By Giulia Petroni
On the day of his 17th birthday, Xavier McElrath-Bey was standing in a walkway of Cook County Jail, when he heard a very loud voice screaming:
“Welcome to Division 1. If you wanna survive in this place, keep your mouth shut and mind your own business.”
McElrath-Bey was waiting for a judge to decide if he would be transferred from the juvenile system to the adult system. He had been only 13 when convicted for involvement in gang-related murder and sentenced to 25 years of prison,
Raised in the Back of the Yards in Chicago’s Southside, McElrath-Bey’s childhood was marked by family abuse, foster care and street life. Only the support he received from his public offender, his GED instructor, and later on by college professors and mentors, allowed him to embrace a significant change.
“I stand here as a free man. And I urge all of you to ensure the same opportunity that was given to me, to other men,” said McElrath-Bey in front of a large audience at the Chicago Cultural Center. He has been free for 15 years.
As senior advisor and national advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, he is was one of the numerous guests speaking the event “Juvenile Justice Reform in Illinois” hosted by the McArthur Foundation on Feb. 20.
Studies show that incarceration not only has life-long devastating effects on youth, but also increases recidivism rates, according to the speakers.
“We need to move to a system where we’re not incarcerating children. We know it doesn’t work,” said Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center. “It just makes them better criminals.”
Speakers agreed on several premises:
Longer sentences are not the solution to reduce criminality among children; gradual and measurable changes are.
Also – raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 21, extending collaborations to invest on prevention, offering community services also in rural areas and, most important, educating the public.
“We should pass the my-kid-test: ‘Is this good enough for my kid?'” said Ben Roe, resident judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court.
After more than two decades of commitment, members and supporters of the Models for Change program, a long-term initiative to promote reforms in the juvenile-justice system, gathered to recognize their accomplishments and move forward to the next challenges, said Julia Stasch, president of the foundation.
Changing the culture of the entire juvenile-justice system is their goal.