Try Youth As Youth Exhibition— David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

“The moment that you accept a life sentence is the moment that you begin to die.”

— Efren Paredes Jr.(sentenced to life in prison without parole — 1989)

A panel discussion + public conversation with the ACLU of Illinois — February 15, 2015.

Guest Panelists:

Ed Yohnka

Director of Communications & Public Policy with the ACLU of Illinois

Ben Wolf

Director of the Institutionalized Persons Project since 1984 with the ACLU of Illinois

Xavier McElrath-Bey

Youth Justice Advocate with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (was sentenced in an adult criminal court at 13, to 25 years in prison; due to his demonstrative transformation he served 13 years)

Kimberly Foxx

Currently running for Cook County State’s Attorney (former chief of Staff to Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle)

Richard Ross

Professor of Art, UC Santa Barbara, photographer, activist, researcher

Listen to the conversation + additional exhibition programming on soundcloud:

Curator — Meg Noe. Try Youth As Youth. David Weinberg Photography, 2015

PANEL DISCUSSION TRANSCRIPT

Weinberg:

Meg Noe is our curator who worked very closely with the ACLU and put this wonderful show together. The gallery is devoted to social justice issues and every year we’ll be having 4 shows lasting roughly 3 to 4 months each.

The first show that we had was with artist, Carlos Javier Ortiz, a photographer who created We All We Got, a film and book about the violence on the South and West side of Chicago. This exhibit, Try Youth As Youth is our second show. For future exhibits, we will be covering topics from poverty to the environment. The one thing that we know is that we are never going to run out of injustice issues. So we will be around for a long time. I am going to turn it over to Meg to get our discussion started.

Noe:

Hello! I feel very thankful and grateful that we have had this wonderful opportunity to work with the ACLU. They have been an incredible partner on this project and with the artists. I could not be happier to be a part of it. We have a lot of things going on with the space so check in with our website and see what we’re up to. We also have started a blog where you can follow this exhibit, including posts from the ACLU and news updates. Thank you.

Connell:

Good evening. I’m Colleen Connell. I’m the executive director of the ACLU of Illinois and it’s really a privilege to work with all the wonderful program people like my colleague, Ben Wolf, for whom the issue of juvenile justice has been a passion for so many years.

I want to thank all of you for coming. It is really so important that this issue is beginning to get the emphasis that it warrants and deserves. At this point, I am just going to say, “Thank you!” to David for opening his gallery and for hosting this event and for really dedicating this space to justice. I am going to turn it over to my colleague, Ben Yohnka, who is going to introduce our panel.

Yohnka:

I suppose that all of us, as you walk through here are struck by something a little different. Aside from my work at the ACLU, you know, probably like many of you, I’m a parent.

One of the things that struck me was the image of these children on a bed. I suspect that all of you who are parents have had that moment late at night when your child is sick or maybe when it’s been a rough day, or you come home late, and you’ve gone in and looked at them in their bed.
That’s for many of us, kind of an idyllic, angelic moment, especially when they get near teenage years, and you think of them as being safe and secure. And I’m struck by just how different that image is from this one and how horrific in many ways and lonely and isolated and separated these pictures are.
Screenshot from Richard Ross’s — Juvenile In Justice

We have some people here tonight who can actually talk about these issues in a way that I think will help to build on this experience. Our first speaker is Richard Ross.

Ross is a Professor of Art at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He has had his work exhibited in museums around the world. He has written books including: Juvenile In Justice, Gathering Light, Waiting for the End of the World, and Architecture of Authority.

He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has received grants and awards from MacArthur, Fulbright, the National Education Association, the Center for Cultural Innovation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Ross:

These kids are considered to be safe and secure. That’s the responsibility of corrections and detention. They see them through a different world. A lot of these kids are judged by the worst day of their life. Whereas my kids are judged by, me calling up my sister and saying, “Nick got into Berkeley!”. You know something like that. So, it’s a binary shift.

The people that deal with these kids are are seeing them as safe and secure and I look at them as incredibly damaged as soon as they step up to the threshold of any of these institutions. So, not to take any offense to that, but I’m here to try to show you this work and the path that I took. [It started when] was on my way to Georgetown Law School and my parents wouldn’t talk to me for about 3 months because I decided to be an artist.

I’m sorry that they are not here today to see that there is a little bit of reclamation of a totally ruined life. I’m actually able to speak here, or at Harvard Law School, Princeton, Penn State, etc…. There actually are attorneys that think that there might be something in terms of using visual arts as a weapon to change the world and help them in their fight, in part, to advocate for these kids.

Screenshot from Richard Ross — Juvenile In Justice

Yohnka:

We are honored to have with us our next speaker, Kimberly Foxx. She is the Chief of Staff to Cook Country Board President, Toni Preckwinkle. I think you all know that President Preckwinkle and Ms. Foxx have been incredibly forthright and vocal in their efforts to reform the discredited and dysfunctional criminal justice system, both here in Cook Country and across the state of Illinois. What is really remarkable for many of us who do this work is to think just not so long ago Ms. Foxx was an Assistant State’s Attorney here in Cook County.

That’s not usually where we find reformers come from, but in this case she is! She is someone who along with President Preckwinkle, is really leading a charge in terms of reforming our system here. And we are happy to have her here with us tonight.

Foxx:

Thank you. I don’t think the damage is done once they cross the threshold. I think what we find with a lot of these kids is that they’ve been damaged since the point that they have had the worst day of their lives. Working with President Preckwinkle has been an amazing journey, truly because, as was noted, I was a Cook County State’s Attorney in the Juvenile Delinquency Division prior to working with the president.

I was in Juvenile in some capacity as an attorney for 15 years. So for 3 years, I worked at the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, where I represented children who were abused or neglected — children who were coming in and out of our DCFS system. I was charged with the responsibility of advocating for what was in their best interest: whether they went home, whether they stayed in foster care, or whether they returned home once they had been in foster care.

I saw every tragedy that I never hoped to see as an attorney and as a person.

I grew up not too far from here in Cabrini Green in the 80s. You know, as I sit here today in this lovely gallery having these conversations, it is quite surprising to me and my family [to be here, considering] the hardships that I lived and endured — and to now be an advocate for children who lived under similar circumstances and who did not have the avenues that I had to escape.

So, I did that for 3 years. I left the Public Guardian’s Office because I wanted to be on the front end of the decision making on how cases came into the system and I went into the State Attorney’s Office. I went expressly for the purpose of working in Juvenile — it was still in Child Protection, so I did that for 4 years. After 4 years of doing Child Protection (and that would be 7 years altogether, in that line of work) it became a bit heavy for me and my family.

Screenshot from Steve Liss — No Place For Children

I wanted to have children and every day I saw children that other people didn’t want or appreciate. So I moved on to the Delinquency Division. What I found and what I think is most telling — it’s why I push back a little bit — is that the same children who I was a staunch advocate for, the same children whose parents I sought to redeem and help recover their children (so that they can live the lives that they all should live), were the same children being charged with crimes.

The same children who we had empathy and sympathy and care and concern for, we were readily throwing away just feet from where I was an advocate for them.

And so it was my charge to remind the folks in the State Attorney’s Office and in the Delinquency Division that we here in Cook County were the home of the first juvenile court.

We here in Cook County recognize that children are children and that they are not adults — that is why we needed a separate court system for them. And we here in Cook Country have the responsibility — the onus was on us because we knew better.

We knew better because we see these kids every day. We cannot half advocate for them and half persecute them. It’s schizophrenic and inconsistent and it is not smart.

I cycled through that for a couple years and then I left and did preliminary hearings, felony review, and came back as a supervisor in the Delinquency Division for 5 years before I left and came to work for the President. It is an odd route for the State’s Attorney to be a reformer and to work with a great reformer — President Preckwinkle — who has taken this issue of youth being tried as youth, or treated as youth, so seriously. I feel very fortunate and really prepared in my life experiences to do this work.

So, we are very excited to join with you in these conversations and these dialogues. This is an important issue — the automatic transfer laws, here in Illinois — transferring children to adult court — without the benefit of a hearing in juvenile court. We’re taking it on — head on — in Springfield this session.

It is our #1 criminal justice priority and all of our efforts and resources on our legislative agenda are going to that end. So, we look forward to engaging in this conversation tonight and ongoing because I would be remiss not to. As President Preckwinkle would tell you — she is a school teacher, first and foremost. I am a child advocate, first and foremost. So if you put a child advocate and a teacher together, and I think we are on the right path. So, we look forward to working with you.

Yohnka:

Thank you. Our next speaker is Xavier McElrath-Bey. Xavier is a Youth Justice Advocate with the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, which is a national clearinghouse that is dedicated to developing and supporting efforts to implement age appropriate alternatives to the extreme sentencing of America’s youth — with a focus on ending juvenile life without parole.

What’s remarkable really, though, is that at the age of 13, Xavier himself was transferred as a juvenile to adult court where he was later convicted to a 25 year sentence in Illinois for a gang related murder. Prior to that he had already been arrested 19 times and had 7 convictions. At 11 years old he nearly died when he was accidentally shot in the face at point-blank range by his best friend.
But, here’s the amazing thing , while incarcerated he did what most people do at that age — he grew up! He matured, he got a education, and now he’s bringing his experience to this work of ending juvenile life without parole.

McElrath-Bey:

Thank you. My heart is always pounding before I talk, so I have to kind of loosen up. Thank you so much David, and also Meg and Houston, for reaching out and making this possible. When I first came in, I was really overwhelmed with the images that I’m seeing. That’s mostly because they brought back a lot of memories.

At the same time, I question what everyone else thinks and feels looking at these images. For me, I think the greatest thing of this event is that for the most part, we are raising awareness. I think many people are unaware that children are being tried as adults.

In 1991, after two years of fighting my case, I had been in Juvenile Detention from 13 until 15. They gave a final stamp on my life — they gave me a 25 year sentence in prison. I don’t know if you are all familiar [with the process], but they have what they call, a statement of facts. The statement of facts sums up your case and then it gives a recommendation (given by a State’s Attorney) for going into the system. And I’ll never forget what I read. I’ll say it word for word. It said,

“Defendant had an extensive juvenile arrest record indicative of a violent nature and under no circumstances should he ever be considered for early release.”

When I read that as a child, it did not really impress on me as much as it did as an adult. It’s something that I still keep to this very day.

Looking at it as an adult, it made me realize what they were saying. They were saying that I was a monster. That I was an animal, that I was evil — by Nature. This was something being said, even more so during the mid 1990s, where they came out with what they called super-predator theory. They had deemed us as heartless, godless, remorseless monsters.

They said that if we were let out, that there would be a wave of juvenile violence unheard of — that we would kill and hurt people without care for human life. The sad reality was this was based on some growing population trend, due to a small spike in crime.

What really happened at that time was that across the nation, they had enhanced sentencing laws for kids and the accountability measures for children coming into the justice system had unfortunately become very extreme. So for me, going in there with a 25 year sentence under the old law, I had to serve day for day.

Today, a child going into the courtroom and being tried as an adult for a similar offense will have to serve 100% of his time. Today there are 2,500 individuals who are sentenced as children to life without the possibility of parole.

When I think about that, it really hurts me to think that there are individuals who are waking up in prisons on this very day, realizing that they don’t belong there. They are waking up on their own, growing in maturity and remorse, and realizing that they will never see freedom ever again.
Screenshot from Steve Liss’ No Place For Children — David Weinberg Photography exhibit, 2015.
Cast concrete pillow and blanket. Ivan Martinez. Natural Life Installation. Try Youth As Youth. David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

This is what hurts me the most. To think that these guys will never have a chance — the same chance that I had to come out with a degree. To be able to work for the past 12 years, positions that were designed to help keep children out of the justice system. I can only hope the same for every individual serving these type of sentences — that they be given a second chance.

We know now more than ever, especially with the advances and emergence of adolescent brain research. We know that childrens’ brains are not the same as adults. When I look at these images, as tough as they may come across… as insistent as they [kids] are — that they are mature, that they know everything, and that they’re invincible — this is really consistent for what we know about the child’s brain. In fact someday, their prefrontal cortex will grow. Mylenation and pruning will be complete in the early to mid twenties. The sad reality is that they face the same consequence [convicted adults face] for a childhood mistake.

I think that is the greatest tragedy of children being tried as adults. Not only are they faced with such extreme sentencing, but even if they were to come out, they would have to deal with the collateral consequences of not being able to find work, not being able to get government benefits, not being able to have access to educational opportunities that would be mostly awarded to them had they not been given an adult conviction.

So I applaud this event and I really hope that we can continue on raising awareness and giving these kids a second chance. Thank you!

Steve Liss. Try Youth As Youth exhibit. David Weinberg Photography. 2015.

Yohnka:

Thank you, Xavier. Our last panelist, before we move to your questions, is my colleague, Ben Wolf. Ben is the Associate Legal Director at the ACLU of Illinois and the Director of our Institutionalized Persons Project. Ben is really someone who has advocated on behalf of moving people out of large institutions and into homes — into places where they can find a future.

Ben’s brought that work on behalf of young people in the Juvenile Detention center here in Cook County. He as done that work on behalf of people with disabilities in large institutions and he has brought that work on behalf of children in the DCFS system. I’m happy to say that somehow in all of that, he has never lost his sense that you can help people and move them out of those institutions. I would have become cynical at least 50 years in, but somehow he was remained optimistic.

Wolf:

Thank you. I have vey little to add to what the artists and panelists have said and also what these incredible pictures have said.

Looking at all the things on the walls at this wonderful gallery and seeing my clients in the settings that they are locked into, says a lot more about it than I have been able to do, or that other advocates have been able to do in thousands and thousands of pages of legal pleadings.

I mean, it’s one thing to try to convey in words what it’s like to be a child in a correctional setting — it’s another thing to see it. Those of us who go to these places and interview the young people forget that most people haven’t seen it.

Cast concrete pillow and blanket. Ivan Martinez. Natural Life Installation. Tirtza Even speaks with Impact Night participants. Try Youth As Youth. David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

Seeing it in this artistically, brilliant way is really powerful and I’m honored to be here and to be a part of it. I would like to confess that I am uncomfortable here sitting next to Ms. Foxx. Not only because she is a former State’s Attorney, but because she and her boss have put me in an odd position for more than 25 years.

Before Toni Preckwinkle was elected president, one of my main things in life was suing the county for mistreating children. I don’t personalize litigation that much, but I can tell you I pretty much hated them. I sued [them] for housing my clients at the Juvenile Detention Center when there were 700 or 800 kids there and the place was crawling with cockroaches and violence and filth and neglect. When kids couldn’t get the basic health services they needed and some of them nearly died just because they were not allowed some things, like access to an inhaler that they came in with or insulin that everyone knew they needed to handle their diabetes.

The system (to some degree this is also true of our adult correction system) for housing children while they were awaiting trial was basically built on lies and the leadership of the county basically got away with it by pretending they weren’t doing as badly as they were.

Our cases were usually about the simplest thing — which is, our children shouldn’t be treated like this.

This is wrong — and all the fancy legal wording is basically about that. The fact is, is that our clients were mistreated for years at the Juvenile Detention Center. We ultimately had to persuade a federal court to appoint someone to run the place for the past 7 years because the leadership (at the time) of Cook County was incapable, it became clear, of doing even the most basic things to try to treat our most vulnerable children decently.

When we go to talk to clients, we get some help from Northwestern Law students. One of the things I am always struck by (we train them a little bit — my colleague Lindsay Miller has done that training recently for me, for us, and for the kids) when these law students (most of them from pretty privileged backgrounds, obviously going to a great law school — they are very successful people) go to talk to the kids, is that they come back and they say,

They’re like my friends in high school. They [are not from] some strange planet. This isn’t some different thing. These are the children of this community, just like I was a child of some community.
Try Youth As Youth. David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

It is so much more powerful when you see it, as you do here, or when you experience it, as we are able to have the law students do. They are always surprised by that because they hear the things about predators and they read the things in the newspapers and what they see on tv. They have to see it for themselves — that these are adolescents that sometimes do stupid things just like a lot of us did when we were adolescents. Or sometimes you know, once in a while you did something really bad.

But, that is not all they are!

So I confess that I am somewhat confused now about having a County Board President and a Chief of Staff to a County Board President who are advocating the same thing that we are in Springfield — trying not to try kids as adults — and that they are passionate about finding alternatives to unnecessary incarceration for children! When you read what they say, it looks like, a lot of times, what we say!

So, I don’t know if I need some kind of therapy, or I need to change the labels, but it turns out that we can actually have people elected to office in this county who believe in not trying kids as adults and not torturing children when we house them pre-trial. I am just proud to see that and I think that does give me hope, which leads me to the last thing I want to say.

Ultimately, juvenile justice, which was invented by Cook County (as was pointed out) is about hope. With the gripping pictures we see on the walls and with the stories that all of us are telling you, it is sometimes easy to forget that because the way we treat our children isn’t so hopeful.

Ultimately, the notion that when somebody does something bad when they are 15 — that you don’t view that as the same when somebody does something bad when they are 28 — is about hope. It’s about second chances.

It’s about being able to be stupid when you are young — as I am confident all of you were — and I know I was in my teens, and perhaps even early twenties. So I hope when you think about these issues from the advocacy we do and the leadership the County Board President presents to us and her Chief of Staff, and the wonderful art we’ve seen and the great advocacy of people who have been through this system and really know it the best, I hope you will remember that. That we are also about hope. We can make it better. Many of these people and many others are in the process of making it better and we need you to help us do that.


Stillframe from Tirtza Even — Natural Life Film

Yohnka:

So, this is the point where you can ask questions:

Audience:

Good evening, everyone! My name is Michael Johnson-Il. My question is for this young man right here [Xavier]. With your last name being, Bey, is that Moorish American?

McElrath-Bey:

Yes, my father was a Moor of Science. He was Islam.

Audience:

I am demonstrating with the Moorish Science Temple of America as well and I get my name from the temple as well.

McElrath-Bey:

Well, I have to be honest with you, I was raised by my mother, she was Christian. I was raised Christian. But I have a lot of respect for all religions. Also, I didn’t know what my name meant until I was locked up. I met a lot of guys who had the same… well, Il means creator and Bey means governor. I kind of gained a sense of pride behind that.

A lot of guys were like, “What’s up, Bey?” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” They were like, “You’re a governor!”. And I was like, “What?” So, I came to recognize and take pride in that and respect other religions.

Audience:

That is kind of behind the point of brave! I am very proud of you for changing your life from what you were labeled as to what you were actually becoming. To get a second chance is the best thing that the youth can receive. Instead of actually having something to have on their face, which is a mask and an image held up on them because of their mistakes being young. From not having good parenting or going through a struggle, someone can really relate to [that] — just going on the mistake you made one time. Whether you have been charged or you had multiple cases before that actual case, it’s like beyond that. I appreciate you still going forward with your life, on the right road.

McElrath-Bey:

Thank you. You point out something that is really important. When we talk about kids entering into the justice system, oftentimes all we have is a criminal arrest record. And that is like your history. People tend to think, this sums an individual up. Before I worked with the campaign I worked for Northwestern Juvenile Project — the most long running longitudinal study of juvenile delinquents.

They came to find that 93% of the kids who entered into detention, at baseline (this was at the beginning of the study) had conveyed one or more traumas in their life — everything from the loss of a loved one or parent to witnessing violence, to being victims of violence.

So what we come to find is that the majority of kids who are entering the justice system are for the most part were some of the most vulnerable kids in our communities. And not to mention, the majority of these communities can be described for the most part as poor and disinvested.

At the same time, communities that lacked a lot of important resources that were needed, at certain points of intervention (had it happened at an ideal time) the kids probably would not have gone down that path. What we are dealing with unfortunately, is the aftermath of a lot of trauma. And what we also found is that 74% of the females who entered detention had one or more psychiatric disorders, not to mention, 66% of the males coming in. So, we’re talking about some kids who have been scared.

We’re not talking about kids who just woke up one day and said, “You know what, I am going to go commit a crime!” We’re not talking about kids that wake up and say, “I’m going to go do a thrill crime — for fun!”.

These are kids who woke up in a world that is continually antagonistic, a world that consists oftentimes of abuse and neglect, that consists much like a reflection of my own life — going in and out of foster care, group homes, going to schools that were unfortunately unsafe because they were on rival gang territories. So understand, when you grow up in an environment like that, we can almost expect children to make mistakes.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, what do we do when we come in contact with these children? How do we address their needs or do we ignore their needs and continue on traumatizing and victimizing them?

Audience:

This is a question for the artist who photographed the kids.

I was wondering, how hard it was to do that? Did you get to know the kids before you photographed them? How hard was it to say goodbye to them?

Ross:

It’s impossible to get into see them. It’s ridiculous to try to photograph them. It’s insane to try to record them. But I do all of that. I don’t get to know them that well. I know them for an hour when I sit on the floor and speak to them. And I don’t pretend like I can come back because I am trying to do a longitudinal study on what the picture of America is.

No offense to the state of Illinois, but I spent sometime here about 3 years ago when Earl Dunlap was in charge of the juvenile detention center. I had a limited 2 day visit there and that shaped some of my experience looking at Illinois 3 years ago and it is a very dynamic issue and changing dramatically — and for the better, I’m grateful for. The whole idea of this project, where I started doing it quietly, without explaining what I was doing — and then doing it for the past 8 or 9 years.

Screenshot from Richard Ross — Juvenile In Justice

Now the hard part is how to leave the project because I have become the person who has been able to channel the voice of the most fragile of society and my wife would love it, if I were to say, “Okay, I’m done with this now. I’m going to photograph gourmet barge trips up and down the Seine!” I can’t do that.

I’m morally obligated to do this and I just can’t find a way to detach. So, I’ve been working more with adults at the other end of the system — who were sentenced at 15. And all around the country there are men and women who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, that are still incarcerated — in some cases in cells that are 36 sq. ft. — that they are sharing with another person. So they have never been out as an adult.

Brian Stevenson, who is one of my heroes, was able to get back some look-back for non-homicides or for mandatory sentencing. But there are still states like Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana… that refuse to allow it! So now I’m photographing, independently, the abuse and neglect kids [experience] and I’m photographing [incarcerated] adults. I don’t know how to disengage. Give me a clue if I can!

Audience:

Can you talk more about the current legislation that you are trying to change?

Foxx:

The current legislation that we’re looking at is HB0172. Basically, what it says is what we have here in Illinois — which is called automatic transfer. Once you are 15 and above, for certain offenses you are immediately steered into adult court. There are no hearings, there is no looking at the child holistically.

[They need to ask the child] what is your background? The severity of the crime? Do you have any mental health issues? Education issues? What is your family status? It truly is a matter of what did the State’s Attorney charge you with. Does that charge fall under one of the 7 categories that has you tried as an adult?

According to the statute, a juvenile will be charged and tried in criminal court if he or she is 15 years old at the time of the offense and allegedly commits:
first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery with a firearm where the minor used the gun, armed robbery using a gun, aggravated vehicular hijacking using a gun, and/or offenses related to the possession, sale, manufacture, or purchase of weapons in school or on school grounds.

Thirteen-years-old at the time of the offense and charged with first-degree murder that occurred during the process of committing:

aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual assault, and/or aggravated kidnapping.
If it falls under there, you are automatically tried as an adult. The consequences of that are the discretion lies solely with the State’s Attorney as opposed to a Juvenile Court Judge, who is trained in issues of juvenile development, adolescent brain development, and children.

A Juvenile Court Judge has decided that they want to work with children, as opposed to having an adult court, where we tend to find that the judges there are a bit more jaded about how they see criminal justice and the folks that appear before them. The law changed in 1982. Prior to 1982, judges did have that discretion and they were sending the more serious cases forward. Like your first degree murder cases…

What we are seeing now is that a lot of the cases that are being tried are cases for armed robbery. So, if you are charged with a robbery without a firearm, if you’re 15 — you are charged as a juvenile. But, if you are charged with an armed robbery at 15, you are charged as an adult.
Screenshot from Richard Ross— Juvenile In Justice

And so what has been happening is that a lot of those cases go to adult court and then they end up pleading them down to just a regular armed robbery which would have been tried in juvenile court and you would have been availed to the services of juvenile court. But they didn’t do it.

The prosecutor in me is compelled to say that all crime involving victims are serious crime, but the lesser along the spectrum cases, we are finding are being dropped down to cases that should have never have gone to adult court in the first place. So now what we are asking is that first degree murder cases are going far less frequently. So, 13% of the cases that go to adult court automatically are for murder. Just 13%.

What we are finding is that they are sending kids to adult court, pleading them down to offenses that should have been handled in juvenile court, but the damage is already done.

Wolf:

One of the ways that works out is that the discretion is given to the prosecutors. There is always some discretion in the juvenile justice system but once the prosecutor decides to charge you with something that determines where you go.
So they charge you with armed robbery — you end up not being convicted of armed robbery, but you are in adult court and all the consequences of that. One of the consequences is your’e locked up much longer, because the adult courts are much slower.

So, Mr. Dunlap, who was appointed by the court in our litigation to try to reform things at the Juvenile Detention Center and has done a great job. He has dealt a lot with the overcrowding there and addressed it — but it is starting to rise again because so many kids are being tried as adults and they stay so long.

All of the kids who are in the detention center are there over a year and almost all of them who were there over 6 months are being tried as adults.

That’s up to the prosecutor under our current law. President Preckwinkle would like to make it up to the juvenile court judges instead — and look at the kid as an individual.

Foxx:

By way of description, I used to serve in the Felony Review Unit when I was at the State’s Attorney Office. In fellony reviews, you decide what the charges are going to be for adults. I had a case where we had 4 individuals, and we had 3 individuals who were over the age of 18 and I had one person who was 15. They went and broke into someone’s home while he was there and they robbed him. That to me, was a home invasion. A home invasion is you break into someone’s home, knowing that they are there and you commit a felony there. And, so I charged it as a home invasion. Home invasion is not one of those cases that gets you an automatic transfer.

So I had the 3 adults who were going to adult court and I had a juvenile going to juvenile court. And I got a phone call from a supervisor over in juvenile who said to me,

“Why didn’t you charge that as an armed robbery with a firearm?” And I said, “Because it made more sense as a home invasion. It’s a home invasion.” And he said to me, “But if you had filed it as an armed robbery, then the juvenile would have been tried as an adult and would have been easier for us to try all of them together as adults.”
That’s how the decisions are being made, whether someone is going to an adult or a juvenile court. And I was asked to fix that. So, when the discretion lies solely in the prosecutor, you feel the weight of what happens when they do not take into account the story of that kid.

It was the ease by which I could try them all together. Or, I could get that kid, by trying him as an adult — and he’s frightened and wondering, “what is happening to me?” — to turn on the other 3 and I offer him a better plea bargain because he is incentivized to try to get out of this situation faster.

That is how we are making the calls when you leave the discretion solely to the prosecutor.

Screenshot from Steve Liss — No Place For Children

Audience:

Thanks everyone on the panel for the work you are doing. A question for the artist Richard Ross. I just am curious about your subject’s relation to the exhibitions? This is the second time I’ve seen your work.

I’m wondering, if your subjects are aware that this is happening? I am also wondering about the proceeds for the sales… I wonder if it goes to them or their families or any sort of fund that sets up legal aid for anyone in their situation?

Ross:

Simple answer is, “No!”. These kids don’t understand what an exhibition is. I’ve explained to them the possibilities of the images being used and I tell them this is not the most important venue for me, in terms of the work. I give the work to nonprofits and have them use the work to enhance their data and make sure that legislators that lives are in the balance. So that is the most important part of the work I do.

To me, I had a show at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, and it has shown a lot at university museums. This is the second commercial show I have had with this work.

In terms of the profits from it, they don’t get a nickel— and their families don’t get a nickel. But, then again, I have not sold a print of this work in about 10 years so there is nothing to be offered except my attention and my advocacy. That’s it! I wish there was more.

Maybe it will change tonight and then I am glad to discuss with you the best way to use it. I spoke for 2 hours at Roosevelt University this afternoon and I charged them a drink. I said it’s going to be a good scotch. It’s going to be Laguvulin — it’s not going to be a well drink. I have a great economic model where I do this. I get some grant support, a little bit — but, I do it on my own dime. I travel relentlessly and I don’t make any money from it. I wish there was more to share…

McElrath-Bey:

I would like to add to that. Once, I had a Ted Talk coming up (when I was with Northwestern university) and as you can imagine I was very excited! I was like, I got to create a powerpoint, what am I going to do? I need images! I just have to say that I can attest to what he was saying…When I reached out to Richard Ross, I sent him an email asking if it was possible to use his images for my Ted Talk?

I said, you know, “You don’t know me — we kind of met over the phone, we did a radio show together. But, I need images, I need compelling images to be able to share and convey what these kids are going through.” And I thought about his work and he sent me an email within the hour and said, “Feel free to use them!” That’s the point of them. Don’t worry about it.

He did not ask me for anything in return. He was very willing to share these images for a greater cause and I can bear witness to that. So, thank you!

As a photographer, I’ve visited many jails in our system here in Illinois and I went to the St. Charles Juvenile Detention Center. In juvenile systems here in Chicago, I noticed the education component was really failing. It reminded me of my education at Schurez High School in the 90s’. I’m a photographer — I came out of this crazy Chicago Public School system, which I respect and love — but I challenge it.

The education system in the prisons was really poor at the time I was there. It’s been 6 years. I would like to return and visit. So if you can grant me some permission, that would be great! I would like to know, Where the system is now? What are kids learning? How are we as a society educating them to put them out there in the world?

Wolf:

That is a great question!

The horribly inadequate education in correctional facilities for kids is one of the general hypocrisies. You know, we lock them up because they are not acting right in the community, but we don’t give them the basics of being a youth and going to school. We are currently suing the department of juvenile Justice in Illinois over the inadequate educational facilities.

Lindsay Miller (who is way in the back, but is tall enough to see) works on that case more than I do. Part of the process in that case is we’re forcing them to hire teachers — enough teachers to actually teach. It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out how to solve some of this. I mean they literally did not have enough teachers in most of the juvenile prisons, so the kids are just sitting around all day.

It’s just probably what you saw 6 years ago. At least that piece of it, we are trying to fix. Through litigation, there are a lot of other pieces of it that will take longer. But we are going to make them hire some teachers depending on Governor Rauner’s budget next week. We might have a fight about that.

Foxx:

Before they even get to the jail, there’s a significant number of them who had educational challenges before they even got there. So we have a number of kids who come through the court system with special education needs. They need an individualized education plan and they haven’t had one in years. They certainly are not going to get the components of the individualized education plan when locked up.

They don’t have enough resources for the individual education plans to give the kids the services that they need. The reality of the situation is that they are not even getting it from the high schools in their neighborhood. So to expect that they are getting it while locked up is hopeful, but they don’t have the capacity to do it.

You have to remind folks that we are talking about children. You know, it’s basic. I have a 12 year old. There is an expectation that tomorrow, my 12 year old will get up and go to school and will do her schoolwork and come home and that she will have homework and what have you...

What has happened when we talk about juvenile detention or youth, is that they are thrown away. They have committed a crime. They are off to an institution and people forget like these pictures are telling you, that they are children. So the advocacy for education for these kids falls short. Then we start conversations, like we are going to have with the State about what their capacity is just to turn on the lights, or what their capacity to get a contract for them to eat. So, it becomes like really core basic needs.

Are they going to hurt one another when they are here, are they going to have enough food to eat, and are we going to get sued by Ben Wolf, right? The thoughtfulness and the care and the question of how do we treat our children when they are in these spaces is how the conversation needs to be changed. Because you’re right. The de facto is capacity. If I said that I did not have the capacity to send my child to school, they would take my child from me. When we put them in institutions and we don’t fulfill their needs, we continue to give money to those institutions.

Yohnka:

Just for the record — I think this may be obvious, but if they did the other things they would not be sued by Ben Wolf.

Audience:

There was an article in this morning’s paper about Governor Rauner wanting to decrease the inmate population in the state.

Do we have any idea what we can expect from him in this regard?

Wolf:

That is one of the things we would like to work with him on. The advantages of working with somebody who does not want to spend money — there are a lot of things the state can do relatively easily to substantially reduce the prison population. Illinois is among the highest in the country in our admission rate in our state prisons. A lot of other states have started to turn this around, including most of the other big states. New York, Pennsylvania, California — huge reductions in their prison population. Here, it’s as big as it’s ever been and it’s completely dysfunctional.

Allen Mills is here and he and I are doing a case with other people challenging health care in the prisons and one of the problems is that they have 30,000 admissions a year and they cannot even screen those people for their health needs. So there are things we can do — we can decriminalize marijuana. The ACLU favors that. There are a lot of other things about our sentencing and our parole and probation structures that are just completely backward. The advantage of being incredibly backward like Illinois is that there are a lot of other good models to look at of states that do it better.

Our lobbyist, Mary Dixon, she can tell you the things we’re working on. I think that if there is political will and political courage, which is a big IF in Illinois, it really is not that hard policy-wise to figure out how to have thousands of people who don’t belong in prison get out. I can send you my testimony on the subject a month ago, which several of my colleagues wrote most of. It’s a priority of the ACLU — de-incarceration.

The United States leads the world massively in the rate that we lock people up and most of it is nonviolent offenses like drug offenses, which is just madness. Of course, it’s also racially biased. The place you can see that the easiest is the Cook County juvenile detention center. Where in a unit of 14, 15, 16 kids, very often there is not a single white kid.

More than 90% of the kids there, and often more than 95%, are African American and Latino, in Cook County — which has a lot of white people breaking laws.

Screenshot from Richard Ross — Juvenile In Justice.

Audience:

How about some good things that have already been accomplished since your administration has been in place?

Foxx:

I would like to say that we have a super long list of accomplishments since the administration has taken place. I mean, first and foremost, we have taken on these issues and we don’t have an antagonistic relationship for people who care about these issues. We are doing everything that we can to turn the IDJJ system around.

Not because of personality conflicts with the transitional administer, but because it is the right thing to do. So we have invested capital dollars and capital improvements in bringing the IDJJ up from the horror that was described by Ben earlier.

You know the President would say, if she had it her way, she would blow the place up and we would have community justice centers to send these kids. We don’t have that benefit right now, so how do we make the improvements for the existing structures? How do we call for accountability for the public safety stakeholders in Cook Country? There has been little pushing of the issue with the State’s Attorney’s office, with the public defender, with the chief judge. The President’s administration has been very thoughtful and thorough at looking at data. We care about data in Cook County — such as looking at case processing.

How long does it take for cases to go through the criminal justice system and where can we put tweaks into that? Where can we invest our dollars into that? We have done performance management which has allowed to track that data across the various public safety stakeholders.

The president wrote to the Supreme Court back in September 2013 and said, “Look, I need your help. The chief judge is dragging his feet on a lot of these issues. The jails are overcrowded. We were hovering at 10,000 people in our adult jail for well over a year. Nobody was doing anything! The sheriff was pointing at the judge, the judge was pointing at the state’s attorney, the state’s attorney was pointing at everybody. And she said, you know, “My hands are up!”

So, she went to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court intervened and are now having monthly meetings with the stakeholders. And miraculously, because there has not been a real systemic change, there is now light on the issue.

The jail population has gone down about 10–13% month over month for the last 13 months. Right now, this week’s jail population is around 8,200. So, the trends during the last 7 months, we are really proud of.

Our hope though, is that we put in systemic change, so that it’s not simply that people are watching and we’ll do it long enough until people forget about it.

What can we do to sustain that?

So, we are working on a model bond court where we are not going to use cash bonds — you’re ability to pay to determine whether you are going to sit in jail or get out. To Ben’s point, what we find is what the President says everywhere she goes — that our jails are the intersection of race and poverty.

So a lot of folks who are sitting in the Cook County jail are there because they can’t afford to pay $1,000 to get out. Not that they are violent, or that they are a threat to society, but because they’re poor.

And so, we have been looking at other models. They have gone out to D.C. and to Virginia to look at how other places have done that and we are going to implement a pilot here. Our biggest success is that the jail population from this time 2 years ago is down about 1,500. Our ongoing success would be implementing sustainability to that.

Wolf:

The Chief Judge is Timothy Evans. I think that most of the things that Ms. Foxx described were initiated by President Preckwinckle and others. There has been some collaboration by the Judge. The Cook County Justice System is not well administered. It is run for the judges and not for the citizens and we should be honest about that and try to fix that too. The education stuff is really just starting.

Our medial plan is just starting to be implemented and they are starting to hire teachers, but I don’t think they can point to great success yet. They did not even have a superintendent until we made them. They are going to hire quite a few teachers within the next year, year and a half. We are making them hire teachers and we are making them improve education, but it’s got a long way to go because it basically did not exist at all before. There was almost no education in the juvenile prions.

Yohnka:

With that, I am going to bring this to a close. Thank you.

Silkscreen Posters — Ivan Martinez. Natural Life Installation. Try Youth As Youth exhibit. David Weinberg Photography, 2015.