Owen said.

“Any such decision would only be made because (it’s) in the best safety and security interests of the resident, other residents, facility team members and the public.”

For his part, Ken Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, says that, while he doesn’t know the details of Pauline’s case, the notion that prison transfer is being used to punish prisoners isn’t so far-fetched.

“Based on my experience in having practiced criminal law for 18 years, this is not unusual,” Lawson said. “When a warden gets upset with an inmate or doesn’t like an inmate, even when there may not be any written violations that an inmate has, they can transfer him out for reasons other than what they are really transferring him for.”

State Sen. Will Espero, who has long served on the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he’ll push to get more information about the corrections compacts.

“We should err on the side of transparency and the public being able to access the information — unless it involves something like national security or life-and-death matters,” Espero said.

Espero adds that he’ll confer with state Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the committee, to explore whether the Legislature can be briefed behind closed doors on the details of transfers — much the same way that classified intelligence matters are shared with some members of Congress.

Rui Kaneya

Rui Kaneya

“That way, we could be able to provide a degree of checks and balances and oversight that are needed,” Espero said.

Rui Kaneya, a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, is a 2016 John Jay/Quattrone Reporting Fellow. This story, published last week, was produced as part of his fellowship reporting project. The full story and related coverage is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome. 



Lost Girls

A Baltimore Sun investigation finds young women face harsher punishment than boys in Maryland’s juvenile justice system.

The Baltimore teen and her mother had been fighting for months. Sometimes the arguments got physical, and one night when the high school freshman came home late from prom dress shopping, she said she decided to shove back. Her mother called the police.

In a matter of minutes, the 14-year-old went from teenager to juvenile delinquent, charged with second-degree assault. Now, the same things she’d done before — not coming home on time, leaving the house without permission — were offenses that landed her back in maximum-security lockup nearly a dozen times over the next two years.

“I’m not a criminal — I just have family problems,” said the girl, who is not being identified because juvenile criminal records are private, and The Baltimore Sun generally does not name young offenders.

If she had been a boy, statistics show, it probably would have been different.

Young women are disproportionately locked up for misdemeanors, which are low-level offenses, in Maryland’s juvenile justice system. And they are more likely than boys to be taken before a judge for probation offenses such as running away, breaking curfew and defying their parents.

Once in the system, they are often detained longer. At the state’s most secure facilities, they are committed 25 percent longer, on average, than boys, even though girls are less likely to be there for felonies or violent offenses.

Superintendent Annette Miller, at J. DeWeese Carter Youth Facility, where inspirational posters are displayed throughout the building. Photo by Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun

Superintendent Annette Miller, at J. DeWeese Carter Youth Facility, where inspirational posters are displayed throughout the building. Photo by Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun

There are racial disparities as well. African-American girls in Maryland — like the young woman who fought with her mother — are nearly five times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than white girls. That’s twice the national disparity.

Moreover, juvenile advocates and public defenders say facilities for girls are dilapidated or unsafe. They also offer fewer vocational and treatment options, compared with the facilities for young men, even though the young women are more likely to have come from fractured families, experienced abuse or neglect, suffered from mental illness, or been victims of sex trafficking.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Debbie St. Jean, director of the Juvenile Protection Division in the state public defender’s office, a specialized unit that monitors the conditions of confinement. “Girls don’t have anywhere near the same resources that boys do.”

At the Good Shepherd Services residential treatment center in Baltimore County, a girl reported being sexually assaulted, and surveillance video showed another resident raiding the medicine cart before she and two other residents showed signs of overdosing. The state health department, which regulates such treatment centers, documented the incidents in recent months.

State officials have declined to provide details on problems found at Mary’s Mount Manor Therapeutic Group Home in Anne Arundel County, also under a moratorium on placements from juvenile services.

Sam J. Abed, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services, said state officials quickly address problems when they are brought to their attention but acknowledged the disparities between the experiences of boys and girls in the system.

He said that the expense of expanding programs and placement options for girls isn’t justified because there are so few of them. The agency, with a $280 million annual budget, spends $160 to $795 a day to detain a juvenile.

While there have been more than 1,400 placements of girls in the juvenile justice system in the past five years, on a given day fewer than 100 girls may be under the department’s care. Girls make up 17 percent of the juvenile offender population in Maryland.

In fact, Abed says that the best option for many girls is to keep them out of the juvenile system. He argues that only kids who are violent or a threat to public safety need to be committed.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t belong here,” Abed said, “especially girls.”

But judges have the final say on commitment, and juvenile advocates say too many girls in the juvenile justice system are still treated as just that — threats to public safety.

Though their crimes are rarely violent, they are detained for weeks and months in programs where their advocates and attorneys say underlying issues such as trauma often go unaddressed or worsen.

That’s because there are limited places to send them: to the state-run facilities where they are subjected to security practices like strip searches and shackling; mental institutions where they’re under 24-hour-supervision, or community-based options including group homes, where infractions such as truancy can send them back to a secure facility.

“They are high-need, low-risk, and in the deep end of the system,” said Nick Moroney, director of the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency in the Maryland attorney general’s office.

By the Department of Juvenile Services’ own measure, programs are unsuccessful in rehabilitating girls in about half of the cases. That can mean that the juveniles failed to follow the rules or finish the treatment plan. Many girls are then recycled through the system, placed in different programs.

Juvenile boys are afforded more options, including reporting centers where those awaiting court dates can check in and get job training and a meal; youth centers where there are no fences and community college courses are taught; and a boarding school that offers intensive treatment, vocational programs and the chance to graduate from high school with college scholarships.

No such options exist for girls in Maryland.

Juvenile advocates say the system is discriminatory and sexist — viewing boys as worthy and redeemable, girls as criminals or crazy.

“The vast majority of girls in the system simply don’t belong there, by any objective measure,” said Francine Sherman, consultant to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and a clinical associate professor at Boston College Law School.

Last year she co-authored a national report, “Gender Injustice,” which found that girls were the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system and were treated more harshly than boys.

Problems facing young women in the juvenile justice system had been largely overlooked by policymakers until 2010, when the U.S. Department of Justice called for more research and declared improving programs for them an urgent need.

Despite that spotlight, states are still grappling with the issue.

In Maryland, lawmakers tried and failed to pass legislation mandating equal placement options and services for girls in 2012. Lawmakers have also tried to shutter the aging Thomas J.S. Waxter Center, the first stop for many girls who enter the juvenile justice system — but plans to do that have been delayed.

For many girls, the juvenile system brings with it unintended consequences, like missing time from school and family, learning behaviors from other troubled girls such as cutting oneself to cope with emotional pain, and getting caught in a cycle that is hard to escape.

The Baltimore girl said she would leave her home to avoid fighting with her mother, who would then call the police to report her missing — a situation sometimes referred to in juvenile records as “on the wing.” Orders would then be issued, saying the girl should be “apprehended and delivered” to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

The girl, now 16, has become numb to the routine. She feels lost.

“I just go wherever they send me and count the days,” she said. “You just gotta sleep when they tell you to sleep, eat when they say eat and ask to go to the bathroom.”

 ‘Wayward’ Girls

For at least a century, judges, lawyers and advocates in Maryland have called out the juvenile justice system, saying it fails girls.

The state’s system, started in 1866, was designed to provide delinquent girls with homes, education and job training. In those days, most of the girls were considered “wayward” — poor, immigrant, pregnant or promiscuous. Some girls were arrested and charged with being “incorrigible.”

In 1930, Judge Thomas J. S. Waxter — whose name is on the state’s detention center for young women — advocated for a new institution for black girls. He described the now-defunct Industrial Home for Colored Girls at Melvale as “impossible,” a “fire trap,” and inadequate for recreation, schooling and vocational training.

Even then, state officials denounced so-called “reformatories” as “deformatories.” Officials called for detention and commitment to be used only after every social service had been exhausted.

That approach hasn’t evolved much since then, Sherman said.

“The social welfare part of the system was more for girls, but the problem is that the apparatus has shifted,” she said. “The problem is we’re still doing that, but we’re doing it with detention and shackles.”

Most are committed for low-level offenses that are often linked to their own victimization. They are more likely to have been raped or physically abused than boys in the juvenile justice system, and to have mental health problems. Many are runaways. Some are poor and exposed to danger in violent neighborhoods.

Eliza Steele, Senior Monitor in the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the Maryland ttorney General's office. Photo by Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun

Eliza Steele, Senior Monitor in the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the Maryland Attorney General’s office. Photo by Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun

“There’s a double standard. The system says when you act out as a victim of abuse, we’re going to punish that, and we’re going to punish that hard,” said Eliza Steele, senior monitor with the state’s juvenile monitoring unit, who has overseen the girls’ facilities for the last few years. She said boys are treated differently.

For girls, she said, the system “criminalizes their experience of having a real hard life — circumstances that define who they are, but that they have no control over.”

According to state data, girls come into the system with more problems than boys. Twenty-four percent of the girls have a history of physical abuse, compared to 11 percent of boys, and 30 percent have a history of sexual abuse, compared to 5 percent of their male counterparts. Sixty-two percent have a “high” need for mental health treatment, while 41 percent of boys do.

As the juvenile justice system tries to balance their welfare with holding them accountable, their backgrounds often make for more complicated cases than the boys’.

“The charge that brings them in is so insignificant in the grander scheme of things,” said Melanie Shapiro, the chief public defender in Baltimore. “By the time they get to court for the fighting or shoplifting, it’s not even about that anymore.”

Some girls are more vulnerable, advocates say.

Nationwide, as much as 40 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, gender non-conforming and transgender, or nearly three times the percentage for boys, according to a 2016 study led by Dr. Angela Irvine. The vice president of Impact Justice, an Oakland-based think tank, has conducted a number of national studies on juvenile delinquency.

Researchers traced the paths of these girls and found that many are rejected and abused by their families, get involved in the child welfare system, and later become homeless. They said the girls wind up committing crimes to survive.

Advocates also say black girls in particular face bias. Sociological studies have shown that society judges them harshly for talking loudly, dressing differently, challenging authority and other behavior that runs counter to cultural norms of white, middle-class femininity. And, they say, that makes them more likely to land in the juvenile justice system.

Young black women make up two-thirds of the juvenile offender population but about one-third of Maryland’s population.

 Gender Disparities

About 10 percent of young women in the system are there for violent crimes, about half the rate of boys. The majority of girls — 83 percent — are committed for misdemeanors, compared to 65 percent of boys.

The girls’ offenses are primarily fighting and shoplifting, while boys are more likely to be committed for felonies.

Abed has called the misdemeanor disparity “troubling and quite large.”

While he said some juveniles should be committed because of the nature of their crimes, Abed believes too many are in the system for low-level offenses. Many of the girls don’t need to be confined, he said, just given a chance to grow up and mature.

Abed has cut the overall population of young offenders being detained or committed, in part by diverting those who are not public safety risks to community programs, counseling or other services.

But change has come more quickly for boys. Since 2011, the average daily population for young men who have been committed has dropped by 41 percent, from 818 to 480, while the girls’ population has dropped by 33 percent from 139 to 93.

Abed points to the population dropping to below 10 girls this fall at one of the facilities, the J. Deweese Carter Center on the Eastern Shore, the state’s long-term, maximum-security placement option for girls, as evidence of the department’s progress in keeping them out of the deep end of the system.

But juvenile advocates say that many of the girls who land at Carter still shouldn’t be there.

Carter is supposed to house the most dangerous youths — comparable to the state’s facility for boys, the Victor Cullen Center. Yet, 60 percent of Carter placements last fiscal year were for misdemeanors.

On average, girls at Carter are locked up 201 days, compared to an average of 166 days for boys at Cullen. That is inconsistent with national trends, which show girls getting shorter stays because they committed lesser crimes.

Earlier this year, juvenile justice monitors documented the offenses that landed a dozen girls at Carter. Several had probation violations; others were there for disturbing school activities, malicious destruction of property and second-degree assault.

“We’re way more likely to penalize girls for minor or certain deviations from expectations, like manners and purporting yourself like a ‘young lady,’” said Steele, the juvenile monitor for Carter. “The system is not willing to always be flexible the way they are with boys being boys.”

Abed said he’s worried in particular about the criminalization of black girls, given what he calls the “enormous” racial disparity, and he’s working on training staff to help address the bias.

But he’s also concerned about too many girls being committed in an attempt to protect them. Abed and public defenders said judges fear that if they release juvenile girls, they’ll be vulnerable to sex trafficking, prostitution and other dangers.

Judges declined to be interviewed for this article, according to a spokeswoman for the Maryland judiciary.

In a statement, the spokeswoman, Terri Charles, said judges are working with the Department of Juvenile Services and state lawmakers on improving the system. She also noted that juvenile judges attend an annual conference to learn more about cognitive development in youth, implicit bias and race-neutral policies.

Abed also said some judges take a more punitive approach than others. “If you’re a hammer,” he said, “you’re going to see everything as a nail.”

“A lot of times, the kid just needs help. But our help comes with a lot of strings,” he said, adding that many youths would benefit more from counseling than incarceration. “By dragging them into our system, for something that is developmentally appropriate, we’re doing more harm.

“It’s like hugging someone who can’t breathe.”

Custody of the State

…Many girls in Maryland’s juvenile justice system are detained in or committed to facilities that are locked and fenced-in and required to employ the most invasive and restrictive practices, such as routine shackling and strip-searches. The only all-girls facilities run by the state — the Carter and Waxter centers — are “hardware secure.”

Compared to their male counterparts, girls have fewer options for “staff-secure” facilities, where they can serve sentences for six to nine months at a time, free of fences and maximum-security tactics, and where there are more opportunities for rehabilitation.

“The system says, ‘We expect more of you, but we’re going to give you less,’” Sherman said.

Boys may be placed at one of four youth camps in the mountains of Western Maryland, where they are able to work in the woods and take community college courses.

Boys may also be sent to the privately contracted boarding school, Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County, where they can leave with a high school diploma, trade licenses, internship hours, college acceptances, scholarships and full-time jobs.

Those options often are more successful in rehabilitating youths.

State officials said they do try to rehabilitate girls through the programs that are available.

Annette Miller, the superintendent at Carter, a small, ranch-like building with low ceilings in Chestertown, tries to balance making a safe, homey environment for the girls — they get to pick which colorful bed comforter that fits their personality — with the demands of a punitive system.

Miller, who has worked for 30 years with juvenile offenders, described the young women as “high-risk, high-need” and more challenging. “Boys come into the facility ready to go home. They come in, do their time,” she said. “With the girls, there’s a lot of mistrust, so they don’t come in as open to the process.”

By the time they leave, she said, “they’re truly talking about making changes in their lives.” Still, she worries about the family and social problems they must confront on the outside.

“It’s just so much that can get in their way.”….

Revolving Door

While boys are more likely to become adult offenders, research shows an even gloomier outlook for girls. According to the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a study that tracked juvenile offenders in Chicago over several years, girls who enter the juvenile justice system are five times likely to be killed or kill themselves by age 29 than the other youths not in the system.

One former juvenile offender, who agreed to share her story with The Sun, has scars that cover her arms — the only signs of healing from being locked away for half of her life. She is now 27.

Each gash comes with its own story of questions, confusion and crisis that started when her brother molested her at the age of 12. The courts determined she was emotionally disturbed from her past, which also included physical abuse and repeated run-ins with the child welfare system, she said.

Over six years, she says she was placed in 22 facilities, including state-run facilities, privately contracted boarding schools and psychiatric institutions up and down the East Coast.

“They were just shipping me here, there, everywhere,” she recalled.

She says she caught a single charge — for assault — in a residential treatment center where she bloodied a staff member’s nose during a fight. After that, she said she was labeled a menace, and it wasn’t long before she started acting the part. She fought for sport, lashed out for attention, and did sexual favors for staff to get out of trouble.

From other girls, she said she learned to snort pills and how to feel a sense of relief from cutting her skin — with staplers, the metal ring from pencil erasers, or the broken tile from the floor.

“It felt like I was releasing the pain from my insides,” she explained. “When the blood comes out, it feels like you’re crying.”

She reached 12th grade, but her academic credits rarely transferred to the next juvenile facility and ultimately she gave up. She said she never received vocational training.

Today, she lives alone in a basement apartment. “I’m still trying to find my way,” she said. “I’m learning life … on my own.”

She still carries a perfectly packed caddy to the bathroom, initials the tags on her clothes, and meticulously folds her bedsheets, just as she did in the facilities. “I feel like maybe I need to be, and am supposed to be institutionalized,” she said.

Juveniles can be recommitted in the system for a number of reasons, including if they commit another crime or if they fail a program and are sent to a new residential treatment center or group home.

But the one of the most common reasons they are committed again is for technical probation violations, such as skipping school or getting home late. Abed said that’s a bigger problem for girls.

Abed said girls tend to be “more defiant” because of their backgrounds, which gets them into trouble in the justice system when they might just need help.

“The doors to detention for them are revolving,” said Shapiro, the Baltimore head juvenile public defender.

A few years ago, Abed created a tool that would help probation officers make more objective decisions about probation violations. That program cut down violations by one-third.

But juvenile advocates say the department should be more aggressive in refusing to take in youths who are not threats to public safety — which can be a tough balancing act — and referring them to social service agencies so they and their families can get support.

Still, some young offenders feel probation sets them up to fail.

“They trap you,” said a 15-year-old Baltimore girl who spent more than one year in the system, including for probation violations such as missing a 7 p.m. curfew and failing to follow rules at home, records show.

“It’s like they get you one time, and they never stop coming back for you.”

Advocates have called on the courts to increase diversion programs, curtail the duration and terms of probation, and prohibit sending girls to be securely detained at Waxter for technical violations of probations. They also say the department needs to employ more case managers and mentors who have been proven to help girls in the community.

Around the country, other models have shown success, such as courts that specialize in handling the cases of young women and provide community-based programs.

Some young women in Maryland feel the state’s juvenile justice system, as it is now, does them more harm than good.

The Frederick teenager who is now in a Florida residential treatment center doesn’t like who she is becoming. She found herself shouting at a 11-year-old girl the other day, something she says she wouldn’t have done before. She feels paranoid and quick to snap, the same kind of fight-or-flight mentality that got her into trouble in the first place.

“A lot of kids want … to press a button to make it all go away,” she said.

She’s looking forward to a place where she can finally feel safe, asking her mother several times during each night’s 10-minute phone call: “When can I come home?”

Editors Note: Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell and reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

 This is an abridged version of an article published this month by Erika Green as part of the 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship. The full version, with graphics and accompanying tables can be read here. Erica welcomes comments from readers, and she can also be reached at


The New ‘Asylum’: When Jails Become Mental Health Facilities

State prisons and jails in the U.S. now hold 10 times more mentally ill people than psychiatric hospitals. But they get little help while they’re inside.


In a white [prison] jump suit, Michael Martinez Jr., clung to a phone and rattled off all the things he wished he would have said to his mother.

Her boyfriend killed her in 2012 before taking his own life. Martinez says he was there when his brothers kicked in her door [of their home in Victoria, Tx] and made the grisly discovery; and he has been using drugs and alcohol to cope ever since.

Martinez, 29, who is serving a sentence in the Victoria County Jail, will be a free man later this month; but like most other mentally ill inmates, he’ll have only a bus ticket and his best intentions to guide him. He most likely will be back behind bars.

“They said I broke the law … but they don’t tell you how to deal with seeing your mother’s throat cut ear to ear,” Martinez said.

State prisons and jails in the U.S. now hold 10 times more mentally ill people than psychiatric hospitals. The same people are coming back to prisons and jails more often. And they are worse off there, according to a recent study by Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

That’s because only about a third of jails provide psychiatric care to inmates and even less offer any support system for them when they are released.

The Problem ‘Will Get Worse’

Ominously, the study’s authors concluded, unless the fractured mental health care system becomes a priority and is healed, “this problem will only get worse.”

Another study done in Arkansas found that the cost to prosecute and incarcerate a mentally ill person over a year was 20 times more than the cost to just treat them.

Hank Steadman, the president of Policy Research Associates, has studied mental health for decades. He said people don’t see the issue as their problem.

For taxpayers, though, it is.

“This is incredibly wasteful,” Steadman said. “They need to be linking these people to community-based treatment, not just temporarily recycling them through the jail.”

Martinez returned to Victoria from Houston earlier this year to rekindle a relationship with the mother of his child. But then, she dumped him. He felt like he was losing another family member.

Martinez was arrested [after a police officer] found him…staggering on the wrong side of the road early on the morning of April 3. He slurred as he gave inconsistent statements about where he was coming from.The officer allowed Martinez to knock on his brother’s door, but when no one answered, he was deemed a danger to himself or others and taken to jail, where meth was found in his pocket.

There, he received medication, but no counseling. He was at an emotional standstill.

The ‘Sandra Bland’ Effect

[The case of Sandra Bland, which received national attention last year, spotlighted why jails can’t ignore mentally ill inmates. The 28-year-old African-American women was detained after an argument with an officer in Hempstead, Tx, 60 miles northwest of Houston, who stopped her for making an illegal turn.]

Held in the Waller County jail, Bland died by suicide even though she indicated to the jailers when questioned that she had thought of suicide before. That should have triggered a call to the local mental health authority or at least more frequent checks of her, but did not.

Since then, the regulatory agency for jails in Texas revised the questions asked of inmates, as well as the form filled out when they are booked. The idea was the form needed to be more comprehensive for jailers, who are not mental health professionals.

For example, if inmates indicate they have thought of suicide, the form explicitly instructs jailers to refer them to a magistrate to determine competency to stand trial or to the local mental health authority.

It was during this process that the Victoria County Jail learned Martinez was a patient of the local mental health authority, the Gulf Bend Center.

Martinez said the jail filled at least three prescriptions for him within a few days. The prescriptions came from Gulf Bend’s psychiatrist, Dr. James Dotter. They were Depakote, which treats bipolar disorder; Trazodone, an antidepressant; and Hydroxyine, which treats anxiety, he said.

But he said the jail offered no counseling, which he wanted, desperately.

Martinez is better off than some.

If inmates are not already Gulf Bend patients or displaying symptoms of a mental illness that are obvious to jailers, they have almost no hope of getting treatment.

….Some Crossroads county jails report that when inmates have requested to see someone from Gulf Bend in the past, the wait time has varied between two weeks to four months.

Lane Johnson, Gulf Bend’s chief of clinical services, said the center’s response varies depending on many factors. He said Gulf Bend has limited manpower to offer counseling in the jails.

But Calhoun County Jail Administrator Michelle Velasquez thinks counseling could be helpful.

“I’ve got inmates who have been in here months. They are fine most of the time, but then they get frustrated with the court system or whatever is going on with their families on the outside, and they start getting depressed and sometimes suicidal,” Velasquez said.

Martinez said he filled out three request forms because he wanted Dotter to adjust his medication, which he felt wasn’t working.

When Martinez never heard back, he refused to take the medication for two weeks. He thought that by doing so, he’d force Gulf Bend’s hand.

Instead, his nerves frayed and he got into two fist fights.

For Martinez, his punishment was 24 hours in solitary. For others, the consequences of going without treatment while held in a jail are more severe.

In June, a Calhoun County Jail inmate tried to hang himself with a nylon thread he ripped out of a shower curtain in his cell. When the jailers noticed him standing on his sink with the thread around his neck, they tried to get him down. He elbowed, kicked, punched and spit on them. He is now charged with assaulting a public servant, a third-degree felony for which he could face a maximum of 10 years in prison.

He’s been on suicide watch for at least three months, requiring jailers to check on him once every 10 minutes.

Those familiar with the gaps mentally ill inmates fall into locally want to make a change, but cost…is their biggest hurdle.

Victoria County is considering signing a $1 million annual contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB).

Signing this contract gives the county access to UTMB’s network of specialized doctors, which could cut down on how often inmates must be driven elsewhere for care, leading to some savings, County Judge Ben Zeller said.

UTMB also would provide a psychiatrist, who would be available via tele-video conferencing, Zeller said.

Gulf Bend’s psychiatrist is available to jails in the same way already, Johnson said.

But that same psychiatrist, Dotter, oversees Gulf Bend’s outpatient clinic five days a week. He sees an average of 18 patients daily.

“Our next step is to figure out a way to pay for it,” Zeller said of the UTMB contract.

Victoria County, which just grappled with budget shortfall amounting to about a million dollars, is on track to spend $1.13 million providing medical care at its jail this year, an increase over the previous two years…

Another Solution

The Gulf Bend Community Collaborative, a group of concerned residents led by Leo Rios, of the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office, has been working for almost a year on ways to divert the mentally ill from jail.

The Collaborative has come up with a plan that could help someone like Martinez, Johnson said.

The plan calls for case workers and deputies trained in mental health to meet inmates while they’re in the jail and follow up with them when they’re released. They also would try to establish a rapport with the mentally ill people in the community before they face a crisis.

During those meetings in and out of the jail, they’ll help a mentally ill inmate find a place to live and a job.

“Part of the role of those individuals in the Collaborative’s plan is to begin to put in place those basic human survival needs, which means they are less apt to get in trouble again,” Johnson said. “The major gap right now for us is when someone is released from the jail. What then? What happens over the next 24-48 hours is critical.”

The Collaborative is pitching the plan to legislators now. The cost is estimated at $11 million over four years.

But the plan is landing on legislators’ laps right as they’re contending with a cooling economy and other crises, such as the need for 550 more Child Protective Services caseworkers.

Endless Cycle

….Martinez missed his daughter’s first birthday. The only present he could afford was one of the four sheets of paper provided by the jail every week. On the lined sheet of paper, he drew her a portrait in pencil and mailed it to her home in Bloomington.

“I don’t know if she forgot about me. I hope not. I miss her every day,” Martinez said.

From April to November, Martinez passed the time at the jail working out his feelings about his mother’s death, not with a counselor, but by writing poems.

He also bartered with other inmates, a haircut for a tube of toothpaste he couldn’t afford at the commissary.

It sparked in him a desire to become a barber, but his future looks bleak.

In November, he was transferred to a prison about 30 miles from San Antonio to serve the remainder of his sentence.

“I get out on [December] 29th. I’m trying to get all excited about it and I am because I get to see my daughter, but I know what I’m going out there to – nothing. I don’t have anywhere to go,” Martinez said.

Jessica Priest, a court reporter for The Victoria Advocate, is a 2015-2016 John Jay/Langeloth Mental Health Reporting Fellow, This is an abridged version of a story published this month as part of a continuing series, “Minds That Matter, produced as part of her Fellowship reporting project. The full version of the story, and other parts of the series, are available here. Jessica welcomes readers’ comments.


When a Sibling Goes to Prison

Thousands of young people are sent to prison every day, leaving behind scores of brothers and sisters whom researchers call the “most often overlooked” family members of adjudicated youth. These non-offending siblings often suffer high levels of emotional stress, but so far they’ve been paid scant attention.

Photo by Nicholas Cardot via Flickr

Photo by Nicholas Cardot via Flickr

Over five million kids in the United States currently have or have had a parent in prison. That works out to about one in 14 American children—a majority of whom are under age 10.

Broken down by state, children with incarcerated parents can represent three  to 13 percent of the population, according to “A Shared Sentence,” a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The unusually intense stress that these children face has been well documented and studied. That’s mostly due to researchers’ emphasis on the parent-child relationship when analyzing incarcerated populations—and how little support is available for those left-behind children who are forced to stand by as their primary role models, caregivers, and providers are put behind bars.

But incarceration also affects a separate number of children who have been isolated from another profound relationship: They are the children with siblings in jail or prison—and much less is known about them.

It isn’t even clear how many of them there are.

One recent U.S.-based analysis of grief and coping among “non-offending siblings,” as the literature often refers to them, brands them as the “most often overlooked” family members of adjudicated youth.

The study’s author, sociologist Katie Heaton, detailed the levels of daily “emotional stress” siblings may experience, including “bullying by other students who discovered their sibling’s imprisonment, adjusting to new household roles and routines, complex feelings of ambivalence related to their sibling’s safety, visiting their brother or sister, and having their sibling return home after an extended period away.”

‘Disenfranchised Grief’

Heaton concluded that non-offending siblings suffer from “disenfranchised grief ”… [which she defined as “a particularly difficult form of loss to overcome because the majority of cases involving this form of grief are the consequences of personal decisions of behaviors made.

“Such loss often creates a sense of shame or guilt within the individual or that person’s family, making it difficult to openly mourn, discuss, or cope with the actions that have created the loss.”

Given the depth of these effects, why have the U.S. institutions that usually analyze the trends and impacts of the criminal-justice system paid so little attention to siblings as an analytical subject?

“I honestly don’t know that we have an answer to that question,” says Janet Lauritsen, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied the issue. “The siblings don’t get much attention even in the offending literature.”

…Studies in the United Kingdom have attempted to put the focus on “this largely invisible population in the criminal justice system.” One analysis concluded that 80 percent of existing research on prisoners’ families “have never asked about how [brothers and sisters] are coping following their sibling’s imprisonment.”

The study made two other significant conclusions regarding siblings of the incarcerated: They are at an increased risk of becoming offenders themselves (especially brothers), and they are at risk for considerably more physical and mental-health problems, like becoming withdrawn, displaying anger, and having low self-esteem.

Another British study by the sociologist Rosie Meek found, “Sibling imprisonment had affected the school, social and family life of the participants … and many were preoccupied with worrying about the well-being of their older brother, both in prison and after release from custody.”

What’s more, “older sibling offending was related to younger sibling offending in both brothers and sisters.”

That kind of sibling-to-sibling impact is serious.

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s report “Juvenile Offenders and Victims,” 1.6 million kids under the age of 18 were arrested in 2010, including those young people who were involved in 800, or 8 percent, of that year’s murders.

Half of the youth offenders were taken into custody for simple assault, drug-abuse violations, larceny-theft, and disorderly conduct. Another large portion of kids were arrested for violating liquor laws, breaking curfew, loitering, vandalism, and simple assault.

Whatever their crimes, all of them have one thing in common: They all left families behind—and many times, that included the impressionable siblings who just lost a little brother or big sister to prison.

The good news is that those figures also represent the lowest youth crime rates in American history. From 2005 to 2014, youth arrests dropped by a staggering 51 percent, compared with just a 14 percent decrease for adults. Similarly, between 1997 and 2013, there was a 48 percent drop in the number of young people placed in corrections facilities, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Still, when 1.6 million kids are getting arrested each year, there could be another million siblings watching. What lessons will they absorb?

Financial Consequences

….Having a sibling in jail or prison can also have severe financial consequences for a family. As it is, children who come from impoverished families are over-represented in the juvenile-justice system. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that “65 percent of families with a member in prison or jail could not meet basic needs.”

That can be an especially harsh reality for a non-offending brother or sister who sees limited resources being diverted away from their needs and toward the child in custody.

The Juvenile Law Center analyzed juvenile-justice statutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to understand the network of legal financial obligations encountered by youth and families going through the system.

The center also conducted a national survey of families, lawyers, other professionals in the field, and adults who experienced the system as young people. Some of the fees they encountered include: costs for evaluating and testing the young person; child support paid to the state (called “cost of care”); health-care, mental-health care, and medication costs; GPS-monitoring costs; public-defender fees; and court expenses like transportation, prosecution, witness fees, and general-operations costs.

In some states, even a family who has been declared indigent is responsible for these bills. Also, many of the costs are nonrefundable, even if the young person is found not responsible for any crimes. Unsurprisingly, the Juvenile Law Center concluded that such costs are “burdensome,” “overwhelming,” “harmful,” and can “exacerbate the family’s economic distress” and push a young person further into the system.

….Sometimes siblings are asked to play a role in the implicated young person’s court proceedings.

Young Eyewitnesses

“A sibling, for example, could be an eyewitness to whatever the issue is,” says attorney Tim Curry, director of training and technical assistance at the National Juvenile Defender Center, which focuses on defending youth in juvenile court, where children are prosecuted as children and not as adults.

“If the sibling has positive things to say towards the defense, they might be a defense witness. If the state believes that the sibling has information against their own sibling, they could force them to testify as a state’s witness against their own sibling.”

The Center deals primarily with status offenses, which are not considered crimes and which include truancy, curfew violations, underage drinking, smoking, and running away.

Not only do prosecutors have every right under state laws to subpoena a sibling and force him or her to testify against their own brother or sister; the parents have no say in whether or not they will allow the minor to testify.

There’s no sibling equivalent for the parent-child privilege that some states have, which protects a parent from testifying against their own child. A child does have the same Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination that any other person would have in those circumstances—but does a child always understand that or have adequate counsel to explain it to them?

In some cases, even if a child does not have materially significant information, she may be drawn into a confounding legal web.

“Kids are subpoenaed by the prosecution because they really are on a fishing expedition,” Curry says. “They want to know what’s going on, so they subpoena the kids in and bring them into the office, and say, ‘Well, if you talk to us before you go to court, we might be able to get this to go away.’ Kids go in without lawyers. They answer all these kinds of questions, and then whatever happens happens.”

Though prosecutors may simply be gathering evidence against the target child, for “a sibling, that could be traumatic,” says Curry. “The state has every right to subpoena whoever they want. They could technically subpoena anybody at any age.” Sometimes the non-offending sibling could even end up divulging incriminating information and being prosecuted, too.

The defense team may also involve a sibling, either as a fact witness to testify about what happened to exonerate her brother or sister or to serve as a character witness to try to mitigate the prosecution’s case.

“Character witnesses are really hard because they get super cross-examined by the prosecutor,” Curry says. “I personally, for example, would be hesitant to put a child character witness up there, just because I think it’s harder for them to withstand cross-examination.”

But even if not required to do something as extreme as take the stand in court, siblings often play key roles in the investigations that help lawyers prepare for trial. Curry says that nine times out of 10, he asks siblings for information that would benefit the defense.

“Investigation is one of the hardest things for the defense,” Curry says. “You got an entire police force that’s out talking to people that can investigate the state’s case. We have to figure out who will talk to us and who might know information, and family is often the first place we start.”

Fragmented Families

The immediate and long-term impacts of the fragmented families, especially siblings, who are left behind when a young person is incarcerated are varied and profound.

….On any given day, 54,000 juvenile offenders are not living with their families because they are instead in one of the 696 youth-detention facilities across the United States. In an average year, 17,800 of them “are just awaiting their turn in court,” according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

But those are just the youth in the juvenile-justice system. In the adult criminal-court system, another 200,000 young people “are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults.” That results in an average of 4,000 to 5,000 children sent to adult jails every day.

And in the shadows, behind all of those statistics, are the left-behind siblings—many of whom will experience incarceration as a kind of mutual sentence.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you have a sibling in prison? Did you serve time while your siblings grew up?  Please send a note to (The Atlantic may publish it, anonymously, in Notes.)

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of the first article in a six-part series published this month, and submitted as her fellowship reporting project. The article is part of The Atlantic’s Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The full article and links to other parts of the series are available here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.




How Prison Guards Drove a Mentally Ill Inmate to Suicide

Fishkill prison in New York State is supposed to take care of mentally ill people. But for one inmate, his incarceration turned out to be a death sentence.

Benjamin Van Zandt. Photo by Bethlehem Police Dept. Courtesy of The Daily Beast

Benjamin Van Zandt. Photo by Bethlehem Police Dept. Courtesy of The Daily Beast

Benjamin Van Zandt’s hellish odyssey through New York’s criminal justice system began when the voices inside his head compelled him to light a neighbor’s house on fire.

While the occupants of the house were away, and no one was hurt, the 17-year-old schizophrenic and psychotic depressive was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in adult prison.

There he was raped, extorted, forced to mule drugs, sent to solitary confinement, and deprived of the medication required to keep him stable, sane, and alive—all this according to his mother and father, who regularly visited him, prison records, and court filings obtained by The Daily Beast.

Benjamin’s journey ended, four years later, at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility, when he killed himself after the prison’s “beat-up squad” of guards tortured a mentally ill prisoner in front of him, leaving Ben to fear for his own life. Fishkill’s beat-up squads are accused of killing at least one inmate, whose death is being investigated by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

But no one has been held remotely responsible for the death of Benjamin Van Zandt—until now.

A Former Boy Scout

His mother called him Ben.

The son of Alicia Barraza and Douglas Van Zant grew up in Selkirk, New York, a suburb of Albany. Ben started playing the violin in elementary school and became a Boy Scout, ascending to the rank of Life Scout, one rank below Eagle.

….Ben was also shy and socially awkward. As he grew older he began hearing noises in his head. Over time, the noises grew louder and louder, and then the noises urged him to burn things.

“He used to spend a lot of time on his headphones,” Alicia said, “listening to music, in his room. But as a teenager we didn’t really think that that was that unusual. But later he told us that he was actually trying to drown out bad thoughts.”

Ben kept those bad thoughts to himself, occasionally writing down some of them in a private journal. On June 18, 2010, he wrote:

“I thought about suicide for the first time. I didn’t like it. I figured I would cut my wrists in the bath tub and just listen to music while I died, what an end. I wonder if I’m depressed, I feel so bad and alone… “

“Things just got worse,” Alicia said. “Delusional thoughts convinced him that starting fires would make his sadness go away. He would burn little pieces of paper in the back yard. Then he started burning bigger pieces of paper.”

According to court records, while he was still 16, Ben lit small fires in the backyard of his home no less than six times around the beginning of July 2010.

Alicia  Photo by JB Nicholas/Daily Beast

Alicia Barraza, mother of Ben Van Zandt. Photo by JB Nicholas/Daily Beast

… “Then one day,” Alicia said, “he got this thought that if he started a big fire in a house that would really make all the sadness go away. So that’s what he did.”

Ben described it to Francis as an “epiphany.”

On Aug. 4, 2010, 11 days after he turned 17, Ben rode his bicycle to a house in Delmar, a well-to-do neighborhood about a mile away. Ben selected the house because he knew it was empty, having seen on Facebook that its occupants were on vacation.

In [one] room, he poured some of the gasoline he had brought with him on the floor, and set it on fire, before going downstairs, pouring out the rest of the gas, and setting it on fire too.

“Then he went home,” Alicia said, “and he realized that it didn’t make him feel any better either—it just made it worse.”

A few days later, Ben began using the credit cards he had taken from the house, which were reported stolen, to order things online. A Town of Bethlehem police officer posing as a FedEx worker delivered the goods and arrested Ben.

….Ben was charged with arson, burglary, criminal mischief, grand larceny, and reckless endangerment.

Ben’s family posted his $50,000 bail and sent him to Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Saratoga Springs. The hospital diagnosed him with schizoid personality disorder, a lifelong condition that typically manifests itself in early adulthood, as well as severe depression with psychotic features. He was prescribed Abilify, Celexia, and Vistaril.

The medication worked. Ben’s mood leveled. The voices went silent.

Prosecuted as an Adult

After getting Ben’s mental health needs properly diagnosed and treated, his family had to deal with the felony charges against him.

Ben didn’t have a criminal history—this had been his first arrest.

Nevertheless, the office of Albany County Prosecutor David Soares, who lived in the neighborhood where Ben burned down the house, refused to grant Ben youthful offender status—which would’ve kept Ben out of prison, kept his criminal record sealed and given him a real chance at a normal life.

Instead, Soares’s office prosecuted Ben as an adult, and insisted that Ben plead guilty as an adult, to third-degree arson, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in adult prison.

…(A mental-health advocate they retained) told them that even if a jury believed that Ben’s mental illness excused him from criminal liability at a trial, he still faced at least 5 to 10 years’ confinement in a state mental hospital.

“So,” Ben’s father said, “it looked like a plea bargain prison sentence would be the best thing.”

Ben took the deal and pleaded guilty. The Honorable Thomas A. Breslin of Albany County Court accepted Ben’s plea. He sentenced Ben as an adult to 4 to 12 years in state prison, and tacked on $455,000 in restitution. Ben was 17 years old.

Judge Breslin did not respond to a request for comment, but his brother, State Sen. Neil Breslin, told the Gotham Gazette news website he thought his brother went too far.

“We have this shy, bright teen with so much potential who admitted mental health issues and admitted he started a fire. Does that mean he should be sentenced to jail with older hardened criminals who harassed and abused him? The answer to me is clearly ‘no.’

“Ben,” his mother said “was totally unprepared” for prison.

“He had trouble recognizing people’s social cues. If someone was nice to him he thought it was because they wanted to be his friend. He didn’t realize they were trying to take advantage of him. He had no life experience. He was not a street-wise kid”

“And the DA knew all of this when they sentenced him, but they don’t care,” Alicia said.

A psychiatric evaluation that found Ben could not properly interpret social cues and would be vulnerable to predation in prison was included in a pre-sentence report reviewed by Judge Breslin and assistant D.A. Fowler, court records show.

After being sentenced, Ben was taken to the Albany County Jail and placed in its mental health unit. Yet he was denied his psychiatric medication, according to prison records made later. After a week, Ben was transferred to the Downstate Correctional Facility, where convicts are first received into state custody, and had his medication restarted. From there he was sent on to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, where he stayed from March 2011 until May 2013.

..A corrections officer at Woodbourne who supervised Ben came to know and like him. The officer is not authorized to speak about prison matters, and so requested that his name not be disclosed, but prison records confirm that he interacted with Ben regularly.

Ben, he said, was “very nice. Very well-behaved, [a] little dirty. You know he didn’t keep his cell clean. I had to yell at him a few times.”

Above all, the officer said, Ben was “scared out of his mind. He really was.”

In early 2013 Ben was transferred within the prison, from a cellblock to open, dormitory-style housing. That’s when Ben was raped by an older inmate, Donald J. Robinson, according to prison records. At the time, Robinson, 45, was serving a 20-year sentence for first degree burglary and first degree robbery, which he is still serving, now at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility.

….Robinson started asking Ben for sex, then he demanded it before finally threatening him: If he didn’t comply, other prisoners were going to extort him, beat him up, or worse. Ben felt he didn’t have choice, Alicia said, and couldn’t tell anyone about it, so he submitted.

“It went on for several months,” Alicia said.

Ben wanted it to stop, his mother said, but he was afraid of what would happen if he went to prison officials for help and get labeled a snitch. Instead, Ben tried to get caught. In May 2013, Ben was busted performing oral sex on Robinson, according to prison records.

Prison officials punished both Robinson and Ben, and the mentally ill teenager was sentenced to 70 days in solitary confinement.

Ben wrote a letter home that, Alicia said, “tore my heart stating that he was extremely depressed, and he knew he would be insane by day 70. He begged us to do everything possible to get him out” of solitary.

Ben’s family hired an attorney, Cheryl L. Kates-Benman, who specializes in prison issues. Citing the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, Kates-Benman convinced prison officials to release Ben from solitary confinement after two weeks.

Instead of releasing Ben into general population at Woodbourne, prison officials sent Ben to the Mid-State Correctional Facility. At Mid-State, Ben was placed in a specialized housing unit known as the Intermediate Care Program, commonly called ICP.

The ICP is for prisoners with significant mental health issues that fall short of requiring full hospitalization, but do require special treatment and isolation from ordinary prisoners in general population.

At Mid-State, Ben manifested symptoms commonly associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and mental health professionals concluded that Ben “has likely experienced a disturbing traumatic event in the past.”

Nevertheless, prison officials and clinicians soon discharged Ben from the ICP, and sent him to live, again, in another dormitory, in general population.

This time, the Bloods took interest in Ben.

“They recognized that he was a young, innocent kid, probably a little more affluent than other people in there, so they started extorting him, and then they started having him transport some K2 out to the yard,” Alicia said.

One night, prison guards caught Ben with K2, a synthetic cannabinoid. Instead of placing Ben in solitary confinement, prison officials transferred him from Mid-State to Fishkill.

Shipped to Fishkill

Fishkill sits on an open, rolling hillside between Beacon Mountain and the Hudson River, 60 miles north of New York City. It is a semi-bucolic setting of farms and former farms being eaten away by suburban sprawl. The prison began life in the 1892 as the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1977, New York closed Matteawan and converted it into the Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men.

The closing of Matteawan and its re-purposing as a prison signaled thecriminalization of mental illness—a wholesale shift away from considering mental illness a medical condition amenable to treatment, toward the punishment of persons who are afflicted.

Today, Fishkill holds more than 1,500 male criminal offenders, housed in open, dormitory-style housing typical of contemporary medium- and minimum-security prisons, as well as a 200-bed maximum-security disciplinary segregation unit known as S-Block, a six-cell “self-harm crisis unit” with observation cells, and 42 residential mental-health treatment beds, spread across three small, specialized housing units.

Services for mentally ill prisoners are administered by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH). Fishkill is a designated OMH Level-1 facility (PDF), providing—at least on paper—the highest level of mental health care available within the state prison system.

But in April 2012, auditors from the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog agency with a legislative mandate guaranteeing unrestricted access to prisons, visited Fishkill and were disturbed by what they found.

At the time, 464 prisoners were on the psychiatric care caseload but there were only 42 mental-health care beds to treat them. “There are some concerns,” the association’s report stated, that the vast majority of people at Fishkill with mental health needs are in general population and thus receive limited mental health support other than medication.”

OMH staff refused to speak with members of the association.

The report concluded that “between 2011 and August 2013, there were 12 attempted suicides by OMH patients at Fishkill (six in 2011, two in 2012, and three in 2013), with one person committing suicide in 2013.”

In 2014, another number was added to the list.

Witness to Abuse

“At first,” Alicia said Ben was “OK” at Fishkill.

Maybe on the outside he was, but not on the inside.

By July 2014, four years into his sentence, Ben began to recall his crime and associate the fire with “love and romanticism,” according to mental-health treatment records. Then, during a group counseling session in August, Ben said “each day he feels more empty or less emotional.”

This was before Ben repeatedly witnessed guards abuse prisoner-patients in the Fishkill ICP—where they’re supposed to receive dedicated psychiatric treatment and be protected from predators.

“Usually the other patients are completely out of it,” Alicia said. “Some of them are very schizophrenic. They are very psychotic. Ben was functional when he’s on his medication, and so he was aware of what other people were doing.”

Ben told his parents that he saw guards call inmates crude names and slap them to get their attention.

….Ben sent a letter to Cheryl Kates-Benman, the lawyer who got him out of solitary at Woodbourne, describing his new home.

“It makes me feel very unsafe in this environment and that I’m in and I hope you could give me some advice on how to stop this from happening to me.”

According to prison records, three weeks later, on Sept. 18, a state psychiatrist, Dr. Masum Ahmad, canceled Ben’s Abilify—the medication that had been given to Ben to treat his schizophrenia and suicidal depression.

Then Ben witnessed Fishkill’s beat-up squad in action.

Every prison maintains a group of 12 or so guards whose official job is to maintain order by breaking-up fights between prisoners, quelling disturbances or responding to assaults on staff. Because COs work in shifts, each shift or “tour” has its own squad. Members of the squad rotate, but tend to be among the physically largest COs working in the facility, or the most aggressive.

Ben told his family that he witnessed the beat-up squad torture a psychotic prisoner-patient in the Fishkill ICP, after the man randomly punched a corrections officer delivering mail, for walking too closely past him in the day room.

Douglas, Ben’s father, remembers what Ben told him like this. “When he struck the CO that’s when the shit hit the fan. The CO—whatever he did to make a call or whatever. And there was a whole bunch of COs who came in. And they started beating the crap out of this guy.

“And what really disturbed Ben most was, they were just standing off to the side in the same room, where they were holding this guy down, and one of the COs was jumping down, up-and-down, intentionally breaking this guy’s knees.

“And of course that fella, he’s was just a mentally ill guy, he didn’t mean anything by it, Ben knew that, and he was screaming bloody murder.

“And one of the COs, because everybody there was quite disturbed, they took all the ICP people and locked them in another room. And Ben had said it was just excruciating to hear this guy suffering, and screaming, through the door like that.

Alicia remembered the rest of what Ben told them.

“Then a few minutes later they saw him being wheeled out in a wheelchair.

“He said the guy disappeared after that and he had no idea what happened to him. Everyone acted liked nothing happened.

“But he realized,” Alicia said, referring to Ben, “at that point the brutality that these guys were capable of—they could kill you if they wanted to.”

While Ben’s account could not be independently corroborated, it is consistent with how prison beat-up squads are known to operate, and how a beat-up squad from Fishkill is reported to have operated, when it killed Samuel Harrell, a year later.

After witnessing the violence at close range, and being denied anti-psychotic medication, Ben started coming apart. He stopped calling home, started sleeping more, lost 20 pounds, and became unkempt and fidgety, according to Alicia.

Alicia called Fishkill and spoke with Ben’s primary mental health provider in prison, psychologist Brooke Merino. Alicia told Merino that Ben had not called in several days, and that “this is ‘not a good thing’ when he stops communication.”

Merino documented the phone call, and Alicia’s warning, in Ben’s treatment record.

But, instead of listening to Ben’s mother, Merino notes that his diagnosis as severely depressive with psychotic features “will soon be changed.” Merino and other Fishkill doctors re-diagnosed Ben as having Anti-Social Personality Disorder, with narcissistic tendencies.

On Oct. 20, Ben allegedly got into a fight with another prisoner in the prison yard and was sent to solitary confinement. Ben told Merino that it had not been a fight, according to treatment records, but that a guard attacked him after asking if Ben was taught to read in the ICP.

To cover up the assault, Ben said, the COs then accused him of fighting with the patient-prisoner he had been sitting with.

Ben told Merino that “he’s fearful because he was told that if he tells anyone he will be killed,” according to treatment notes Merino took of the meeting. Ben said he “would rather kill himself than be beaten to death.”

Notwithstanding Ben’s fear of being killed by guards, Merino reported Ben’s allegations of abuse to prison officials. Prison officials conducted an investigation and questioned Ben.

Sergeant Terry Shultis was tasked with sounding out Ben’s account of abuse. Ben repeated what he told Merino to Shultis, records show, but Shultis discounted the allegations. Shultis said Ben was a “troublemaker and a liar, and called him a ‘punk ass bitch,’” Alicia said Ben told her.

If Ben didn’t “keep his mouth shut that he was going to tell everyone that he was snitch,” she added.

“It was clear that they were beginning to target him because he was aware enough about his surroundings that he was trying raise a voice about these things that were wrong,” Ben’s father said.

The day after the fight, a mental-health treatment team led by doctors Merino and Ahmad recorded that Ben reported being depressed and threatened by guards.

“That’s why I’d rather kill myself before someone else does it,” Ben told them.

The treatment team had prison officials transfer Ben into an observation cell in the crisis unit. Ben again told clinicians he feared for his life if he were sent back to the special housing unit. Instead, he asked to be transferred to another prison.

Ben threatened to refuse his medication and to bash his head against the concrete walls of his cell.

Despite his threats of self-harm, including suicide, Merino reported that “Mr. Van Zandt continues to present without salient symptoms related to Major Depression with Psychotic Features [emphasis added].”

However, in apparent contradiction, Ben was re-started on Abilify—the medication he had been taking for schizophrenia and psychotic depression since 2011.

On Oct. 27, Douglas, Ben’s father, called Fishkill expressing concern for Ben and spoke with Merino.

“She said he was doing great,” Douglas said, remembering their conversation. “That was a couple of days before he died.”

Four days later, on Oct. 28, Ben was found guilty of fighting and sentenced to 30 days in the special housing unit, where he would be exposed to corrections officers again.

That night, Ben made good on his promise, with shoelaces and a sheet.

A prison official called Ben’s parents two hours after he was pronounced dead.

“And he had absolutely no details,” Alicia said. “How did he die? Was he murdered? He would give us no information.”

Alicia said they tried calling Fishkill’s superintendent and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision but “no one would talk to us. No one would talk with us. Everyone just gave us the run-around.”

…Ben left behind a handwritten suicide note. DOCCS did not tell Alicia or Douglas about their son’s suicide note.

It wasn’t until months later that they found out it even existed, and then it took more time for State Sen. Neil Breslin, Judge Breslin’s brother, to convince the State Police to give him a copy, which he provided to Alicia.

“PLEASE TELL MY FAMILY I LOVE THEM,” the suicide note said.

DOCCS did not respond to a request for comment.

OMH declined to comment about its particular treatment of Ben, but said that its services at Fishkill “provide the most comprehensive mental health services available” to New York State prisoners.

‘Still in Shock’

One week after they buried their son, Alicia Barraza and Douglas van Zandt went to the New York State legislature.

“We were still in shock,” Alicia said, when asked about the visit. “But we were also angry about Ben’s death, which could have been prevented, and with the disgraceful way DOCCS treated us after he died.”

Alicia testified in front of a joint committee on prisons and mental health and told her son’s story in support of legislation that might have saved her son’s life, by raising the age that juvenile law-breakers could be prosecuted as criminals, from 16 to 18.

Despite Alicia’s heart-breaking personal testimony, and support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the measure was defeated, as it has been every year since.

….Meanwhile, despite multiple state and federal investigations into the killing of Samuel Harrell by Fishkill’s beat-up squad, no prison official has been charged in connection with his death.

Based on what happened to Ben, this doesn’t surprise Alicia.

JB Nicholas

JB Nicholas

“I fear there will be more deaths until someone intervenes, like the United States Attorney, Preet Bharara. Why he hasn’t I don’t know.”

JB Nicholas , a writer for The Daily Beast, is a 2015-16 John Jay/Langeloth Justice and Mental Health Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story completed as part of his fellowship project, published earlier this month. The complete version can be accessed  here.