Memphis Asks DOJ to End Juvenile Court Oversight

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are skeptical of federal involvement in local law enforcement matters. Sessions has signaled he will cut back on investigations of discrimination or excessive force by local police and courts. If local officials are so alarmed by Sessions, Shelby County Mayor Luttrell said, it only makes sense the oversight responsibility should be handled locally, not by people in Washington, D.C.

Five years ago, the Justice Department concluded that juvenile courts in Memphis failed to give due process to children. Civil rights investigators uncovered significant racial disparities, and they reached a deal to fix some of those failings. Now, local officials are asking to terminate federal oversight, NPR reports. They’re making their pitch to Justice Department leaders, who have a very different view of civil rights enforcement from the previous administration. When the Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Memphis a few weeks ago, he heard an earful from local officials. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell told the attorney general that it’s time to end expensive federal oversight of the juvenile courts. Local officials already have done a lot of heavy lifting, he said. Public defenders now represent 60 percent of the kids who appear in court, up from none five years ago.

President Trump and his attorney general are skeptical of federal involvement in local law enforcement matters. Sessions has signaled he will cut back on investigations of discrimination or excessive force by local police and courts. If local officials are so alarmed by Sessions, County Mayor Luttrell said, it only makes sense the oversight responsibility should be handled locally, not by people in Washington, D.C.  To good government advocates, the idea is premature. “The racial disparities, the disproportionate minority contact, the equal protection deficiencies that were pointed out five years ago have not changed really at all,” said Josh Spickler, a former public defender in Memphis who now runs the nonprofit Just City. He sent his own letter to the Justice Department, urging its civil rights lawyers stay on the case.


NYC Justice Corps ‘Won’t Let You Give Up’

A redesigned New York City program aimed at helping at-risk youth learn work ethics and job skills while performing community service in their neighborhoods helped divert hundreds of young people from further involvement in the justice system, says a report released today.

A redesigned New York City program aimed at helping at-risk youth learn work ethics and job skills while performing community service in their neighborhoods helped divert hundreds of young people from further involvement in the justice system, says a report released today.

More than half of the 211 young people enrolled in the NYC Justice Corps last year graduated into employment, educational or vocational training/work readiness courses, according to the report by the program’s principal sponsor, the Prisoner Reentry Institute of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The results demonstrate a “promising approach to increasing workforce access for young adults who are on parole or probation or have other involvement in the justice system,” the report says. Some 1,900 youth have passed through the Justice Corps program since it was first launched in 2008, with support from the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity and the NYC Young Men’s Initiative, among others.

The program, retooled last year to “adapt tested workforce development practices to match the particular needs and experiences of justice-involved young adults,” is targeted in particular at young adults who are on probation or parole, or have been disconnected from education and employment during periods of incarceration.

Harlem Justice Corps members painted the community room at All Souls’ Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy NYC Justice Corps.

Young people involved in the program last year participated in community projects in the city’s five boroughs, ranging from construction and renovation to creating urban gardens—in the process learning the skills and work ethics that will give them a sense of confidence.

“The staff members are amazing here,” one Justice Corps member identified as “Kara” was quoted as saying. “They push you to succeed…. They won’t let you give up – they even showed up at my house to get me out of the bed to get me to come to school.”

The report says the program’s success serves as a model for similar innovations elsewhere based on the concept of “restorative justice.”

Pastor Marva Usher-Kerr of the Tremont United Methodist Church in the South Bronx, which was renovated by Justice Corps members, said that it was important for community members as well as peers to see that youths who would otherwise be on a pipeline to the criminal justice system could be motivated to improve their prospects.

Gymnasium mural at the Claremont Neighborhood Center painted by Bronx Justice Corps. Photo Courtesy NYC Justice Corps

“You give them a chance to prove themselves,” the report quoted her as saying.

According to the report, “Corps members report leaving the program with a changed sense of self and increased confidence as a result of completing their community benefit project,” and their comments “indicate that participation in NYC Justice Corps helps them to internalize a new identity, which contributes not just to success in the program, but to their positive next steps reflected in the program’s outcomes.”

The full report, which will be discussed today at a special program at John Jay, can be read here.


Pennsylvania High Court Curbs Juvenile Life Terms

Following U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Pennsylvania’s top court says there is a presumption against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has made it far more difficult to sentence juveniles to life without parole — a striking about-face in a state that is home to the largest population of juvenile lifers in the nation, reports. In the case of Qu’eed Batts, who has twice been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, the court ruled that there is a presumption against life sentences for juveniles, and that in order to sentence a minor to life, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she is incapable of rehabilitation.

Gang member Batts was 14 when he shot and killed another teen,. He appealed after the U.S. Supreme Court which found automatic life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional, and later that states like Pennsylvania that had declined to apply the ruling retroactively must do so. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court “is ensuring those sentences are only imposed in the rarest of circumstances,” said Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. About two-thirds of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia are still awaiting new sentences. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has said it will seek life sentences in just a handful of those cases.



Dear Dad: ‘Why Weren’t You There?’

To mark Father’s Day on Sunday, The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop, asked inmates of juvenile detention facilities to “write the letter you always wanted (or maybe never wanted) to write” to their Dads. Here’s a first sampling of the letters they produced.

To mark Father’s Day on Sunday, The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based prison writing workshop asked inmates of juvenile detention centers to “write the letter you always wanted (or maybe never wanted) to write” to their Dads. Here’s a first sampling of the letters they produced.

Dear Dad

Throughout the last year I’ve been back and forth between being free and being locked up. I know you weren’t there when I was a child, but you made an effort to be there in my later years. You proved to me that you’re a good man and changed, now it’s my turn to prove to you that I’m not another juvenile statistic and I can change.

I regret a lot of things in my past, I’ve made a lot of mistakes that affected other people not just myself, and I wish every day that to take them back. I was so caught up in the hustle life that I’d do anything to come up on money and the drugs, they owned me. I thought that this was the life to live and if you weren’t in the game then you were a nobody; little did I know I was just running from the truth about myself.

Being here, locked up in these cells sounds bad, but it might just be the best place for me. It’s giving me time to think about what I want in life and time to get closer to myself. I’ve got 10-plus years to spend in these cells for a crime that ruined my life but I’ve learned to not regret these things. There are things I can’t change, things that I should move on from. It’s only up from here Pops, the hustle game never leaves you but I’m hustling for a better life this time. ‘Till I hear from you again, love you.

-Mason, Portland Oregon


Dear Dad

Why weren’t you there? Ever! That’s all I want to know, what was the reason that you did not want to take care of YOUR OWN child, the human being you created.

I’m definitely not happy with your decision because as a real father, you should be able to take care of your child! You missed out on the most important parts of my life, you missed out on my birth, my elementary, middle & high school days, man you really are a disappointment.

To me, to my sister, and my mother you don’t even deserve to be called my father. You don’t deserve that title…Ever! I wonder if you ever even think about picking up that phone and decide to even say “Hello”…anyways, you lost my respect.

-Alex, Portland Oregon

Dear Dad

I often wish you would just accept me for me, for who I am (instead of) trying to change me. You always said, or at least claimed, “I’m here to teach you, show you what’s needed” but you always belittled me. You always spoke above me and never listened. You heard me but failed to understand my words. When I asked for help you would come to my aid—but only helped when it helped you. You never came to help me just to help me.

When I took the extra step to try helping our so badly damaged relationship you heard me but you never fixed a thing. If I asked you for something, it felt like I asked God to forgive Satan. Asking you for something was never easy. I always had to ask someone else for what I needed. You always took my kindness for granted so I stopped showing it to everyone. I’m sorry; you claim I love you but I truly don’t. I respect you for taking me in—but love? No.

-Thomas, Portland Oregon

 Dear Dad,

The role my father has played in the past had me a little down, but the role he plays now has me excited. My dad does his hardest to get me out of the situation I’m in. He gives up every dime he has to spare to get me a lawyer. Getting a lawyer cost a lot. Even though he didn’t have a job he got loans from family members just for me.

He put himself into debt just to see a better future. Once I’ve started praying and you know he always pray he got himself a job. That shows how GOD played a role in both of our lives. He showed me how to be a man once I’ve entered this situation. Now I believe my dad is a real father figure in my life. In the past I did not have that, but now (and) in the future I know and believe he is.

-Tyrone, Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center, Harvey, LA

 Dear Daddy

I was just very depressed about the fact that you always say you love me and you’ll never leave me, but you left me sooner than ever and that’s crazy. My momma had to play the role of a father and a mother, but I forgive you for that ‘cause you taught me from your mistakes what kind of a father not to be.

-Brandon, Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center, Harvey, LA

Hey Dad

It’s your son.  I haven’t seen you in a long time. How are you doing? Me? I’m doing just fine.

Have you ever felt so alone in your own home? It’s crazy how time flies. You should see me and sister now; we’re so big and grown. I’m trying to do better for mom and start doing right, but my thoughts tend to get the best of me ‘cause you were never there to tuck us in at night.  I used to always whine and fuss, but I can’t really be mad because the meth took you away from us.

-Alec, Roswell New Mexico

 Dear Dad

You are my strength but also my weakness. You don’t understand how much you mean to me but also how much you destroyed me.

I wish you would have been there when things went down, but you weren’t and I forgive you, not just for that but also the things that you have done to me. I love you Dad and I know that it is awkward saying that but I truly do and I hope that you are sober. That shhh kills me on the inside that you are a drug addict even though you deny it. We all know Dad, and it;s time to heal from all the shhh that you have been through and it’s time for you to grow up. I don’t know what else to say but have a good life and I hope you become sober.

-A, Los Angeles

Dear Dad

First off, I have a lot of questions to ask. I also have a lot to tell you. Why did you act that way? You messed up as a father. How do you expect me to forgive you, when all you did was cause confusion in my life?

I know you are probably thinking that “damn, I really messed up.” But if you aren’t, you really should be thinking that because you did. I know everybody isn’t perfect, but you don’t even put in the effort to try. It’s like you don’t even care. For me, to be the oldest out of six kids and me being still young is sad on your half. Mom blames every negative thing I do on you. But you only get one dad, right.

-Arilana,  Los Angeles

 Dear Dad,

I wish I could say I miss you, but I don’t. I don’t miss any of those drunken nights when you would act a fool and take your anger out on me or Mom. I don’t miss the sleepless nights when I would stay up waiting for you to come home just so you would talk to me. Even if it was so simple as, “Go get me a beer.”

-Christian, Santa Clara

Dear Father

It’s your son, Drew. I’m writing you this letter because I need to get a lot of things off my chest.    You’ve taught me so much, like where I’m from, how to steal, how to hit a blunt and even roll a joint all at a very young age. Don’t get me wrong though, you’ve taught me some good things too, as in how to fight, do a push-up the right way, and walk like a man with my head up, shoulders back and chest out.

Dad, I understand that most of your life has been thrown away because of YA and prison, but that doesn’t mean to throw my life away. I remember when I was staying with you and I had school. I was going to go, but you would always tell me, “Why you gonna go to school? Chill, have a beer with me.” Yeah, that sounds cool, but that also shows that you don’t care about my life. Why? Why would you never care about what I would do? I can smoke with you, drink with you, chill with females with you, yeah that’s tight, but I would rather have a father that shows me the ropes the right way.

You’ve always told me, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I go by that every day. I care for you and love you, so care for me and love me back. Be a man of your word for once.

Your son,

-Andrew, Santa Clara

 What is a Dad?

I have a biological father, but I would never think of him as a Dad. He says all the right things to my PO or to the police. Things that a Dad should say, like “I care for my son” or “I hope my son does well,” but I don’t ever get a call or even see him when I’m on the outs. Shhh…when I’m locked up, he doesn’t even have the nerve to answer a call. So, like I said, what is a Dad?

-M, Santa Clara

 Dear Dad

I love you. I wish you were here to see me right now. My life is going so downhill and if you were here I wouldn’t be in this bad position. You kept me on track, or at least I listened to you so I wouldn’t have been hard-headed and ended up where I am now.

I just wish you could call me right now and talk to me and tell me “you always got excuses Angelique.” I need to hear your voice, the sounds in my head aren’t enough. I need you physically Dad. Come to me in my dreams so I could know you are protecting me every day like you did when you were alive in this world.

-Angelique, San Francisco

Dear Dad,

Thank you for always being there for me through everything. Whether it was only smashing pumpkins or if it was stealing your car at night. Thank you for having the patience with me and never giving up.

Thank you for always coming to pick me up when I was in trouble. Whether it was yours or Mom’s week, three in the morning or far away. Thank you for staying quiet in the car ride home.

Thank you for always giving me talks and motivating me to get my life together. Thank you for coming to all my court dates and never letting me go to a group home.

Thank you for always giving me a warm house to come home too.

I remember the days I was riding the lawn mower on your lap to mow. From playing catch to coming to my softball games and the best one yet being respectful and patient.  I love you Dad and thank you for everything you have done.

-Alexis, Santa Clara

Dear Dad

What’s up? How you been? I know it’s tough doing a sixteen-year sentence, especially in federal prison. I miss you like crazy, even though I talk to you almost every day. I know you’re probably disappointed in me for being in here. But I’ll explain everything to you when I get out, and you call. You know I’ve been in here for only a week and it’s hard to get through this. I don’t know how you’ve done it for nine years, and still, you’ve got more time to knock down?

I’m proud of you for fighting and staying tough. You’re gonna be home real soon. When you’re home, I’ll make you proud, too. I promise.

You always told me to stick with basketball and school and when I told you I dropped 20 points against Monroe, you got all excited. Then when I told you I had a 3.0 GPA in school, you told me, “That’s good. Keep it up,” and you were all happy for me.

But I can’t wait for you to come home so we can just spend all week together somewhere far away from here. Just stay focused and keep maintaining and you’ll be home soon, Pops. I love you. Keep your head! One thing you always told me.

Sincerely, your son…

-Josh, Alameda

Letter to My “Dad”

You are worthless! I don’t like you for nothing. Didn’t even take care of me, left my mother and brothers by ourselves with no support and remorse. You’re a piece of shhh. I’m doing better than you ever will. So screw you and don’t even say that you know me.

Now I got my stepdad, actually he’s my real dad ‘cause he looks out for me no matter what my situation, as well as my mother.

-Ricardo, Santa Cruz

Dear Dad,

I’ll keep this short and simple. You were a great friend, and a terrible father.

You gave me dope, but no love.

Instead of goals and morals, you taught me criminal instincts. You deserted me more times than I can remember, and left me to serve a prison sentence. Even though I still suffer from our relationship, I forgive you. You are my father, and I will always love you, but I am a man now and will go a different route than the example you set for me. Still, though, I thank you for all that I learned from our experiences.

-Your son, James, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad            

It has been a long time coming. I finally had the guts to write it. Dad, I ain’t scared of you no more! From your mental abuse to the physical abuse, I ain’t scared.

Can you see I am still your baby girl? Even though you called me a mistake, because being born ruined your dreams. Dad, all I wanted was your love. To hear you say you love me and really mean it. Or to at least spend some time with you. That’s all I wanted when I was a child. But not all hopes and dreams come true. At least you have a second chance of being a father, and I’m proud of you for not drinking anymore. I can see you’re happy.

Even though I’m the black sheep of the family, I want to make you proud, the way I am of you. I vow to never disappoint you again.

-Nellida, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad

It’s been several years since we’ve seen each other. I remember you always called me your “mini-me” because I looked and acted just like you. I also remember you telling me to do as you said, not as you did. After the divorce, I didn’t see much of you, nor heard from you. Not even on most of my birthdays. My life has been a mess since that divorce.

Slowly you went from smoking weed to drinking to doing pills to dropping out of school and doing harder and harder drugs with the old spoon and rig. It wasn’t until I wound up in jail that I decided to get back in touch with you. When I told you about how my life had went spiraling down and all the things I’ve done, you told me that I had been doing the same things you did. I was blindly following in your footsteps. I guess some of us are doomed to become our parents.

-Love,Your Son, The Odyssey House, New Orleans Louisiana

 Dear Dad

 It’s OK you walked out on me when I was younger. You left me and my mom and brother for my Auntie.

But I have no love for you and don’t care for you at all.

-Madalynn, Bernalillo County New Mexico

 Dear Dad

It’s been three years that I haven’t seen you. We had fun times together when I was young. Where are you? I miss you. I love it when we would play soccer together. My sisters miss you. Why did you leave me? I hope you come back. You could teach me a lot of things.

-Lil A, Marin

 Readers’ comments are welcome.



CO Juvenile Criminals Still Serving Virtual Life Terms

Despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings, nearly three dozen inmates in Colorado are behind bars for terms of 50 years or more. Critics say the high court may have to consider the issue again.

Guy Lucero Sr. died in prison. His son and namesake, Guy Lucero Jr., has been locked up since he was 15 and hopes to avoid the same fate. A recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling makes that dream improbable, the Denver Post reports. “I might never get out,” Lucero said at the Sterling Correctional Facility, where he is serving a virtual life prison sentence. It’s been seven years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-homicide juvenile offenders must be given a meaningful opportunity for release based on maturity and rehabilitation. It has been five years since the high court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids life without parole sentences for juveniles. In Colorado, nearly three dozen inmates who committed crimes as juveniles are serving virtual life sentences of 50 years or more. State Supreme Court rulings last month could keep Lucero and others behind bars for several more decades before they are eligible for parole.

The rulings on May 22 said such sentences are constitutional because the inmates will be eligible for parole eventually, the sentences are combined or aggregated and the parole eligibility falls within the inmates’ expected lifetimes, even if that means they are in their 70s. Colorado, which has 33 prisoners who were juveniles when they received virtual life sentences, isn’t alone. Across the U.S., 2,089 offenders incarcerated for crimes committed as juveniles are serving virtual life sentences, says The Sentencing Project. Many states like Oklahoma and Florida are working to resolve that issue, but Colorado’s rulings show the state is taking a different approach. The decisions put the onus on parole boards to determine whether juveniles who committed serious crimes deserve early release, or if they should never be released. Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project said Colorado’s rulings violate the spirit of U.S. Supreme Court rulings forbidding life terms for juveniles, and raise the prospect that the high court will be forced to reconsider the subject.


When Being ‘Facebook-Famous’ Leads to Violence

New York City ‘violence interruptors’ now use social media to intervene when online conflicts threaten to spill over into violence. Mike Perry and Samuel Jackson tell Crime Report editor Stephen Handelman how they do it in the latest episode of “Criminal Justice Matters.”

The urge to be “Facebook-famous” or “Instagram Famous” is helping to drive the increase in gun violence among young people in many urban neighborhoods, say two former gang members who now use social media as a tool to stop online conflicts from turning fatal in the real world.

Mike Perry

“People are performing for the show—they know there’s an audience,” said Mike Perry, who works as a “violence interruptor” at the Central Family Life Center in Staten Island, NY.

Perry, speaking on the latest episode of “Criminal Justice Matters,” which airs next week on CUNY-TV in the New York region, says he has successfully intervened in nearly 40 online sessions which appeared headed towards tragic outcomes by texting participants to cool down.

Samuel Jackson, who works as a “violence interruptor” for a program in Bronx, NY called “Bronx Connect, ” said he has had similar success by staying alert to the coded insults and threats he sees online.

“My phone is in my hand 24/7,” he said. “I get an alert, and I’ll comment on it, get into people’s minds to see where they’re at.”

Perry and Jackson say they pay special attention to “tonalities” and aggressive language online that could be indicators of future trouble.

Both are part of a new program called E-Responder, which trains neighborhood workers on methods to intervene on social media to prevent violence.  The program, piloted last year, was developed by the New York Citizens Crime Commission in partnership with NYC Cure Violence and researchers from the Steinhardt School of Culture, education and Human Development at New York University.

In a conversation with “Criminal Justice Matters” host Stephen Handelman, they admitted that intervening on social media couldn’t address the root causes of violent behavior among young people, such as gang influence, childhood trauma and, most prominently, then easy access to guns.

Samuel Jackson

“It’s still scary (in our neighborhoods),” said Jackson who, like Perry, has lost both friends and family members to gun violence. “It’s bigger than us, and (when it comes to guns) politicians have to step in.

“Violence is very real on the streets of New York and all over this country.”

Perry said many young people are already struggling with deep trauma because of experiences at home or on the street.

“A lot of young brothers and sisters don’t have the tools yet to master the trauma they’ve been through,” he said.

And for many, social media often acts as a platform to play out threats and insecurities in an effort to win attention and influence.

“People want to be Facebook-famous, Instagram-famous or Snapchat-famous,” said Perry.

But the two violence interrupters said their own life stories offered hope that change was possible.

“We had to make a decision about what we wanted to do with our own lives,” said Perry.

Editor’s Note: In an earlier column for The Crime Report, NYC Citizens Crime Commission President Richard Aborn calls on Facebook and other social media institutions to be more aggressive in monitoring online violence.

The monthly Criminal Justice Matters program, produced at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is sponsored by the college’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. Stephen Handelman, director of the Center, is also editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


How L.A. County Faced Its Tragic Problem with Sex-Trafficked Kids

Los Angeles police and social workers believed the young girls picked up as prostitutes could best be helped through the juvenile court system. Then they realized little would change until they went after the traffickers who had made L.A. County one of the top child sex-trafficking hubs in the U.S.

Michelle Guymon thought sex trafficking was something that happened to young girls in other countries until a meeting called by a local judge changed her life.

Guymon was director of Camp Scudder, one of two girls’ camps in Los Angeles County’s probation system, which housed girls picked up by police for prostitution, when she listened to experts at a special subcommittee that her friend Judge Donna Groman of the local Juvenile Delinquency Court invited her to join on November 16, 2010.

“It was a day that had a profound impact on my life,” she recalled. “I learned that this exploitation wasn’t something happening [only] in a faraway country. In fact, it was happening right here, in our community, to the very young women I was charged to protect.”

She had no idea that the year before an FBI report had named Los Angeles one of the 13 most intense child sex trafficking hubs in the U.S.

After the meeting, Guymon talked to the now-retired chief of the probation department, Jerry Powers.

“We’ve got a system full of these kids,” Guymon told him. “If they’re victims, then they shouldn’t be in detention.They shouldn’t be locked up.”

Today, Guymon is director of the Child Trafficking Unit for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, and is part of a group that aims to make LA’s efforts to combat child sex trafficking a model for the nation.

Child sexual exploitation is a significant problem across the nation.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), one in six of the 18,500 children reported as having run away from home in 2016 were “likely sex trafficking victims.” The organization defines sex trafficking victims as young people under 17 years old — boys and girls — who are “exploited through commercial sex.” Of these, “86 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing,” NCMEC says.

In L.A. County Probation, the average age for trafficked kids is 15½, but the exploitation often starts earlier, Guymon said.

“We don’t see 12-year-olds in the probation system, but in one of my early cases, a girl in a group home said her exploitation started at the age of 11 when her adopted mother sold her to support her drug habit.”

Around the same time, Commissioner Catherine Pratt of the Juvenile Delinquency Court was making the same discovery in her courtroom, as she noticed an increase in prostitution cases. Pratt realized the minors being charged were victims of child sex trafficking.

In 2011, Pratt and Guymon both applied for three-year federal grants.

Pratt proposed to open a dedicated courtroom that would focus on providing alternatives to detention and assistance for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). Guymon and her team applied to create a human trafficking unit inside probation, the first in the county. She hoped the grant would help her unit secure advocacy services for victims. The idea was for the advocates to help keep kids out of detention altogether, or to help shorten their detention time and get them into services and support.

Their timing was good.

A year before, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice had published the National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, outlining ways to address the growing problem of child exploitation, including providing grants to state, local and tribal government agencies, along with nonprofit partners.

Both got their grants. Pratt developed and supervised the STAR (Succeeding Through Treatment and Resilience) Court, and Guymon developed the human trafficking unit.

All Hands on Deck

Today Guymon’s team includes nine probation staff members, plus a supervisor, with Guymon as the head. But Guymon began her team with just three people: herself and two other probation officers.

At first, she and her two staffers were stretched thin. Getting a huge county bureaucracy — like that of Los Angeles County — to shift gears enough to move on a problem isn’t easy, even if that problem is as urgent as child sex trafficking. After a presentation by Guymon and company at a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the board became supportive. Yet the problem couldn’t be addressed by just one agency, a few nonprofit advocacy groups and a small alternative court.

Nearly four years later, on Nov. 16, 2015, the board passed another motion, noting that Los Angeles needed “a single, countywide body to manage, coordinate, and monitor the county’s many CSEC initiatives.”

Michelle Guymon. Photo by Kristy Plaza

No one agency could handle such a task, the board agreed. The result was the L.A. County CSEC Integrated Leadership Team, now known by the slightly awkward acronym of CSEC ILT. The Team was to be jointly led by probation, DCFS and the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The ball was moved forward still farther when in September 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice provided a $1.5 million grant to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell to jointly create an LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force that would work in partnership with other law enforcement agencies, and with CSEC ILT. The task force also partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and 46 independent police departments in Los Angeles, uniting law enforcement to combat this issue collaboratively.

One of the most important puzzle pieces when designing the multi-agency effort was the court system. In that arena, L.A. County was one step ahead.

In 2011, while Guymon was launching her unit, Pratt had launched the STAR Court, a dedicated courtroom in Compton where Pratt now hears only CSEC cases two days each week. As an adjunct to the courtroom process, a special multidisciplinary team (MDT) meets on Wednesdays. The team—a public defender, a district attorney, an education advocate, a human trafficking advocate, a DCFS agent, a probation officer and Pratt—fosters relationships with the kids who come through the court. While most judges only see such juveniles twice per year in their courtroom, Pratt checks in with them every three to five weeks, when each kid has a scheduled court appearance to review their case and personal progress.

In between, the multidisciplinary team keeps in touch.

Probation is the leader of the team and Guymon is proud of its work.

“The level of [individual] engagement that we’ve created [with kids] is what makes a huge difference in the STAR court,” she said. “We have a dedicated probation officer who is the court liaison to Judge Pratt for all matters that go through her calendar on both of those days.”

Guymon admitted that the unit doesn’t have the personnel to supervise every case. But they try to find solutions in whatever way they can, she said. If, for example, they identify a young person who they believe is at risk of CSEC, but who is close to turning 18, when they will be out of reach of the juvenile system, they introduce the youth to a probation officer with resources in the community, so that officer can help the youth once he or she is technically an adult. In other cases where the young person is already positively connected to a probation officer in their community, that relationship is folded into the protocol.

“One of the things that we know about this population is, it’s very relational,” Guymon said. “We don’t want to move them to another probation officer who they don’t know. We triage it, so we take most of the kids that are 16½ and younger; that way we have some length of time to work with them.”

In the beginning, the MDT was a group of five. Now about 17 people participate in those Wednesday meetings. And since public health issues also impact CSEC victims, in the near future a public health nurse will join the team, navigating health services such as pregnancy, parenting, personal safety, and more.

Human Trafficking Task Force

Law enforcement was also a crucial piece of L.A. County’s newly created system. And, according to L.A. County Sheriff’s Captain Chris Marks, who is now the head of the LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, the key to getting cops to invest in the new CSEC program was training.

“When we rolled out the first-responder protocol last year to all the stations, the deputies were very receptive to this,” he said. “It’s not that law enforcement was opposed to it. They didn’t understand it. With the information and knowledge that came through [our] training, they realized what they were missing.”

The task force and leadership team work better together, Ladenheim said. “We don’t incarcerate CSEC victims, because victims don’t belong in jail. Our goal is to steer them out of probation, and into a victim-centered, trauma approach. Law enforcement [alone] isn’t the best to do that.”

One of the community organizations that partners the most actively with the law enforcement task force is CAST, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

From the moment they receive a referral or crisis call, CAST and the task force wrap services around the child through an emergency first-responder protocol, according to Becca Channell, CAST’s task force coordinator.

“We meet with the [victim to ensure] they get safe housing, clothing and any basic needs in that time of crisis,” Channell said. After that first step, CAST coordinates the longer-term services the young person needs, such as as health care, more permanent housing, employment training, education and more.

“They receive legal services from the very beginning,” she said. “When they were being exploited, survivors had to rely on their trafficker for income, housing and food. These services are essential to break that tie between the survivor and trafficker so they can move forward and build a life of their own.”

The coordinated effort with law enforcement is also critical, according to Channell. “It [gives] us an avenue to reach the victims.”

In the beginning, many in the sheriff’s department were operating under an old view of human trafficking, and had not yet understood that it was essential not to treat victims as criminals, Channell said. “We do this training with all the new people who come in from the [sheriff’s] academy to continue to shift those mindsets. It’s an ongoing process.”

In addition, she said, CAST does training with patrol officers who don’t work with human trafficking cases per se, “but are very likely to come across a human trafficking victim.”

This happens with regularity, according to Captain Marks. “A couple weeks ago,” he said, “the San Gabriel Police Department was doing an operation that led them to a motel unrelated to sex trafficking. They came across three victims and three pimps.”

The San Gabriel cops knew they had some kind of sex trafficking situation, Marks said, “because of the awareness that’s catching on. But they still needed some help. So they called our Task Force.”

Solving the Recruitment Problem

One of the greatest difficulties both the task force and the leadership team face is keeping kids from being recruited in the first place, Ladenheim and Guymon said.

This is particularly problematic when dealing with youth in the probation system or in the group homes of Los Angeles’ child welfare system, where other young people who are being sexually exploited themselves will try to recruit peers by glamorizing the life. They tell other kids about all the “good” things they could have, things they might not normally get, if they join.

In order to combat recruitment, CSEC ILT conducts educational workshops in the county’s three juvenile halls. It’s a prevention curriculum, according to Guymon. The idea is to ensure that kids understand what the commercial sexual exploitation of kids really means.

“We teach kids the tactics exploiters and peer recruiters will use to get them into the life. [At the workshops] we get a lot of disclosures, where kids are saying, ‘This is what my boyfriend does to me.’ They are starting to question what their peers have told them about the life,” Guymon said.

Those young kids who are recruiting their peers are under an enormous amount of pressure by their trafficker, according to Guymon. “Many of our adult survivors say they regret recruiting other kids. They did it out of fear, to try and keep themselves safe,” she said.

Preventing victims from returning to their traffickers once they’ve been extricated is another difficulty.

“On average, the victims run back to their traffickers because of the trauma bonds or Stockholm Syndrome that has developed,” Ladenheim said.

With this issue in mind, about two years ago, the leadership team added additional training for task force members on the intersection of trauma and sexual exploitation. It’s important to include such training, Guymon said. Otherwise staff and officers often don’t understand why kids run away from placement and back to an exploiter.

For a very long time, she said, law enforcement viewed trafficked children with the lens of criminality. “We saw them as teenage prostitutes, we didn’t see them as kids who were being victimized and exploited.” And the exploitation often starts at home, or close to home.

Adult survivors, according to Guymon, often say that their personal history of child sexual abuse was more devastating to them, long term, than their exploitation by strangers. “That childhood abuse and trauma is something they still struggle with today. We help with unpacking the layers of trauma these kids have had.”

Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, a project director at the Vera Institute of Justice, explained why underlying trauma is a driving force: “Sexual abuse, family violence, it forces kids to make this choice [to run away]. They end up on the streets homeless, so they are recruited into being trafficked. It’s about survival, and trying to make the best out of a terrible situation.”

When Channell was an emergency response manager, she learned from victims how difficult it is to get out of being trafficked: “At least they know they’ll eat and know where they’ll sleep.”

The Problem of Vanishing Testimony

The conundrum of solving the child trafficking problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is so difficult to convict the traffickers.

According to Guymon, the task force struggles to get trafficking cases to court primarily because trafficked kids are terrified and not willing to testify. Without the primary evidence of victim testimony, the case against the trafficker usually vanishes.

If a child is willing to testify, then CSEC ILT works on the case with the DA’s office. They use a protocol developed specifically for victims who are witnesses in these cases to ensure the child receives protection and services throughout the process.

“What we have done in the past is to wrap as many services around them as possible. If there are any threats, intimidation or harm, we work with the DA’s office to get the kids relocated,” Guymon said.

The risk is very real, she said. When a child is testifying against someone who has sexually abused them, they run the risk of harm from their trafficker, and others, especially when the trafficking is gang-related. The trafficker is the one being prosecuted and going to prison, but the gang is still in the community.

Guymon said they are looking for better solutions, such as having the victims testify via closed-circuit television, so that they don’t have to face a trafficker while testifying.

California Senate Bill 176, approved in 2015, already allows for alternative court procedures to protect the rights of a child witness who are under 13. But youth over 13 were left out of the equation.

A subsequent bill, California Assembly Bill 1276, approved on Sept. 26, 2016, went one step further. This bill allows children 15 and younger to testify via closed-circuit TVs outside the courtroom. Guymon wishes the bill included all teenagers, although she believes it’s a good starting point. “It should have been everyone under 18 years old,” she said.

So, for now, she said, the force wraps the young people in services in whatever way is possible. “We want kids to know that if you are testifying, you’re not just a case. We will put the services, support and protections all the way through.”

Critical Next Steps

So, what should be done next to better solve the tragic problem of child trafficking?

For Guymon, more training is among the main steps most needed.

To date, CSEC ILT has trained about 12,000 professionals in Los Angeles county in the First Responder Protocol for CSEC youth — a sort of CSEC 101 that builds awareness of how the commercial sexual exploitation of children works, the vulnerability of the kids involved and what exactly puts children at risk. Those trained include probation officer, cops, county social workers, foster care providers, health care providers and more.

Guymon argues that everybody and anybody should be trained to increase public awareness. “You [the average citizen] might see something, so you need to know what to do,” she said.

Her voice is professional, but also filled with an urgency often present when she talks about the kids who have become her mission.

“That’s the only way you stop things. You have all eyes on deck.”

Marks agrees. He said it is essential for the public to “truly understand the magnitude of the problem.”

To illustrate he described one of the task force’s recent sting operations in which they posted fake ads, then an investigator talked to potential customers. One ad produced 1,200 text messages exchanged with would-be buyers, he said.

“That to me portrays the problem — and the demand that exists out there. Demand is immeasurable, you can’t quantify it. You post an ad and within seconds, you’re getting a response.”

So, now the task force is putting an emphasis on “the demand side” of sex trafficking, Marks said. “This is what we’re really looking at and coming up with ways [to combat it]. Combating demand involves enforcement, of course, but also, he said, it means “ the portrayal” of what the public considers “a john” to be. “He’s exploiting a woman, [or] a child for money.”

The other part of the “awareness campaign,” he said, is getting the message out “to these kids that are already in this life.” He wants them to know that law enforcement now understands that they’ve been victimized.

“Most of the youth are girls, but boys too, [and] they don’t trust the system.” The challenge, Marks said, is to break through that lack of trust that makes CSEC children so vulnerable to pimps and traffickers. He wants trafficked kids to know they’re not going to be treated like criminals, as was nearly always the case in the recent past.

“We’re not looking at you like you’ve done something wrong. … You have a safe place to come to. We want to help you.”

This is an edited and slightly condensed version of a story published this week by WitnessLA, produced as part of a reporting project for 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship with the collaboration of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The full version, along with videos, is available here. Kristy Plaza is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Reporting Fellow.  She welcomes readers’ comments.


Report Calls on States to Set Guidelines for Cop-Youth Encounters

The lack of state-enforced standards represents a “missed opportunity” for helping youth avoid the harmful lifetime consequences of involvement with the justice system, according to a report released today by Strategies for Youth, Inc., a Cambridge, MA-based nonprofit.

States play almost no role in setting standards for the way law enforcement agencies interact with young people, according to a nationwide survey released today.

The lack of such standards represents a “missed opportunity” for helping youth avoid the harmful lifetime consequences of involvement with the justice system, according to the survey produced by Strategies for Youth, Inc., a Cambridge, MA-based nonprofit.

Clear standards for how police and school resource officers deal with young people would also “almost certainly” lower the risk of the kinds of fatal clashes or discriminatory treatment that has fueled expensive lawsuits or federal oversight in many cities across the country, the survey authors said.

It would also promote accountability and increase the legitimacy of police in troubled urban neighborhoods.

Uniform and enforceable standards would ensure that “youth of color receive equitable treatment by police”  and “significantly reduce the numbers of unnecessary arrests and violent encounters,” the survey said.

“The lack of engagement by state agencies in creating these standards is an anomaly in other professions where adults are in regular contact with children—such as health care, teaching and day care,” the survey added, pointing out that states are deeply involved in setting and enforcing rules for authorities’ behavior in those areas.

According to the survey, just two states have regulations governing “some” police-youth interactions; four states have non-binding, policy-setting advisory committees or other bodies; and one state (California) incorporates standards in police officer training. And 29 states have some statutory language related to the deployment of police in schools.

But no state has established mandatory statutes for relations between law enforcement  and youth across the board.

The absence of  standards amounts to an “abdication” of responsibility in developing best practices that recognize the special needs of adolescents, including the impact of trauma on youth behavior, said the study.

The survey recommended that states move swiftly to set enforceable and binding codes of behavior for police, and incorporate them into police training.


Charging Minors as Adults Declines as State Raise The Age

Over the past decade, at least seven states have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and today most states set it there. New York is phasing in a raising of the age, and at least three states are considering bills to raise the age.

In some states, if you’re under 18 and you break the law, you’ll be treated as an adult, no matter how slight the crime — even if it’s just jumping a subway turnstile or shoplifting. Sixteen-year-olds in New York and North Carolina are still funneled through adult criminal courts and housed in adult prisons and jails. In Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as adults, Stateline reports. Prosecuting minors as adults has declined amid increasing awareness that young people, with brains that are still developing, may not fully understand the consequences of their actions, as well as evidence that teens are more likely to commit additional crimes if they are prosecuted as adults. Over the past decade, at least seven states have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and today most states set it there.

More changes are on the way. In New York 16-year-olds will no longer automatically be prosecuted as adults after October 2018. A year later, 17-year-olds will no longer automatically be prosecuted as an adult, with that decision left to judges in felony cases. This month, the North Carolina House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Lawmakers in Georgia, Michigan and Missouri are considering legislation that would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. Since 2007, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina have raised the age to 18. Advocates point to evidence that teens who’ve been arrested are less likely to commit additional crimes if they are prosecuted as minors, and to the fact that young people in adult prisons are at a much greater risk of sexual assault than adult offenders.



Cops and Children Exposed to Violence

Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. How Many Children are Abused, Neglected or Exposed to Violence? The […]

Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. How Many Children are Abused, Neglected or Exposed to Violence? The […]