spring_branch-wideTHE YOUTH FORUM has identified some tough and often depressing challenges facing our kids:  Addiction and overdose.  The school to prison pipeline.  Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice system.  The unique challenges facing special needs children.   Corrupt judges jailing kids for profit. But with the onset of Spring, we’ll pause and reflect on a few reasons to be inspired and for guarded optimism.  Through the short history of this blog,  I’ve  been privileged to meet several people who have channeled their personal challenges, and sometimes overwhelming tragedy and grief, into a determined, concerted effort — not just to help others they encounter — but to bring impactful, systematic improvement to their schools and communities, and ultimately save lives.  Allow me to introduce you to just a few:

Meet Mark and Julie Filler from Highland Park, Illinois.  Facing the devastating loss of their amazing son Jordan to heroin addiction, they  established The Jordan Michael Filler Foundation to take Jordan’s fight out from behind closed doors. With the support of a dedicated and admiring family and community, they now work to educate children and their parents, share best practices with  schools, support increased accessibility of medications, and improve policies and laws that can save lives.

Meet Katy Hutchison from Victoria, British Columbia.  After her husband’s murder on New Year’s Eve 1997 Katy waited for five years while the  police worked to prosecute and convict his killers.  As a result of her experience, Katy grew to recognize the critical need to educate and support members of the community and other stakeholders about risks and opportunities for our young people.  She was moved by her own tragedy to devote years pursuing restorative justice advocacy work with youth, communities and the criminal justice system, helping others look at ways to use restorative practices to build and sustain healthier communities

Meet Lorenn Walker.  Lorenn lived on her own when she was 14 years old, dropped out of high school at 15, was adjudicated as a juvenile offender at 16, was a teen parent, and seriously injured in an assault at age 24.  As a result of her own challenges, she devoted herself to becoming an expert and leader in the implementation of restorative justice practices, designing and facilitating effective learning programs, focusing on reentry for incarcerated people, substance abuse, violence prevention, and reconciliation for people harmed by wrongdoing and social injustice, working with schools, courts, prisons, businesses, and the police.  She is a co-editor and contributor of the excellent book,Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications.

“Restorative Justice” practices  engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships; building partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing. As just one local example, we reported earlier on the remarkable reduction in suspensions in some Chicago High Schools using restorative justice practices awhich, as we’ve seen, reduce suspensions which reduce dropout rates which reduce criminal activity.

Meet 9 year old Kamryn Remfro of Grand Junction Colorado, who successfully challenged the uniform dress and appearance code of Caprock Academy Charter School, by shaving her head to support a friend undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  Kamryn may not be the “at-risk” youth we typically cover, but her simple act of defiance to support a friend in need exemplifies a mindset that is pushing back on zero tolerance policies across the country that have had devastating implications for our most underserved children, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline that has devastated so many (disproportionately minority) for behaviors that can often be addressed more effectively in school.

Meet Terence (whose real identity will remain confidential).  He flipped over a desk in anger in a confrontation with his teacher.  Two years ago he would have been suspended for 3-10 days, and sent out into the streets, angry and frustrated.  But through school-centered RJ staff discovered that Terence’s cousin had been shot and killed two weeks earlier, and he had been bottling up the hurt and anger with nowhere to turn and no ability to process his emotions.  Through UMOJA peace circles, RJ staff helped keep him in school, repair relationships with his teacher and classmates, and implement other steps to prevent future incidents.

Some hopeful trends to consider this spring as well:

*    Juvenile arrest rates for violent crime in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50% from its peak in 1994. 

*   Youth incarceration rates in the United States — while still far higher than in most countries — have also dropped significantly, reflecting a sustained drop in juvenile crime, a shift of thinking obout the best way to handle young people who break the law, a belief that recidivism rates are higher for those detained, and fiscal pressures forcing tough-on-crime politicians to now consider the effectiveness of less costly alternatives.

*   There has been significant progress in the fight against children working in hazardous labor conditions, fueled by stronger political commitments and ratifications of conventions designed that draw attention to and combat the risks of child labor.

*   The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a sharp decline in childhood obesity for children ages 2-5, a drop attributed to heightened  awareness, healthier diets and commitments of local, state and federal initiatives.

*   There is an emerging and increasingly public Culture of Recovery (exemplified by the filmThe Anonymous People), pushing back against community pressures that once convinced parents to keep the problem of youth addiction a family secret and  providing alternatives to the plague of addiction.

Of course, much work remains.  Just this past week, 36 people in Chicago were shot in the span of just 36 hours, killing at least four, including a 17 year old girl. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of Gakirah Barnes, 17, and the other victims.  In coming posts we’ll turn to the persistent culture of youth violence, the intersection of a mental health care crisis and the juvenile justice system, and many other challenges to be addressed.  But it is spring.  There is progress.  And hope springs eternal.




HOW TO GET RICH IMPRISONING KIDS: Zero Tolerance and The Pennsylvania Cash-For-Kids Scandal

kid in handcuffs

Meet Mark Ciavarella.  Growing up in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, he had an early brush with the law.  Caught stealing a car as a teenager, he escaped jail time as the police returned him to his parents rather than press charges.  His father punched him in the face for his transgression. “I didn’t need the system to take care of my problems,” he observed years later. “My parents took care of my problems.”   Having had the good fortune to avoid jail time he went on to attend college and law school, and soon became a judge — the toughest and  worst Juvenile Court Judge you’ve ever met.  He ran his court with an iron fist and a simple philosophy about the children in his charge:  “I wanted them to be scared out of their minds.”  Scare them he did — and much more.  Children who appeared in his court didn’t have a chance (certainly not the chance he was given when caught stealing).  Kids as young as ten — more often than not without a lawyer and after just a five-minute “hearing” —  were routinely shackled and hauled off to jail for minor transgressions:  possessing a stolen scooter bought by the child’s parents;  mouthing off at a school bus stop, an 11 year old who called the police after his mother locked him out of the house, a 14 year old who wrote a satirical Myspace profile, and many more.  Kids were detained longer if their parents could not pay their detention costs.  Zero tolerance on crack.  But the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center’s investigation revealed  another loathsome inspiration behind Ciavarella’s sentencing decisions other than his hostility and incompetence.  Judge Ciavella made money off of his sentencing decisions. Lots of money.

Judge Ciavarella, it turns out, used his administrative authority to facilitate the closing of the county Juvenile Detention Center, and then paved the way for the development of a private, for-profit facility that would hold detained children — a facility that he had a financial interest in.  Judge Ciavarella and his colleague Judge Conahan were paid $2.8 million for their help in establishing the agreement between the court and the facility.  Ciavarella monitored the financial success of that facility and concealed his profits.  A federal jury convicted Judge Ciavarella and, in 2011, Ciavarella and Conahan were sentenced to prison for 28 years and 17 1/2 years, respectively.  As part of the fallout from this scandal, the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was established and issued a report containing dozens of recommendations that have been implemented ensuring meaningful representation of children, restricting the shackling of children absent a real danger, and requiring an on-the-record recitation of a child’s rights, among other reforms.  Convictions were overturned and the impacted children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Ciavarello.  On January 10, 2014, a federal judge granted the children summary judgment, based partly on Ciavarella’s “enactment and expansion of zero tolerance policies dictating how probation officers were to handle violations of probation and other charging decisions.”  (We previously covered problems associated with zero tolerance school policies and impactful restorative justice models as an alternative approach ).  A documentary film on the Cash For Kids Scandal was just released.

One tragic post-script, out of many:  Edward Kenzaskoski was 17 years old, and a talented wrestler who hoped to earn a college scholarship, when he was arrested for the first time on a drug paraphernelia charge.  He landed in Judge Ciavarella’s courtroom and was sentenced to jail after which, friends and family member say, he began a downward spiral of depression and additional criminal problems.  He shot and killed himself at age 23, before Ciavarella was sentenced.  His father reportedly now claims to have framed his son in the hope that a trip to juvenile court might help him.

Other sources:







14 year old facing near-certain life in prison without parole despite Supreme Court rulings

The United States Supreme Court, in decisions limiting sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, recognized what psychologists have long recognized and parent instinctively learn:  the teenage brain is different.  Young offenders are less mature and experienced, less able to exercise good judgment and self-restraint, more susceptible to peer pressure and environmental influence, and limited in their ability to assist in their own defense, as compared to adult offenders.  They have demonstrated a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults guilty of the same offense.  Kids are categorically less culpable than adults.  Despite the Supreme Court rulings, some state courts are now imposing near-certain lifelong sentences to child offenders (in comparison even mass murder Charles Manson has been eligible for many parole hearings, all denied). Below is a story of Shimeek Gridine and the sentencing decisions now being challenged.