Op-Ed: Incarcerated Kids Deserve a Second Chance (ME: A THIRD, A FOURTH…)
Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in ‘Miller v. Alabama.’
June 25, 2014 By Xavier McElrath-Bey
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Xavier McElrath-Bey is a youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
I went to prison for gang-related murder when I was 13.
My public defender was able to convince the judge to sentence me to 25 years, which was less than prosecutors sought but still nearly twice as long as I had been alive. I served 13 years. While in prison, I grew up, earned a college degree, and committed to working for change on behalf of the victim in my case. In short, I transformed.
This week, we mark the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama. Thanks to that case, it is now unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a child. The ruling guarantees that more children convicted of crimes will get a second chance in society, just as I did—but the potential for rehabilitation and change doesn’t end with release from prison. That’s why I am launching the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network—ICAN—a network of formerly incarcerated youths that demonstrates the capacity for change that resides in every child. Already, dozens of my peers throughout the country have connected through ICAN to share and support each other in their advocacy efforts. Recognizing our responsibility to humanity, we hope to serve as motivation to others that it is never too late to become a positive force in the community.
Though they often go unacknowledged, people throughout the country who were incarcerated as youths are working hard to create safer, stronger communities. They work as directors of child safety initiatives, youth program coordinators, and outreach workers, and others are taking on leadership roles in public policy. Others still are simply living quietly, investing in their families and friends. We are not pariahs or ne’er-do-wells. We can and do contribute to society. We are community leaders, family people, and taxpayers. We know that there are people on the inside still serving life without parole who have the same capacity and desire to give back to their communities. ICAN is committed to working to ensure they get that chance.
We accept responsibility for the harm we have caused, and we ask people to join us in changing the conditions that led us to commit violent acts. Many of us experienced almost unimaginable abuse and neglect. As a child, my siblings and I faced poverty and bounced from address to address following numerous evictions. After we were removed from our home because of abuse, we went to a foster home that was as bad or worse. I joined a gang looking for a sense of family and protection. By the time of the murder, I had already been arrested 18 times. Both the prosecutor in that case and my probation officer said I was incorrigible—that I could not and would not change.
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But I did. Since my release, I have earned another degree and continuously sought opportunities to better my community—whether as an intervention specialist for Catholic Charities, as a part of a diversion program, or, most recently, as a field researcher for a Northwestern University study on the mental health needs and service utilization of formerly incarcerated youths like myself.
I’m not the only one, either. For example, a fellow ICAN member is involved in community coalitions focused on at-risk youths in Pasadena; another has remained connected to the programs he accessed while incarcerated and now hosts workshops and community meetings in Philadelphia.
As I look back on the two years since the Miller decision, I can see progress—but I also see that there is still a long way to go. A growing number of policy makers, opinion leaders, and others are calling for reform, and some states have implemented laws that bring us closer to holding kids accountable in age-appropriate ways. Other states are still working from the premise that we are defined by the worst thing we have ever done, even though brain science tells us that children have a unique capacity for change.
Through ICAN, we will demonstrate that people can and do change.